A Journey of Recovery

When she was 12, Jena Ellen was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. She remembers how that diagnosis caused her family and caregivers to become hyperfocused on her diet and weight. In reaction to that attention, Jena began to restrict her food intake. She counted calories and started secretly struggling with bulimia and anorexia. Manipulating her diet was about more than losing weight; it was a way for Jena to feel in control anytime she became anxious or overwhelmed. “I got attached to that control,” she remembers. 

Then, in 2014, she experienced a sexual assault. That trauma worsened the symptoms of her eating disorder, need for control, and desire to numb herself. Soon, she began to drink heavily.

“The first time I ever drank, I drank to cope,” Jena says. “That was the problem. After that, I became a daily drinker.” 

In 2015, when she was 27, Jena’s drinking landed her in the ICU, followed by a week in Sheppard Pratt’s Crisis Stabilization Unit.

"It was enough to get sober,” she says. “But I wasn’t ready for real change."

Then, just before the COVID-19 pandemic, Jena found out she was pregnant. Knowing she would soon have a child gave her the motivation to start eating again, but she relapsed shortly after having her son because of the stress of the pandemic.

Eventually, a combination of Jena’s food restrictions and her diabetes landed her back in the hospital. Her blood sugar was dangerously low, and she was having heart palpitations. “Having my son made me realize I needed help,” she says. “I had to get back on track for him.” Jena thought about her sobriety, which she had maintained since her stay at Sheppard Pratt’s Crisis Stabilization Unit. She also knew that a family member had been successfully treated for depression at Sheppard Pratt. So she turned to Sheppard Pratt’s Center for Eating Disorders. 


Finding solidarity 

“As soon as I got there, I was inspired to start writing again, more than I had in years,” Jena, a poet and songwriter, says. “It was incredible to have so much peer support. I’ve tried AA [Alcoholics Anonymous], Bible studies, support groups, but there was never anything as cohesive and open as Sheppard Pratt’s therapy groups.”

Jena’s treatment schedule consisted of many group sessions, including cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, interpersonal psychotherapy, nutrition consultations, movement, music, and art therapy. “They had everything,” Jena says. “My favorite thing was the movement. My diabetes causes a lot of nerve pain, but the stretching and guided meditations really helped.” She even began to enjoy cooking classes, an activity she previously avoided. In treatment, Jena was also becoming comfortable identifying as a bisexual woman. “Sheppard Pratt was so supportive of me and my LGBTQIA+ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual and others] identity,” she says.

“I never felt singled out or alone; some staff members identified with they/them pronouns displayed proudly on their name tags. I felt like I had a community.”

Jena also had individual therapy sessions and spent a lot of time with Weronika Gondek, MD, FAPA, medical director of The Center for Eating Disorders. “Dr. Gondek was my voice of reason, but she was also unconditionally compassionate,” Jena says. “No matter what twisted thing I said about myself, she would remain hopeful and encouraging. I was really moved by her support. Another therapist told me, ‘The disease is strong in you, but the fight in you is stronger.’ That helped me acknowledge my problem and the fact that I could be more powerful than it. I was also really impressed with how the team could look at both my diabetes and my eating disorder to help me understand the difference and how  to treat each one.” 

Because of her diabetes, Jena’s treatment was tricky, Dr. Gondek says. “She had a complicated medical situation,” she says. “It took the whole team and lots of cooperation to figure out both healthy meal and insulin schedules. But Jena worked hard and reached the goals she set in admission. She was always very positive, motivated, and able to trust the team and the recovery process.”

And as she recovered, Jena’s creativity returned. “She started writing poems again, including one for me, which still sits on my desk,” says Dr. Gondek.

Success after discharge

“When I said goodbye, Dr. Gondek said, ‘If anything ever happens, you know where to find us.’ That gave me such a sense of security and welcoming,” Jena says.

“I am doing a lot better now. I have tools that I can utilize to keep from relapsing. Recovery is not linear, but I am enough. I learned that from Sheppard Pratt.”

Jena is working as a caretaker for adults with disabilities. She enjoys composing and playing music, spending time outside with her dog and son, and continuing to care for herself. “I am able to give myself permission to be healthy and strong no matter what the number on the scale is,” she says. “I don’t want to starve myself of what I need—emotionally, spiritually, or physically. 

“I have a village to support me now. I go to therapy two times a week, once to focus on trauma and once to focus on my recovery. I take it one day at a time, choosing recovery every day—for myself, my partner, our rescue pup, and, most of all, my son. My little dude wakes me up every morning and reminds me: I have to do well today.” 

The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt