Dancing with ED’s Share My Story Project interview with Libby Supan.
My special guest is Libby Supan MA, LMFT, dancer, and eating disorder survivor. Libby shares her story as a young dancer struggling with depression in this conversation. Her mental health, bullying, and significant life change led to her eating disorder and suicidal thoughts. Libby is not afraid to get genuine and honest! We need more of that! Through her story, you will learn common ED & suicide risk factors, signs and symptoms, as well as the importance of community and connection. Learn why she decided to become a therapist, how she feels about her body now, and what she would say to a dancer experiencing similar things.
My name is Libby Supan, and I am a 42-year-old female who is an LMFT specializing in eating disorders and all things related. I struggled for too many years (decades) with an eating disorder myself. My biggest passion in life is dancing, and often it seems as if they may go hand in hand. I always knew and promised myself that if I were to get better from my ED, I would help others with theirs. For many years I didn’t think this was possible, but it is, and I am happy to say I am recovered and helping others get over their ED’s as well.
How did you learn about “Share my story” and “Dancing with ED”?
I recently (a few months ago) started an IG account for my business and started connecting with other professionals. I came across “Dancing with ED” and was immediately curious. I spoke to you a few times over social media and was allowed to have a zoom call with you. I love what “Dancing with ED” stands for and represents and promotes more awareness of this subculture community of dancers with eating disorders. I wish I had something like “Dancing with ED” when I was in my dancing and ED years, but then again, I wasn’t aware I had a problem until college.
What do you hope people will take away from this interview?
A few things:
-You are not alone. More people struggle with an ED and disordered eating than you know.
-There is help, and please ask for it.
-ED does not discriminate. It is not only White privileged females who develop ED’s. People from all different backgrounds develop ED’s.
-There are tons of resources out there.
-Don’t give up.
-Know that there are ways to navigate through the dance world without developing an ED.
-Trust your gut and intuition.
-Tell someone you trust that you are struggling.
-Trust your “people” or Treatment Team that they have your best interest in mind.
Start by telling us when you started dancing, how long you danced, and what type of dancing you did.
I first danced when I was young, maybe four years old, and I remember the costume, and it was to the song “Great big beautiful Doll.” There’s a recital VHS somewhere out there, and I’m sure it’s hilarious. I got into dance when I was in 5th grade. I did: jazz, tap, ballet, hip-hop, funk, lyrical, clogging, cheer, and tumbling/gymnastics. My favorite type of dance is jazz and hip-hop, but I love tap dance also. When I was in high school, I focused on competition cheer. I recently ruined my bamboo floors using my old tap shoes, and it was 50% worth it. I began to compete nationally in 6th grade. As an adult, I have gotten into pole dancing, which is fun and reminds me a little of tumbling/gymnastics with the pole tricks, and I should be teaching hip-hop soon.
You mentioned you started noticing body changes and behaviors in yourself during your freshman year of high school. Would you say those were signs of an ED?
I noticed body changes because I was changing my eating/exercise behaviors. I began to engage in ED behaviors such as restricting and over-exercising, which affected my body. When anyone confronted me about my body changing and raising concern, I denied that anything was different until I was blue in the face. I thought everyone around me was the problem and that I was the only one who “got it.” The only time my mom “made me” go to a therapist was my Freshman year in HS, where I did not speak one word and never went back. This time was when any ED behaviors began by significantly restricting food and compulsive over-exercise.
What was happening in your life? What were you experiencing?
I had just moved the summer before freshman year in h.s. with my family from a small town to a (what I thought was a) big city in CA where everything was drastically different in the lens of an 8th grader. I had come from a place where I was comfortable, I had my dance studio with my dance friends, I was doing competitions on the weekends, my friends meant everything to me, I felt popular, I fit it, I was established (as much as a tween can be), and I loved my life (for the most part). When I moved, everything changed. I didn’t have a single friend. The only thing I knew or was good at was dance and cheer, and I missed the cheer tryouts due to the move, and we hadn’t found a dance studio yet. When school started, I immediately realized I was the “odd one out.” I did not fit in. Everything at this school was the opposite of what I knew to be true. Good grades, dance/cheer, cool clothes, hairstyles, makeup styles were all now totally dorky. The movie “Dangerous Minds” from 1995 with Coolio and Michelle Pfeiffer is a movie taken from a book written about my high school. I felt scared every day walking on campus. Many different kids bullied me.
I was so desperate for friends that I tried out for every sport (even badminton), and I despise and suck at most sports. If I remember correctly, the only time I played volleyball was the last 3 seconds of the tournament and made the losing hit. Different clicks bullied me. I received threatening phone calls where random people told me not to show up at school the next day or else. I was terrified. I ended up getting mono this year and missed over a month of school. I put all my focus and attention into my grades and dance. We ended up finding a dance studio that was 35 miles away. It was a time commitment being a part of this studio, but it was well worth it.
Freshman year of h.s. was the worst year. The remaining three years of h.s. Weren’t as bad, simply because I was able to try out for cheer where I was back in “my element.”
My family was dysfunctional, and I didn’t have a voice. The only way I expressed myself was to write in my diary. No one knew what was going on with me. No one knew the real me. No one knew I was depressed.
When did you first think of Suicide? And how did that tie with the issues you were facing?
Freshman year of high school is the first time I thought of harming myself. I felt desperate. I often questioned if there was a way out or a different way of life. As a 15-year-old, my life felt unmanageable and like it would be permanently awful. I didn’t know my life could or would change and that there is life outside the high school.
