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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Interview: Big Fat Disaster Author Beth Fehlbaum

Insecure, shy, and way overweight, Colby hates the limelight as much as her pageant-pretty mom and sisters love it. It’s her life: Dad’s a superstar, running for office on a family values platform. Then suddenly, he ditches his marriage for a younger woman and gets caught stealing money from the campaign. Everyone hates Colby for finding out and blowing the whistle on him. From a mansion, they end up in a poor relative’s trailer, where her mom’s contempt swells right along with Colby’s supersized jeans. Then, a cruel video of Colby half-dressed, made by her cousin Ryan, finds its way onto the internet. Colby plans her own death. A tragic family accident intervenes, and Colby’s role in it seems to paint her as a hero, but she’s only a fraud. Finally, threatened with exposure, Colby must face facts about her selfish mother and her own shame. Harrowing and hopeful, proof that the truth that saves us can come with a fierce and terrible price, Big Fat Disaster is that rare thing, a story that is authentically new.
“Colby’s life … is difficult enough, but it gets worse very quickly once she discovers a photo of her politician father kissing another woman. The fast pace, lively … dialogue, and timely topic make it a quick and enjoyable read.” – Kirkus Reviews (Starred)


1. What is currently on your nightstand or ereader itching to be read?

DARE ME, by Eric Devine. 
Eric is a member of the group author website I founded, UncommonYA, and I won a signed copy of DARE ME from Eric during one of his contests. 

2. What is your go to cure for writer’s block?

I give myself permission to back away from physically writing and instead roll the story around in my head. Usually the breakthrough comes when I’m driving, and if I’m driving, I pull over and either email myself the idea or call and leave a message for myself on voice mail.

3. Most people think about Anorexia or Bulimia when they hear the phrase "eating disorder" but Colby is an overeater. You have said that you yourself manage an eating disorder similar to Colby's. Can you give readers some insight on what managing your eating disorder entails?

The first thing I learned to do when I was in therapy was to seek a way of soothing myself in other ways than food. Over time, I learned to recognize my eating disorder as me trying to take care of myself in a way that only created more problems, i.e. if I was having unpleasant feelings about a situation, if I binged because of it, the shame took my focus from the original situation and caused me to instead feel bad about having gorged myself. Plus, there’s the physical discomfort, which also serves to distract from the original problem.

I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and sometimes I slip, but I now recognize signals in myself—such as obsessively thinking about eating a certain food—as a sign that I’m on the edge of a compulsive overeating episode, and I can choose to prevent it. My first thought when I have unpleasant feelings—still—is to eat. Doesn’t mean I always act on it. I have gotten to where I can just acknowledge a thought or feeling that previously would have sent me running for something sweet. It’s like, “Oh, hello. There you are again,” but I don’t act on it. I learned to distract myself with activities that don’t involve food.

There are some foods—like cookies—that I know that if I start eating, there will never be enough. It won’t matter whether I like them or how I physically feel. The urge to continue to eat until they’re all gone, because I’ve done it so many times, and it always has the same result: I feel rotten about myself and physically I feel ill because I haven’t eaten high-fat, high-sugar stuff in large quantities in so long that my stomach can’t handle much without getting really upset. Therefore, I don’t eat cookies, and I try really hard to not eat any sugary sweets at all since I have an endless appetite for them. As I said, when I give into temptation and do eat, for example, some cake, I get a really upset stomach and end up kicking myself since I don’t feel well.

The difference now, though, is that instead of staying stuck in a neverending cycle of shame and overeating, I recognize that I alone have the power to stop the binge, and I can choose to start AT THAT MOMENT to take care of myself in a positive way.

The feelings Colby experiences—that shame, lack of control, and lapse in memory of what all she consumed—are coming directly from my own battle with Binge Eating Disorder.

4. You went through six years of intensive therapy to help you recover from being abused as a child. A lot of people, young adults and adults alike, find starting therapy a very frightening and uncomfortable experience. 
What advice would you give someone who is thinking about starting therapy for the first time?

The six years of therapy I went through were with a clinical psychologist whom I clicked with at the same time that circumstances in my life came together in a way that I had a strong support system in my husband and then-teenage daughters.

I had been in and out of therapy many times since my early twenties, but I never had the support system in place to withstand what I had to do in order to get well: face the truth about my stepfather sexually abusing me and my mother not protecting me. This involved breaking with my family of origin completely—basically, when I insisted on no more playing “Let’s Pretend,” it was made clear to me in a variety of ways that I had done something so wrong (in their eyes) that they wanted nothing to do with me anymore. It was very, very difficult because my mother was an amazing grandmother to my kids, and they lost her in the process.

Recovery from childhood sexual abuse is very, very difficult. My therapist compared it to a barefoot walk from Texas to Alaska and back, with all the weather along the way. I would agree with that assessment; in fact, I used that comparison in my Patience books, Courage in Patience and Hope in Patience. I strongly believe that people who have been sexually abused and are seeking to heal from it and reclaim their lives need the guidance of an experienced mental health professional. If the first therapist (or second, or third) does not seem to be helping, keep going until you find one you click with. Don’t give up, because you are worth the fight to reclaim your life.

