Around the time her father’s alcoholism spiraled out of control, Shannon Kopp, then 17, started binging and purging food. Despite several attempts at recovery, her bulimia persisted for years, until she began working at the San Diego Humane Society. Kopp found that the shelter dogs’ love and resilience in the face of their own struggles gave her the motivation to overcome her own demons. Her experiences inspired her new book, Pound for Pound: A Story of One Woman’s Recovery and the Shelter Dogs Who Loved Her Back to Life.
Folks recently chatted with Kopp about what she did to regain her sense of self, how shelter dogs fit her into her recovery and why she feels people misunderstand eating disorders. The following excerpts have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Your struggle with bulimia began when you were 17 and continued into your twenties. What treatments had you tried before you started working with rescue dogs?
I do think therapy was helpful. I would recommend therapy for anyone struggling with an eating disorder, but that alone didn’t seem to really change my behavior. I was in therapy for a total of 14 years.
I tried going to a residential treatment center and that seemed to temporarily help, but inevitably I relapsed again and went back to the eating disorder. I tried yoga, diets. I tried to make promises. I carried around a picture of my younger sister with me in my back pocket hoping I would pull that out and look at it and remember not to binge.
Especially towards the end of my eight-year struggle, I was willing to try anything because it was getting to the point where I was becoming suicidal. It was really not until I started spending a lot of time with shelter dogs that I began to finally see changes in my thinking and reacting.
How did you come to work at the San Diego Humane Society? Was that something that you thought might help?
As a child before the eating disorder, I loved animals. I was always rescuing them and even tried to start my own little nonprofit. It really was my greatest passion as a kid. As the eating disorder became more and more a dominant part of my life, I became disconnected from who I really was. I became almost mesmerized by this voice in my head telling me to binge or purge or lose weight.
It wasn’t until I went to residential treatment at the age of 23 where I experienced equine therapy and that woke something up in me. I remembered, “Oh, my god, I love animals.” Unfortunately, my insurance cut out and I would not be able to go to treatment for the time I needed. When my insurance cut out I was really scared, but I just had this feeling that I might be OK if I found a way to work with animals.
When did you start to feel like yourself again?
I went that first year at the humane society without binging or purging. I was still going to therapy, but I hadn’t really learned how to handle my emotions yet. I relapsed after a year. It was just devastating to me that I went back to those behaviors after almost a year free from them.
The only reason I even got out of bed anymore, because I was binging and purging 20 times a night, was because my job was to promote these shelter dogs and to help them find a home. I didn’t love myself at the time, but I loved them. My love would get me out of bed and get me to the humane society.
I didn’t love myself at the time, but I loved them.
I’m pregnant right now so it’s actually the first time that I’m not volunteering or working at a shelter, but I still have my own shelter dog and animals are still the most vital part of my recovery. Therapy has certainly been helpful. Medication has been helpful, but those things alone never helped me until the animals became a really big part of my life.
There is something really powerful for me, someone who was too ashamed of her eating and was trying to hide it from the world. There was something very liberating about being with a dog who also had a traumatic past, but was still herself, and was still reaching out and asking for help.
Is there anything you want other people to know about eating disorders?
Yes, I misunderstood bulimia. I had this lingering sense of shame that I was choosing to do this. I was choosing to hurt all these people. We’re getting more and more proof and data that eating disorder of all kinds, anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder are mental disorders that are biologically influenced. They have to do with genetics. They have to do with brain chemistry. They’re very complex mental disorders and just like PTSD, or depression, or even cancer, these are illnesses that are not choices. There’s never a choice to become a bulimic, to become an anorexic. It has nothing to do with vanity.
There’s never a choice to become a bulimic, to become an anorexic. It has nothing to do with vanity.
Usually, eating disorders are marked by trauma. My trauma had to do with my alcoholic father, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I became bulimic around the time that he lost complete control to alcohol. What people often say in the field is that genetics loads the gun, environment pulls the trigger. It’s a very complex illness that I think if I had recognized that, perhaps, I wouldn’t have been so embarrassed and ashamed.
Perhaps I would have asked for more help sooner, or I would have been more honest about my struggles and everything. Eating disorders are often seen as a young, white girl disease. The truth is, they impact a huge cross-section of our country. People of all ages, all backgrounds, all races, all genders struggle with eating disorders.