A Story of Health & Healing

Holly Jespersen
Holly at the beach

My first addiction was food-or rather, controlling my intake of food. This started around age 14—the same year I discovered cigarettes, alcohol, boys, etc. I remember it clearly; I was in a community theater production of “Oliver” that summer and one of my older castmates taught me how to make myself throw up after eating. I started doing it when I ate too much (or what I deemed as too much) and it was my little secret.

It was not an all-the-time thing, but I did it frequently. I also started engaging in other risky behaviors around the same time. It is hard to think back so long ago now, but it does make me sad thinking about how young 14-year-olds seem to me today.

Restricting my Diet as a Young Adult 

At the time, I restricted my calorie intake regularly and was very aware of how much I weighed. I did a lot of theater and modeling, so it should be no surprise that I was fixated on the external. 

Things only got worse in college. I studied abroad in Denmark during my junior year and lived with a host family. While my friends were gaining weight and eating all the delicious Danish treats, I was losing weight. I drank most of my calories. 

I returned back to campus after a wonderful semester in Copenhagen. But I began missing my new friends, and being able to drink freely (as I was not 21 yet). I began struggling with depression. That resulted in me diving deeper into my anorexia. It was a really hard semester full of drinking, starving, binging, purging, and trying not to get caught. This all culminated in my roommate contacting my parents towards the end of the semester. 

That summer, I went to outpatient treatment

I did individual therapy, group therapy, and saw a nutritionist. I had to get my weight up by the time school was back in session. It was a very hard summer, but I completed my treatment and went back to college with a kind of “relapse prevention” plan.

Holly at walk

I had a lot of support from the school, kept in touch with my care team, and had weekly weigh-ins at the health center. I remember faxing my food journals to my nutritionist and calling my therapist in the closet of my triple dorm room. The dining room even made grilled chicken, baked potato, and steamed broccoli for me every night. 

That summer, I was put on medication for my depression and things got brighter. I felt more confident and at peace with myself. Looking back, it makes me sad how uncomfortable I was in my own skin. I had friends and was in a terrific sorority–and yet I felt so apart from them. My campus was filled with thin girls who dressed in the latest fashions and had disposable income–and I wanted to be one of them. A theme in my life was never having enough. I was never satisfied with all I did have and, more importantly, I was never content with being myself. 

Falling into Addiction

While the starving and purging stopped, I still have not fully recovered from my body image issues and I think it will honestly be a lifelong battle. In my twenties, my drinking continued to escalate. I was always the last one to leave a party and the first one to open a drink. 

I did a series of geographics post-college and lived in Washington, D.C., Chicago, and New York City. I discovered cocaine in NYC and that began my descent into full-blown addiction. I found recovery on June 29, 2011, and have worked very hard to stay sober–it is something that I put before everything else in my life. 

Turning to Sugar during My Sobriety

In early sobriety, I turned to sugar and gained a significant amount of weight. I had never been heavy in my life and I was so focused on staying sober that I did not pay much attention to the amount of sugar I was ingesting and the increasing numbers on the scale.

Around year five of my recovery, I quit smoking and started taking control of my health.  I started exercising and eating better and I slowly lost the weight I had gained. It did not happen overnight, and it took a lot of work. I lost the majority of it during the pandemic when I invested in a Peloton bike and started walking daily to keep my sanity. 

Finally Feeling Like Myself

I felt so good about myself and was really proud of my hard work paying off. I was now in my mid-forties and finally felt like I was comfortable in my own skin and free to be me. Losing the weight gave me confidence and felt good. 

Since that time, I have gained some weight back and find myself being consumed with the scale says. It has me thinking a lot about my worth and how I have spent a long time defining myself by a number rather than what makes me me. I have always sought outside validation and needed praise from my peers. So, I have made a commitment to myself to change this narrative. I am committed to finding a therapist and peeling back more layers on this. I am ready to work on the underlying issues here. I am turning 48 years old in March and I’m ready to be at peace with myself. 

I decided to write this deeply personal article because I know so many women struggle with this issue–especially women who’ve experienced SUD. Many of us are people pleasers who carry a lot of shame, guilt, and fear. For people like us, co-occurring eating disorders and SUD can be extremely common. 

If you see parts of yourself reflected in my story, I’d lovingly suggest seeing a therapist. I know I am a strong, healthy, sober woman who takes her health and recovery seriously. I am smart, take pride in my work, and fulfill my responsibilities. I think I will always struggle with my body image issues, but I am incredibly grateful for the help I have received over the years, the progress I have made in my recovery, and the friends I have who have loved me through it all.