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'My body felt like the enemy': Woman details eating disorder recovery process

Teresa Green said a meal support group was an essential part of her recovery.

This story discusses eating disorders. If you or someone you know has an eating disorder please call the National Eating Disorder Association at (800) 931-2237 or visit the website for a live chat. If you feel like you’re in crisis text "NEDA" to 741741 to talk with someone at the crisis text line.

Teresa Green opened up to TODAY's Carson Daly about her struggle with an eating disorder and how joining a meal support group helped her recover from the illness.

Green said that for her, the eating disorder was "a way to exert control" when her life felt out of control, rather than concern over her weight or physical appearance.

"It was very much about avoiding eating whenever possible, again, not out of a calorie restriction, weight-loss goal, but a control thing," said Green. "I was diagnosed with leukemia when I was 4 and with chronic pain when I was 12. My body felt like my enemy from a very early age, and so the thing I wanted to control most was my body."

Green said that she simultaneously felt that disordered eating was the "only thing" that would get her through "day-to-day" life, while also being aware that it was "probably the thing that was going to kill (her)."

"At the time that felt OK," she recalled.

Green said that things became "a lot worse" when she went away to college. In her sophomore year, she hit "rock bottom," when she was at a restaurant with her boyfriend, now husband, celebrating Valentine's Day.

"We got there and they informed us that it was a four-course meal, and they were not doing anything less than that," Green said. "And I sat at the table on Valentine's Day sobbing in a restaurant. And that was for me when I sort of really decided, like, this is not how I want to live my life."

Green's partner supported her in the moment, and afterwards helped her find professional help to get into recovery. As part of that effort, Green joined a meal support group at Rock Recovery in Arlington, Virginia. The therapist-led group meets once a week to eat together and discuss the feelings they have during meals.

Christie Dondero Bettwy, the executive director of Rock Recovery, told Carson that the meal support group aims to help people reestablish community ties.

"One of the hardest things about an eating disorder is it cuts you off from your community and it keeps you from living your life fully," Bettwy said. "Our programs are all designed to model full community and people kind of coming back to the table, breaking bread with people that they love."

Green said that the group is "supportive" and provides a comfortable environment to "tackle something that you couldn't do on your own." The meal support group also offers guidance that can help people who may have a distorted sense of the "norms" around eating, and can help people practice how they would handle times when they struggle to eat a meal.

"You're able to have that meal, really make an accomplishment and prove to yourself that you can do something really hard, and do that week over week and process those emotions (with) a group of folks who understand you and hopefully that moves you forward into being able to do that in the real world, by yourself," Green explained.

Now Green has a much healthier relationship with food: She said that she considers herself "recovered" and is able to enjoy cooking a meal and eating with her family.

"When I first entered treatment, my goal was just to get to a point where I could sit down every day and eat what I needed to, but I didn't think that I would ever be free of the negative thoughts that drove me to engage in the behaviors. I never thought I would enjoy food or like it," Green said. "And that's not true. ... The idea of a four-course meal now is like an exciting thing that I would love to do with my husband. It is not a terrifying situation."

Stacia, another woman in recovery who wanted to remain anonymous, said that joining a meal support group helped her break the "rules" in her head that she had assigned around food.

"We had Chinese food, the first time, and I remember thinking 'This is weird, we're sitting in this group and we're eating this food that I would never order for myself, because I have all these rules in my head,'" Stacia said. "I was looking back through my notebook for my year in that group. I choke up very time I see this, it just says 'Gradually return to yourself.' And yeah, I think that idea of gradually returning is just really beautiful. It was very powerful. By the end of the year I could say I was symptom-free, I was recovered, and have been able to continue using those tools ever since."

When the coronavirus pandemic hit the country, Rock Recovery was one of thousands of companies that pivoted to provide virtual programming. The center saw a 420% increase in people reaching out for help, including 24-year-old Kathryn Thompson, who told Carson that she was spending most of her "headspace" thinking about food and exercise.

"They helped me so much," Thompson said. "I think just joining on that first night and finally feeling like I could just put my shoulders down, it's just really freeing knowing that you're not the only one and having people to hold you accountable."

Green, who has now been recovered from her eating disorder for nearly a decade, still spends time at Rock Recovery, this time as a mentor.

"It's been one of the more meaningful things in my life," Green said. "I just felt very inspired to help show other people who were in the same place I had been that (recovery) was possible, because I didn't really believe it when I was in that position ... It presents an example of what they could achieve and what they're working for, and for me, it brings meaning to the struggle to be able to give back and help other people."