After early years of East Coast luxury, Holly suffered neglect and abandonment, and coped with her loneliness by turning to eating disorders. She is now a survivor and determined to help others recover from the trauma of addiction.
Tell us a little about your background.
My given name is Hilary Whittaker Curtis, of English descent. I have been called by my nickname, Holly, my entire life—I was born in the ‘60s when “Holly Go Lightly ” was popular. I was a very gregarious and high-spirited little girl so the name was fitting.
My second nickname was “Holly Pops “because I was always flipping and dancing and popping about all day long. I loved dance and gymnastics. When we attended weekly Catholic Mass, I would pop up on the pew when the song, ” Holy Holy Holy ” played and belted out “Holly Holly Holly.” No lack of self-confidence in my family!
I have two brothers, Billy and Trip. We were born with golden hair, great looks, genetics, and talent. We were raised in Manhattan with extreme privilege, at least in our early years. We lived in a duplex on Park Ave, attended the finest private schools, belonged to the best clubs, summered in the Hamptons, wintered in Palm beach, Florida—a real Town and Country lifestyle.
My parents were “To the Manor Born,” both socialites—my mother from Greenwich/Riverside, Connecticut, and my father from Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan. My mother resembled Lauren Bacall, was fabulously stylish, social, and a great dancer. She had legs that would stop traffic and was never without a stylish hat to complete her divine outfit. She was simply the life of the party. My father was Rhett Butler handsome, went to Yale and then raised his family in NYC as a successful NYSE Stock Broker.
Life was idyllic until age seven when my father walked out, my parents divorced, and my mother committed suicide seven years later. My brothers and I were away at summer camp when our mother ended her life. Our relatives packed up our apartment, then sold and donated most our belongings. We felt our life as we knew it vanished in the blink of an eye.
My siblings and I were separated and traveled back and forth to various relatives’ homes until school began. We were all sent away to boarding school—new schools, new state, new friends, new room, nothing familiar. Totally traumatizing! We had no idea where we would live or with whom.
Very shortly after I was at my new school, I became overwhelmed by the lack of control in my life and the traumatic events that had occurred. A fellow student at the school was throwing up all her food and this is how I became familiar with an eating disorder. She was causing quite a stir, but receiving lots of attention. I was starved for attention and sadly, eating disorders took hold of me and my life. It would be 13 dark, painful years of torment suffering Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa before I began my road to recovery.
I graduated Miss Hall’s School in 1981 with many academic awards and achievements. I was awarded the coveted “School Spirit Cup.” I tried to perfect every area of my life to mask the imperfections. I attended Northwestern University for college, joining Tri Delta Sorority and becoming a Big Ten Cheerleader. The Midwest tempo and values were just what I needed.
Shortly after college, I married a wonderful man from Northbrook, Illinois. His parents reminded me of Fred Rodgers and Mary Poppins/Fraulein Maria. It was the stability and normalcy I needed. I had a short successful sales career in Chicago working for a telecommunications company and later a graphics/document packaging company. We moved to Glenview, Illinois and later Lake Forest, Illinois and raised two daughters.
I got divorced after 13 years of marriage and went back to work to become a realtor in residential real estate and a part-time dance instructor. I loved the sales world and missed my years dancing. I am still teaching dance today and very involved at many studios. I am remarried and reside in Chicago.
When did you start thinking about making a change in midlife?
In my late 40s, I had been selling residential real estate for about ten years and no longer enjoyed it. My sales days needed to end and I yearned for more internal fulfillment. I had a wonderful social and emotional connection with all the parents and children I taught dance to over the years, but I needed to expand my social network.
Given my early life trials and tribulations, I am very centered and self-assured and am often the one friends come to for advice or comfort. By then, I also had many years leading successful support groups providing hope and coping skills to help participants navigate the world. I felt that now was the time to make this a full-time job.
I wanted to become a Life Coach. Leading, cheering, and motivating others has always been so much a part of me. I’d held many leadership roles in high school and enjoyed being a Big Ten Cheerleader in college. I felt so happy with my life and had so much gratitude about being recovered. Helping others recover from eating disorders and other addictions rang out clear in my mind as my next act .