Outside of the therapist’s office, you need a strong support system of people who are aware of what you are going through, who will be safe for you to be vulnerable, and will give you emotional shelter when you need it.

And—be prepared to be completely honest with yourself and others in your life. It’s the only way to heal and find out how strong you are.

(By the way, a third and final Patience book, Truth in Patience, has not yet been published. Courage in Patience has been revised and I’m hoping that at some point, all three books will be issued at the same time.)

5. I too have body dysmorphic disorder and I am well acquainted with the shaming voice that comes to reside within you and how hard it can be to silence that voice. (I call mine E.D.) 
How do you fight your shaming voices?

Isn’t that voice annoying?! I fight mine by asking myself if I would talk to my friends or daughters in the way I’m talking to myself. I know I would never say such hateful things to people I love, so I try not to say them to myself, either.

6. Your Patience series has brought a lot of healing to readers that have faced sexual abuse, do you think Big Fat Disaster will do the same for those with binge eating disorders?
 Has writing these books brought you healing?

I hope that others who struggle with the cycle of bingeing and shame will recognize that they are not alone. That was my hope for The Patience books with respect to recovery from childhood sexual abuse and having PTSD as a result of being abused.

Here’s the thing that brought about the seed for Big Fat Disaster: when I started therapy, I was very overweight. Over time, I lost 100 pounds and was, for the first time, able to wear anything I wanted. I was walking and running on a treadmill—on an incline, mind you—on a nightly basis.

I noticed that my feet started becoming painful, and within a few years, I could not walk without limping. My feet literally crunched when I walked, and instead of working out when I got home from work at night, I just sat in a chair. I went back to some of my self-soothing behaviors with food.

And I gained back half the weight I lost.

Eventually, I had surgery on each foot over the course of two summers, and had to be completely non-weight bearing for ten weeks each time following surgery. So I sat a lot.

That shaming voice in my head—which had been silent for a long time—was back with a vengeance, and “she” was not whispering self-hate; she was shouting judgmental ugliness as I had to buy bigger clothes and boxed up my size Smalls and 6’s.

Losing the person I had become physically, by regaining some weight, felt as if it had happened overnight. I had to have a really honest talk with myself, especially since I had worked so hard to learn to love myself. Prior to going through recovery, I didn’t love myself and I didn’t believe that anyone else really did, either. But I had grown to know that I AM worthy of love, both for myself and from others. Did regaining about fifty pounds make me less worthy of love?

After everything I had been through in my recovery: losing relationships because I chose truth; enduring PTSD episodes and learning to manage the symptoms; choosing truth over lies even when it was scary; all my work to learn to deal with having an eating disorder… did regaining weight mean that I was the same self-hating, broken person I was when I began my journey?

No. It didn’t, and it doesn’t, and whether I stay this larger size forever or lose weight again or whatever happens to me physically, I, you, and all of us are worthy of love, simply because we exist and are all on a journey together.

Exploring that question of whether weight equals being unlovable led to Colby Denton’s story. I knew from the beginning that she would not miraculously go on a diet and lose weight and get a boyfriend and the sort of stereotypical endings that YA fiction books about fat girls often have.

Instead, I wanted Colby to learn that regardless of her size, she is worthy
of love.

7. What is the number one thing you hope readers take away from Big Fat Disaster?

I hope that people who do not have an eating disorder will have some insight into what it is like for someone with Binge Eating Disorder: what it’s like to live inside our heads.

And, I hope that those of us who get up every day hoping that this will be the one day they can get through without hating themselves because of the way they eat or the way they look will know that they are not alone, and that there is hope for breaking the cycle of shame and self-hatred.

Regardless of what they eat or the number on their jeans label, they are worthy of love. We all are.
Beth Fehlbaum

In addition to writing Young Adult Contemporary Fiction, Beth Fehlbaum is an experienced English teacher who frequently draws on her experience as an educator to write her books. She has a B.A. in English, Minor in Secondary Education, and an M.Ed. in Reading. She is currently a Library Science student at Sam Houston State University.Beth is the author of Big Fat Disaster (Merit Press/F+W Media, March 2014); Courage in Patience (Kunati Books, 2008); and Hope in Patience(WestSide Books, 2010). Hope in Patience was named a 2011 YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers. Truth in Patience, which rounds outThe Patience Trilogy, is as yet unpublished. The Patience Trilogy has been revised and is available for acquisition!
Beth has a following in the young adult literature world and also among survivors of sexual abuse because of her work with victims’ advocacy groups. She has been the keynote speaker at the National Crime Victims’ Week Commemoration Ceremony at the Hall of State in Dallas, Texas and a presenter for Greater Texas Community Partners, where she addressed a group of social workers and foster children on the subject of “Hope”.
Beth is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, like Ashley in The Patience Trilogy, and the day-to-day manager of an eating disorder much like Colby’s in Big Fat Disaster. These life experiences give her a unique perspective, and she writes her characters’ stories in a way meant to inspire hope.
Beth lives with her family in the woods of East Texas.
You can find Beth online at



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