Hello!! It’s been a while since I’ve updated the blog - I have been extremely busy, but also focusing a lot on my mental health. As many of you know, I’m bipolar and this means alternating between manic and depressive episodes. For almost all of July, August, and September I was DEEP in a depressive episode with very little motivation to do anything. I doubled down on my therapy, worked on a plan of attack for my meds, and watched a LOT of Netflix.
One of the things that I coordinated during that time was an interview with Jenni Schaefer, the author of “Life Without Ed,” a memoir of declaring independence from Ed (what Jenni calls her eating disorder). I felt pretty embarrassed because oftentimes my manic mouth writes checks that my depressed self can barely bring herself to cash. I coordinated this interview, and then totally left it hanging for months!
That’s just me being totally transparent about what it’s like to work with your mental illness. Sometimes I still drop the ball. I’m working on that.
But let me tell you - this interview is a pure GEM. I can’t believe I kept it hidden from you for so long! I discovered Jenni’s books when I entered treatment at an eating disorder inpatient program about six years ago. This was the first time in my life that I ever experienced therapy of any kind, and so many concepts were foreign to me. The mornings where we weighed in, the meetings with a nutritionist, the challenge snacks (trying a food that is ordinarily very difficult for someone with an ED, like a cupcake), the art therapy - all of this was soooo hard to get used to.
Jenni’s books were there for me during this difficult time. I consumed them over and over. “Goodbye Ed, Hello Me” stayed on my nightstand pretty much my entire stay. These books also opened up a dialogue between my mom and I for the first time, as she read the books while I was away and was able to begin understanding what I was going through.
I had the excellent opportunity to interview Jenni, to ask her all about the relationship between creativity and mental illness from her perspective.
TAY: Most of my readers are artists - who are a few (1-3) of your favorite artists and why?
Jenni: I had the chance to visit the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and fell in love. I am in awe of Vincent van Gogh’s pure artistic talent as well as his ability to convey human emotion on canvas. Of course, personally, I can relate to his mental health challenges. In spite of these struggles as well as the fact that people didn’t embrace his art during his lifetime, he kept painting. I admire that.
TAY: Here’s one of my favorite questions to ask writers: what is your earliest memory of embracing your creativity?
Jenni: As a young kid, I lived in my very vivid, imaginary world! I made up all kinds of stories—like my own folktales—and shared them with my younger brother. I also created little board games based on these stories. I am grateful that my brother was a willing listener. He didn’t know it then (as a toddler!), but he was the first wholehearted supporter of my creative endeavors.
TAY: Was there a moment when you realized that you wanted to be a writer? If so, what was that like? Was it something you dove right into, or something you put off in favor of other pursuits?
Jenni: I hated writing in school. Perfectionism tends to drive out joy and passion. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties, finally in eating disorder recovery, that I realized I love to write. I wrote in a journal for therapy, and I discovered that pen and paper somehow connected me to myself. Ultimately, I turned down an acceptance to medical school in order to pursue writing.
TAY: I first learned about you while I was in treatment for anorexia nervosa. I know from your books that you struggled with Ed for nearly 20 years. During those years did you feel able to create/write? If so, what were you writing, and if not, why?
Jenni: As I said just above, I didn’t enjoy writing until my early twenties. In addition to perfectionism, my eating disorder, “Ed,” stole my passions, my dreams, and my hopes. It was only after I recovered from my eating disorder that I recovered my life. I uncovered not only my love for writing but also for singing and playing guitar. When I was sick, my guitar lived in my closet. When I give presentations, I often ask, “What is your guitar?” What has mental illness shoved in the closet that recovery can help you to get out?
TAY: Do you see a difference in your writing styles/subjects before recovery and after recovery?
Jenni: Before recovery, when I had to write in school, perfectionism ruled. Today, there are typos in all three of my books! And, I even mispronounced a well-known person’s name while recording the Life Without Ed audiobook. Today, I call these so-called mistakes my “perfectly imperfect” reminders—that I don’t have to be perfect. Today, I write in a more conversational style. I am more vulnerable with each new book. Now, I enjoy the process, one that changes constantly. I am always trying to grow as a writer. My latest book, Almost Anorexic, taught me about the importance of research
TAY: I went through a phase for a few years in which I totally resented the idea of discussing mental illness in my artwork. I resented the fact that I couldn’t just “be normal.” It wasn’t until about 2 years ago when I really decided to own my experiences and become an outspoken mental health advocate. Did you ever feel those doubts (or aversions) to writing about your experiences, or did you feel a strong pull toward doing it? Tell us about that.
Jenni: I never doubted the fact that I wanted to share my story. It was something that I had to do, like breathing. Sharing my story in my first book, Life Without Ed, is, indeed, what uncovered my deep passion for writing.
I did, however, have many doubts about how people would respond to me. Would they like my writing? Would they like me? In my work as a speaker and writer, I try to carry a recovery motto around with me: “What other people think of me is none of my business.”
TAY: I’m personally of the camp that believes that creativity (just like recovery) is a habit and that research and practice lead to the best ideas. Others believe more in the concept of the muse, of creativity being a deity that comes to you. Which of these camps do you subscribe to, or rather, what are your beliefs about creativity and your agency?
Jenni: In a way, I subscribe to both camps. I do find, for me, that creativity strangely requires discipline. There are always reasons not to be creative (e.g., paying the bills, checking email, posting on social media). I have to create structure in my life in order for my creativity not to get sucked out. I also find that my creativity cannot be forced. I have to essentially get out of my own way. For about a decade, I tried to force myself to write my next book. As it turns out, that book wasn’t ready to be born yet. It is now though.
TAY: I so admire your passion for advocacy. Can you talk a little bit about your goals as an advocate for mental health?
Jenni: I had wanted to go to medical school in order to help people. Today, I know that art, whether through music, artwork, or books, is healing. (I don’t have to be a doctor to help others.) My main goal as an advocate is that people will get help for mental illness sooner than I did and that they will recover with many less bumps along the way.
TAY: What’s next for you? What are you currently working on?
Jenni: I am working on that book that is finally ready to be born! I am currently writing a book about my recovery from posttraumatic stress disorder, PTSD. The average time between the onset of PTSD symptoms and the initiation of treatment is is twelve years. This needs to change. I hope to be a small part of that change.
Wasn’t that incredible? I want to encourage you to go follow Jenni on all of the social media platforms of course, but to also check out her life-changing books, Life Without Ed, Goodbye Ed, Hello Me, and Almost Anorexic.
You can find Jenni here:
@Jenni_Schaefer on Instagram - https://www.instagram.com/jenni_schaefer/
@JenniSchaefer on Twitter - https://twitter.com/jennischaefer
@LifeWithoutEd on Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/LifeWithoutEd/