What is your next act?
At age 54, I am a support group leader, speaker, mentor and advocate with ANAD, National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. I am also a Life Coach, specializing in eating disorders and addiction recovery. Finally, I am the author of Large Fry Small Fry Medium Orange, my story of recovery.
Over the past 25 years, I have been very involved with ANAD, the oldest eating disorder organization in the United States and speak on their behalf at many venues. After attending support group meetings, I began leading groups myself. I love seeing the relief in sufferers’ eyes knowing they are safe and welcomed to the group. Sharing my story is also very powerful in groups. Group members feel unconditional trust and no judgment from me. Mostly, sufferers are so happy and relieved to know someone who is recovered long-term and willing to share all aspects of their eating disorder.
I am thrilled to be a Life Coach to many eating disorder sufferers, but also to many teens and adults who need a person in their life to help them navigate the triggers and downfalls in their daily lives. It lifts my spirits so high to restore hope to someone.
I am also EDITTM certified by Dr. Dorie McCubbrey. EDIT stands for Eating Disorder Intuitive Therapy. It teaches us methods and techniques to help us listen and be guided by our intuition. It helps us discover our “True Self, which is the Intuitive Therapist” inside all of us. Our intuition/gut instinct never lies to us. We create addictions and a “false self” to numb out what our gut instinct is telling us—usually due to fear of facing our trauma or an experience or situation that has become toxic or unsafe. Through EDIT, we fill our self from within and set healthy boundaries to protect us outside in the world.
My book appearances and speaking engagements have all been so rewarding and empowering. I have been overwhelmed by the positive responses and reviews of my book. People stop me on the street and in stores to thank me for my bravery in writing my book. So many have reached out to me to share their addiction story or eating disorder story. They want advice and motivation to get their lives in control. Food, diet, and weight issues are a critical social issue and much education and awareness is still needed.
I have never felt so happy and fulfilled helping support those in need of navigating their broken lives. The human spirit is tenacious and capable of making miracles happen.
How did you choose this next act?
I majored in Psychology at Northwestern and often thought I would pursue my Master’s in Social Work or Clinical Psychology. I was the product of traditional therapy for many years, but was always bothered that there was little or no daily support or after-treatment care to help me navigate my day-to-day struggles with my eating disorder. A weekly one-hour therapy session was very isolating to me and I often felt anxious and alone in the world. I attended a weekly eating disorder support group, but really needed day to day consistent help to achieve balance in my life, learn self-care and coping techniques and how to set healthy emotional boundaries. Quite frankly, I needed someone to help me live life! I needed a life coach.
We spend 21 years in school to become educated and then spend our lives pursuing a career. In most of our jobs, we have coaches, mentors, bosses, and teachers. Who helps us navigate life? I feel I have been navigating my life alone since I was seven years old and my father left. I became in charge of my younger brother of four years and watched over my mother who suffered from Bipolar Disorder. My older brother went away to school and I essentially became the second adult in the house. I cleaned the house, did laundry, went to the grocery store, and walked my little brother to school.
My eating disorder helped me numb out my erased life. I was in emotional agony. I had two parents—one I was not good enough to live for and the other barely acknowledged I existed. I was slowly killing myself with my eating disorder and I had no idea.
My childhood years of survival opened my eyes early to the many trials and tribulations of life. From this experience, I have been able to help so many of my friends in my adult years and wished to make a huge impact in the eating disorder community.
When my youngest daughter went off to college, I felt it was the perfect time for me to tell my story and help those suffering to navigate their lives.
Three years ago, I received my Life Coaching certification from the Life Purpose Institute and opened an office in Lake Bluff, Illinois. I had been leading eating disorder support groups for years and now offered my life coaching services to those individuals who attended my weekly group. I would be their daily support or sponsor/mentor after inpatient or outpatient treatment.
Tell us more about your book and how it came about.
