“I began to take a look at my relationship with food and realized that I used food my whole childhood to comfort, control and find a way to distract from all my pain. I knew I needed help. For several years I went to therapy three or four times a week. The floodgates of my past opened and I found myself in the midst of trauma recovery.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Shari Botwin, LCSW, psychotherapist, author and on air expert. Shari has been counseling survivors of trauma, abuse, sexual assault and eating disorders for over 20 years in her Cherry Hill, New Jersey private practice. At the age of 27 Shari decided to open her own practice after working a few years in a nationally known eating disorders center. Shari published her first book, Free At Last: The Power of Relationships in Overcoming Trauma, Abuse and Eating Disorders (Daybreak Publishing), in 2004. Over the last several years Shari has been publishing feature articles on breaking stories, such as, the Cosby trial, the Paris massacre, the Orlando night club shootings and the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal. Shari went on a variety of media outlets to offer commentary while attending the Cosby trial last June. She has also presented workshops for therapists, educators, doctors and students around the country. Her message is always the same. It is possible to overcome any type of trauma, no matter how horrific, if you can find a way to understand, know and accept your experience.
What is your back story?
For most of my childhood and early adulthood I lived in an abusive environment. I stayed silent for the first 23 years of my life. I spent many days feeling hopeless, scared and unsafe. But, I found ways to stay hopeful. From a very young age I got up on the stage and danced my heart out. My dream was to become “famous” so I could get out of my house. As I got into my late teens I realized that dream may not be realistic. I was in turmoil. I felt depressed most of the time. I hated myself and at times did not want to live. But there was a part of me that kept saying to myself, “Someday someone will hear you!” I also looked to mother figures outside of my home to try and get the love I craved. While I developed some wonderful relationships I never said a word about my abuse. I was convinced it was the life I was supposed to live and did not want to get anyone else in trouble. My sense of loyalty kept me silent.
When I went off to college I realized life could be different. I started comparing my family life to the life of others. I began to want more for myself. I wanted to feel safe and I wanted to be independent. So I graduated college, worked my butt off to pay for graduate school which led to me getting my Masters in Social Work. The minute I had the financial security to be on my own I moved into my own apartment. I got my first job working with women in recovery from eating disorders of all types, anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder. Within months of working at the facility I noticed a trend. Almost every patient battling an eating disorder was also reporting some type of trauma or abuse in their history.
I began to take a look at my relationship with food and realized that I used food my whole childhood to comfort, control and find a way to distract from all my pain. I knew I needed help. For several years I went to therapy three or four times a week. The floodgates of my past opened and I found myself in the midst of trauma recovery. Like my childhood, during the therapy I had many days when I wanted to give up. I hated myself for speaking and wished none of what happened was not so. But a part of me knew if I wanted to save my life I needed to find a way to know and accept all the traumas I experienced. I fought like hell to trudge through the therapy.
When I wasn’t in session, I was at my office counseling women and men in recovery from eating disorders. As the years went by more and more survivors of sexual abuse and childhood abuse were calling me asking for help. About 10 years after I broke my silence in therapy about having a childhood abuse history I decided, “it is time for me to speak and get myself out there.” I wrote my book and started giving media interviews. I wanted to tell other people what I was learning. I wanted to encourage other victims to get help and I wanted to scream to the world, “It is not the speaking that is the problem, it is that is happened that is the real problem!”
So here I am 20 years later living out my dream. I found my voice and people hear me. I have traveled down the recovery journey with many brave women and men. Every day someone tells me his or her story. The beauty in the work is the healing that comes from knowing and letting go. It is the best feeling to help someone else break free from years of shame and guilt associated with their abuse. And it is amazing to watch my patients make sense of their eating disorder or destructive behaviors so they can live full lives!
Around 8 years ago I was starting to think about my age, and that I was still a single woman. I wanted to start a family. For most of my adulthood I had pets and a dog, named Chloe who was in some ways was a life saver for me. Right before I turned 39 years old I decided to investigate pregnancy through fertility. A year later, my son Andrew was born. Becoming a mom has been the best thing that ever happened to me. To know I can offer love and safety for my kiddo is by far the best victory I could ever ask for.
In the last year I have published over 10 articles and gone on air at least once a month to comment on Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Anthony Edwards, recent terror attacks and the anniversary of 9/11. Last month I gave a presentation for the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals on the role of an eating disorder in staying stuck in abuse. I am on a mission. To tell the world that abuse is not okay. To tell the world that we need to listen when someone tells us they are being mistreated. To tell the world that if you have been abused or assaulted in any way don’t stay alone in it. Ask for help! It is so worth it.
What are the most interesting projects you are working on?
Right now I am most excited about all the media interviews and publications I am working on. It is allowing me to connect to survivors, family members and helpers around the world who are validated by my words. Meeting some of the Cosby women after publishing a feature op ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer has had tremendous impact. It was the first time I met people outside of my office that I could open up to about my own recovery. I have such admiration for all of them and the power their stories have had on so many survivors. I will be attending the Cosby retrial this April and cannot wait for another opportunity to be in a room with so much courage, bravery and affirmation.
I would say my therapist is my mentor, role model and for years helped me stay in the fight. When I told her about my horrific abuse history she could have taken a walk. Instead of running away from me, she got some support for herself and together we stayed in the fight. Her persistence and devotion to my well -being changed my life. She showed me it is possible to be in a relationship without eventually being abandoned. She taught me how to set boundaries and helped me work through so many layers of shame and guilt. She held onto hope, especially during the times when I wanted to quit.
I also feel a tremendous amount of respect for colleagues I have met through the years at conferences and workshops. I have found a few clinicians who have been with me during my whole trauma recovery. They were like my guardian angels and continue to be steadfast supporters and wonderful friends. Being a therapist requires a lot of good self care to not burn out. Having friends who are also colleagues protects me from going insane and reminds me of the importance of honoring the work I do for myself and with my patients!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? The more people I see in therapy or the more people I reach through my writing or on air experience, the more I am able to help people ask for help. The best part about my history is that I have found ways to be hopeful. I use the love I feel for my younger self to try and help others. It is amazing to hear from people who have heard my podcasts, read my articles or listened to me on television segments. When someone writes me and says things like, “I have stayed silent for over 40 years and seeing you on television inspired me to get a therapist,” I feel like my heart is exploding with joy. It is amazing to sit with a patient who has spent months or years trying to break free from the pain and he or she has a revelation or finds a way to move out of the shame. Almost every day I feel like I get to witness or be a part of someone else going from a place of fear and PTSD to contentment and peace. That feels like a dream come true.
The 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me are:
1. That I will not be able to please every single person that walks into my office
2. That I need to put some responsibility on my patient and not feel like I have to work harder than him or her to move through recovery.
3. There are many more good people in the world than bad people
4. That I need to trust my intuition and sometimes I need to say no.
5. That I need to find balance and I need to love myself as much as I love others.
One person I want to meet:
With the climate of so many brave men and women coming forward I would love to sit down with someone like actor/director Anthony Edwards. It is hard enough to tell a therapist or close friend about any type of assault or abuse. I wonder how his life has changed since going public with his sexual abuse? I would love to give him a big hug and ask him what made him speak now. And I want to tell him what he has done for himself and so many other victims will pay off! Life can be awesome when we find a way to acknowledge the truth and digest all muck that follows abuse and sexual assault.
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