Everything going on in my life had everything to do with how I felt about myself and wanting to harm myself. I never wanted to feel pain or hurt anyone; I didn’t want to live the life I was currently living. I want to make it clear that I never attempted but did have ruminating thoughts about it.
Do you think the suicidality was a response to feeling out of control or emotional pain? If so, why?
100%. It was a response to everything I was experiencing. I felt out of control with being able to manage my life. Before high school, my outlet for everything was my friend group. My friends meant everything to me, and now I had none. The reason why this was is that my family life was not good and quite dysfunctional. I had always felt like I had some form of control by having a friend group before the move and high school, and when I could not make friends or fit in, I felt completely out of control. I felt powerless and helpless. The only thing I knew was that I could control my body, food intake, and exercise. I wanted an escape. Moving forward, this became my entire life focus.
You described your homelife environment as either screaming or silent. What did you mean?
I grew up in a family where we didn’t talk about feelings, thoughts and kept secrets. There was a lot of anger in my house, and you never knew what to expect. Would mom be in a rage screaming, or would she be in her scary silent self? It felt like you had to walk on eggshells. Because of the family environment, I’ve had to work on: all or nothing thinking, expressing anger, or any feeling, for that matter, appropriately.
You were a good kid who did everything right. How did that affect you? Did it make things better or worse?
I was a perfectionist. It felt like that’s all I had. As long as I could be and remain perfect (whatever that means), I would be okay and hopefully go unnoticed so no one would pay attention to me. I was incredibly hard on myself and held myself to extreme expectations. I mainly had all A’s and a few B’s here and there. I was constantly engaging in some activity (dance/cheer/babysitting). I was the “good kid” growing up.
As far as “perfectionism” making my life better or worse, I only know my experience, so I’m not sure exactly. I imagine my life would be different if I weren’t the “good kid” and if I was more of a “rebellious kid.” Maybe substances would have been more attractive rather than food or the absence of food? I know that my parents held me to a higher standard than my siblings, and when I did anything wrong, it was a huge deal. At the time, I felt this was unfair, but I knew I wanted to be “good” instead of “bad.”
You told no one about anything until you went to college; why is that?
I didn’t necessarily think I had a problem until I was in college. Until college, I was restricting and over-exercising, which didn’t feel like an issue or problem. I knew I had a big problem when the binging started in college. The behaviors felt terrifying, and that my worst nightmare was coming true.
I grew up in a house where we didn’t talk about feelings, thoughts, experiences, etc. I didn’t feel close enough or trusting enough with anyone to self-disclose. I also wanted people to think I was perfect, so I thought I wasn’t allowed to have any problems. So, there are a few reasons I choose to stay silent.
When did you seek treatment?
I sought out actual ED treatment for 11 years. I was rejected every time due to not being underweight and insurance not covering the cost. I went through several therapists (maybe about 20) before finding the one that I still have. I was finally approved to attend real ED Tx when I was 30 years old. Treatment was indeed the best thing that could have happened to me. I was only approved for IOP when I knew I needed RTC, but I took it.
What treatment did you receive? Did it help?
I attended an IOP program for ED’s, and they had the “All Foods Fit,” “IE,” and “HAES” model, which was brand new to me at the time. After treatment, I continued with my original therapist (and still do).
Yes, it helped tremendously. I wasn’t cured or recovered at that point but what I gained was knowing there was another way. I now knew the work that I had to do to recover fully. What I had been doing to “recover” was making my ED worse without realizing it. I felt frustrated that the whole time I was trying to help myself and doing the wrong things, there was an honest answer. I’ve had thoughts over the years of “If only I were able to get the help I needed at a younger age, my life would look very different.” I would have been a therapist for more years and further along in my career and been able to help more people. Today I don’t go there. I am just grateful I am here and able to do what I do because I got the help I needed.
When would you say your final breakthrough happened?
I had my last breakthrough a few years ago. I learned a different approach to challenge the ED voice/thoughts. It’s a simple brain exercise where one can have fun doing it.
I don’t believe I’ll ever finish having breakthroughs and continuing to learn and absorb along the way.
Why did you decide to be a therapist?
I always told myself that if I ever get better, then I must help others. I also knew that many awful therapists are out there working with Eds when they have no business doing so. I didn’t know if this was possible or going to happen, but it did, and here I am. Before being a therapist, I was lost and probably had about 60 different jobs. I am so glad to know that being a therapist is truly my calling, and I feel passionate about the work I do with my clients and colleagues.
How do you feel about your body now?
I walk naked freely in my house all the time (granted, I live alone), which never used to happen. I feel primarily content and accepting of my body, but I do have some days when I have a negative body image. Today I know to treat myself with extra kindness and patience when I have these days. I make sure to dress in comfortable clothes, avoid mirrors if I’m able, and know that this is only a feeling that doesn’t necessarily have much meaning or validity to back it and that it will pass.
Today I can dress for any occasion on the spot. I say this because this never was the case before. If I was invited to a last-minute event where I would wear a dress or a bathing suit, I needed weeks’ notice to prepare my body. Today I can change out of pj’s or any clothing into a bathing suit or anything else without guilt, shame, or disgust.
What would you say to a dancer experiencing similar things?
- I would first let them know they are not alone.
- I would second let them know there is a solution and a way out.
- I would thirdly encourage them to tell someone they can trust.
- I would suggest they work with a team that believes in “Health at Every Size,” intuitive eating, and body positivity aligned.
- I would recommend they unfollow all negative things on their social media accounts (anything diet culture) and start to follow something that brings them joy, such as puppies and dancing. Begin to track and view pages and images that show bodies your size and larger.
How can dancers, parents, teachers contact you?