I had always thought about writing a book about my early childhood, mostly because I always got such an incredible reaction from friends when they heard my story. They found my survival fascinating and inspiring. Despite massive loss and abandonment, I prevailed and turned my life around and got back on track after 13 dark years of despair. Our broken family had such tenacity and the laughs, when we were able to muster them, saved me from not giving up.
With this book, I also wanted to help the world understand an eating disorder sufferer’s mindset. No academic book on this subject can capture real-life experience. I had lived through a personal war and won. I wanted now to share every detail of my story in the hopes of helping others. I had always been an extrovert and a spirited person and lost that all to my eating disorder.
Unlike with other addictions, with this one, you can’t abstain for the remainder of your life. You have to eat to live! My story would provide knowledge of an eating disorder to help calm families’ and loved ones’ fears and give them tools to help their sufferer and understand this insidious, devastating disease. Mostly, I wanted to help the public understand how an eating disorder can make its toxic way into someone’s life and takes hold—and kill if not treated.
The title and cover sketch of my book come from one of my most vivid childhood memories. My younger brother Trip and I were often left alone to fend for ourselves. We lived three blocks from the Metropolitan Museum and found it great fun to jump in the fountain and collect money for our dinner. Our favorite spot was The McDonald’s on Third Avenue and 85th street. We always ordered, “Large Fry – Small Fry – Medium Orange Soda.” We would watch free cartoons until they closed at midnight. We thought we were having the time of our lives.
How did your family react to your book?
My daughters were thrilled about me writing my book. They knew bits and pieces of my unconventional and painful childhood and were so proud of how I survived it. They wanted my story to be shared so others could find hope and peace and know they too could survive and become a loving, supportive, and present parent. They also know how prevalent eating disorders are and wanted my story to be known. They did not feel embarrassed or worried at all. I raised them in Lake Forest for the last 17 years and my reputation in the town among parents and children has been, “Hurry to Miss Holly’s dance class…she is so high energy, bubbly, and fun.” Last, my girls were filled with love and joy that I dedicated the book to them.
I do not think my Father has read my book yet, but he did know I was writing one. My book stirred up a lot of emotion for all my family members, especially my younger brother, Trip. It seemed surreal to him reading it, almost a dream of sorts. It brought up memories of painful loss and abandonment. It is bittersweet now to be beyond the pain. I think the biggest shock to my family members was how long I really was in the dangerous abyss of my eating disorder and to what degree. I kept so much of my suffering hidden. They love seeing me thrive now and share this dark period of my life with light and strength.
Where did you find support?
My friends and family were 100 % supportive and knew my big personality, spirit, and voice would be very effective in educating the public.
I always knew I would write my book after my girls were in their late teens. I never discussed my early childhood in detail with them because I never wanted them to worry I would commit suicide or relapse in my eating disorder. I kept my story hidden and healed my heart by being present for them and raising them with structure and love. Their father and I were always available.
Watching them both graduate high school and be so filled with excitement about college and be completely independent—I knew I had achieved victory! I had changed my family pattern and story for their lives. I was so filled with love, joy, and peace in my heart and mind that I was busting at the seams to tell the world of my success and recovery.
Thank goodness I found ANAD Organization in 1986 and attended weekly eating disorder support groups. I found my people and felt understood and not judged for the first time. The group was the mirror I needed to see my eating disorder for what is really was. It stole my life and turned me into a very unhappy, antisocial person. I was very lucky to have a few people in my life I trusted, including my Psychiatrist, Kathryn Schoenbrod. Their devotion to me saved my life. They never gave up on me.
Did you encounter any challenges?
I was a bit hesitant when first writing about my story because I would be exposing my darkest secrets and struggles to the public. But I pushed right through the hesitation because I now know I am much more than an eating disorder. I have 26 years as a successful mother, employee, dance instructor, devoted friend, beloved family member and wife. It is not about weight, but what is weighing on you. We must help sponsor and support one another. We help each other through sharing our struggles, experiences and taking off the stigma and shame of eating disorders.
