The holidays can be a time of joy, togetherness and community – as well as heavy emotions and stress. Often, something as simple as talking about our difficult experiences can lighten the burden significantly – and we’re always here to listen, Aerie fam.
Recently, we spoke with Sr. Print and Pattern Designer Alyssa Johnson, who completed her first NEDA fundraiser walk in NYC in October. The walk was more than just a fundraising effort for Alyssa — it was a milestone in her eating disorder recovery. Alyssa generously shared her story with us in the hopes of dispelling stigma and encouraging our Aerie fam to support each other.
Read on to learn about Alyssa’s story, her work with NEDA and how you can help support anyone in your life living with an eating disorder.
Tell us a little about yourself: how long you have worked for Aerie, what your role entails and what you love about your job!
I’ve been at Aerie for 7.5 years. I’m a senior print, pattern and graphic apparel designer overseeing all of our OFFLINE by Aerie brand. I (along with my team) design what gets printed on product, any graphics on apparel or accessories and the occasional office birthday card. I work closely with the design team in deciding what prints, graphics and solids are in each run and we build out the store together each season. I love that my job is to work creatively and collaboratively, I love my coworkers and I love working at a company that aligns with a lot of my values.
Tell us a little about the NEDA walk you participated in! We were excited to hear you were a top fundraiser at the NYC walk this year. What did it mean to you to participate?
This was my first NEDA walk, which was both very exciting and very scary. It’s something I have always wanted to participate in but was always too afraid would “out” my eating disorder. When I made the decision to raise money I also made the decision to be open and honest with my friends and family on why I was raising money – which, again, was terrifying. This was the first time I was telling pretty much everyone that I know that I have been struggling with bulimia for the past 20 years. It was this big secret that I’ve had for so long and essentially felt like I was admitting to lying to everyone for almost my entire life. The love and support I received from being open and honest with my struggle was a huge relief and so encouraging for me to continue sharing my story and destigmatizing eating disorders.
I did end up being the highest fundraiser which felt really great. Shout out to everyone in my life that donated – I love you and appreciate you. It ended up being the worst weather to walk in: it was cold, it was rainy, it was windy and it was worth it. I can’t wait for future walks.
What inspired you to share your story about your experience with an eating disorder with our community?
I think the more we talk about these things the more likely it is for others to reach out for help. Eating disorders thrive in isolation. I’ve felt very alone for a very long time and I never want anyone else to feel that way or feel like they can’t seek help or that they don’t deserve recovery. It’s especially hard when you get to a point in your life where you feel so overwhelmed by work and life that it feels almost impossible to stop and take the time to take care of yourself and put yourself first, so I hope that sharing my story helps other people give themselves permission do the same.
We also don’t know what we don’t know, so the more we share about things we learn the more we can help each other realize there’s a better, more fulfilling way to live life. (This is also why group therapy is so great!)
How have you experienced an eating disorder being intersectional with other areas of your life that connect with one another?
I’ve spent a decent amount of time in my life going to therapy but it wasn’t until I looked at the intersectionality of my eating disorder, depression, alcohol and trauma together that things really started to click. My therapist in treatment had me write out a timeline of my life and events and it was really eye opening to see the relation of certain things happening and when everything started, which was when I was 12. My eating disorder, alcohol and depression were working together in an effort to keep me from feeling any emotions, which was a really twisted way that my brain was trying to protect me and help me survive. This kind of snowballed into living a very warped reality of what self-worth meant, what it meant to be loved and what my purpose was, which led to even more trauma, more emotional suppression and abusive relationships. I had been unknowingly training my brain into thinking this was all normal, that I didn’t deserve better and that all I had to offer to the world was my body, so it needed to look the way that everyone wanted it to look.
Can you share some of the biggest discoveries, learnings and practices that you’ve been taught through treatment and recovery?
Learning something new or different than what you’ve always known is HARD, even when what you’re learning is BETTER for you. Our brains like consistency and patterns so whatever we teach it, even if it’s bad for us, it will hold on to for comfort and protection. There’s a lot I’ve learned about emotions and boundaries and self-worth that genuinely made me feel dumb for not knowing or learning years ago, which led to a lot of self-forgiveness for not knowing what I knew until I learned it and doing the best with what I did know to survive.
Also, the “comfort zone” thing is real cheesy, but real. So get out of it! [In recovery] I spent 5 weeks with no phone, no computer, no internet, eating 3 (historically unheard of for me) meals a day, writing letters to my body and talking about my feelings (also historically unheard of for me) with a bunch of random (mostly) 20 something year olds in Florida. I have literally never been MORE uncomfortable in my entire 32 years of life – and I’m so grateful to have been able to have that experience and to have met so many amazing, smart women who genuinely understood me, even the parts of me that I didn’t understand. Finding a community has been one of the greatest gifts of recovery. Eating disorders are extremely isolating and to finally not feel alone is something I’m most grateful for. (Shout out Frew crew, I love you all!)
What advice would you give to someone who is supporting a friend or loved one who is experiencing an eating disorder? What words of positive pro-recovery encouragement would you want to give our Aerie community as we approach the holiday season?
The most helpful thing anyone can do for someone with an eating disorder (and themselves) is to make an effort to not participate in diet culture and to constantly challenge yourself on why you think a certain way regarding food, health and body image. People often view help and support as something very active or external but there’s so much power in your own words and thoughts that can help others. By changing the way you speak about your own body, other bodies, food, and exercise, you can help create an environment that doesn’t base self-worth on physical appearance. Keep asking yourself why you have certain views on those topics: why can’t I eat a bagel? Why do I want to look a certain way? It often comes down to following a made up societal aesthetic that only exists because people continue to follow it as well as internalized fatphobia. There’s also a lot of misinformation around health and body types and food; keep educating yourself and make sure the information you’re taking in is coming from a real source. Carbs aren’t going to kill you – eating disorders might.
There’s a lot that you probably won’t understand – and that’s ok! There’s a lot that we also don’t understand, and not everything needs to be rationalized or fixed. The best way I feel supported is just being heard and being met with openness. Everyone has different ways of receiving support, so it’s perfectly normal to ask how someone prefers to be supported, because it might be different than how you’re used to giving and receiving support.
We’d like to thank Alyssa for sharing her REAL insights and journey with us. If you’d like to learn more about eating disorder recovery and support, visit the National Eating Disorders Assocation website at https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org.