I began my book process by writing a factual timeline of events and recording any memories or thoughts that came to my mind. This took about three months. I then committed myself to writing three hours a day in the Lake Forest library. There was never a day I felt like not writing or blowing it off. I was so hyper focused on my task that my fingers twitched aching to get back to the keyboard and write. Little did I know it would a full year before I would go to print and publish my book.
The biggest obstacle was putting all my facts and life events into a provocative, moving story. I was not a creative writer, nor editor or English major. I could rattle off stories to friends and loved ones, but now I had to put all that chaos into a readable, worthy story.
I relied on a few amazing friends with great writing and editing talents. My sorority sister from Northwestern really made this book happen. It has been 30-plus years since we graduated and when we were in the library together trudging through this immense task, if felt like finals week all over again. It was actually really wonderful to have the time together. We lived together after college and there really wasn’t anything she did not know about me. She was the perfect person to assist me in my endeavor.
The technical part was really a push for us both. Setting a book for print and publish is a far cry from a college thesis paper. It was a real challenge and to this day I am still in shock I actually self-published a book.
Social media was another learning curve. In order to gain excitement and momentum, interest and publicity for my book, I embraced sharing on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Yelp. I also launched my website, Holly’s Healing Heart.
I am also learning how to promote my book. I called various eating disorder organizations and treatment centers and offered to speak about my recovery and my services as a Life Coach. I have been very lucky to have my story featured in Forest & Bluff and Make it Better. Any opportunity I can get to tell my story and give someone who has fallen hope, I will take it.
I search the web daily and reach out to share my book and services everywhere and anywhere. I will be a guest speaker for CASA, Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children, on November 2nd. I will be speaking with the foster parents and advocates about my trauma and mindset as an orphaned child in order to help them create the best environment in their home for their foster child to succeed. Never underestimate the power of your voice or story. I hope to co-present with renowned eating disorders expert, June Alexander, at the International Conference on Eating Disorders, in Chicago in 2018.
Alcoholics Anonymous has done a remarkable job of educating society about alcoholism. They have an extraordinary network of support, meetings, and sponsors. My goal is to help achieve this for eating disorders.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I learned that I can be way out of my comfort zone and be okay. That my recovery is still rock solid and that telling my story was cathartic for me, not triggering. As a life coach, group leader, and speaker I really help motivate and inspire people and they feel my love and dedication. My journey has brought me such abundance of love to share and give back.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
Not really. I was not ready to share or write my story before this time. I did not want it to be available to others until my youngest daughter left for college. Navigating my girl’s lives was most important to me.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention?
I encourage anyone who has something they really want to say to the world or to do in this life to do it! A crucial component of my recovery was learning I could take control of my life and make my own choices. I took back the personal power and confidence I had lost.
I encourage any woman considering a new career or journey to go for it. Let it lead you and reveal itself to you. It is in your heart and soul and true self. Taking risks and embarking on new chapters keeps us mentally alive, challenged, and fulfilled .
I am thrilled I listened to a nagging voice in my head in my mid 40s telling me to write and tell my story to the world. I am in my early 50s now reaping the rewards of pursuing my next act!
What advice and resources do you recommend for those struggling with eating disorders or who wish to help a sufferer?
I have many books that inspired my next act. I never want to stop learning and filling myself up with new self-care and daily coping techniques.
If you’re looking for inspiration, I recommend these books:
Life’s Greatest Lessons: 20 Things That Matter by Hal Urban
Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankel
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chodron
Self Matters: Creating Your Life from the Inside Out by Dr. Phillip C. McGraw
Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson
A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck
A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles” by Marianne Williamson
If you’d like to learn more about eating disorders and get support, I recommend the following websites and organizations:
What’s next for you?
The premise for my book and the successful ingredient for recovery is “Leading Life with Love.” Love always wins. I have applied this so many times with my clients in my Life Coaching and I hope to develop a teachable methodology for “Leading with Love.” I also would like to pursue dance therapy for my clients.
Connect with Holly Curtis