Road to Recovery: Liza Kulimanova

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By TJ Spencer

Project HEAL provides grant funding for people with eating disorders who cannot afford treatment. For many, this treatment has gone beyond saving their lives – it helps them save others’ lives as well.

Such is the case for Liza Kulimanova, a 2014 Project HEAl grant recipient who currently runs a website, educational YouTube channel and a blog dedicated to helping others overcome their struggles with bulimia.

For Liza, her 13-year struggle with bulimia began in her home country of Russia. She remembers being happy until around age 11, when she began dedicating more and more of her time to her studies and striving for perfection. After trying different weight loss centers and Chinese acupuncture to help cope with her struggles, she was prescribed Fluoxetine to help with depression – but it just wasn’t working.

Her days before treatment were filled with a routine of “dwelling on negative thoughts, zoning out, restricting, binging, purging…being extremely busy and ‘productive,’” Liza explains.

This routine was further perpetuated with she immigrated to the United States in 2010.

“I had no support in the USA and I was extremely isolated,” she says.

She then began searching online for scholarships for eating disorder treatment and discovered Project HEAL. With the grant, she was able to attend treatment at The New Beginning in Scottsdale, AZ.

“Treatment was hard and painful, but at the same time giving me relief and making me feel so much better. I am so grateful for treatment and I see bulimia as a gift now. It really allowed me to become a healthier and better person and grow tremendously from the inside,” she explains.

Today, Liza’s routine is filled with smiling, being more present and aware, checking in on herself, creating time for herself and being open to people, along with blogging and bodybuilding.

“I am very determined and disciplined, and willing to grow consistently,” she says.

This determination and discipline has allowed her to become an ambassador for bulimia treatment through her website, blog and YouTube channel.

“Believe that recovery is possible, because it is. Love yourself enough to get better — just take the first step and see where this journey will lead you. Let your life to unfold and let go of the control,” she advises.

headshotAbout the Author: Second-year journalism and French double major at Seattle University, TJ Spencer is originally from a small town in California, but Seattle stole her heart. In her free time, she enjoys writing, reading and showing off her embarrassing dance moves at cardio dance class. You can find her around Seattle photographing anything and everything, or in her bedroom practicing her French by talking to her roommate’s rabbit.

#LaurensRoadToRecovery: UCSD’s Intensive Family Therapy Program

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By Samira Zakkout, M.Ed./Ed.S., UCSD Eating Disorders Center for Treatment and Research


It’s very common for staff members at University of California San Diego Eating Disorders Center to have several conversations with family members and teens prior to them attending our week-long Intensive Family Therapy (IFT) program. 

Lauren Spencer and her mother, Tracy. Photo Credit: T.J. Spencer, Wild Shutterbug Photography

UCSD IFT program has a collaboration with Project Heal to offer assistance and services to individuals who are struggling with eating disorders. Once Project Heal notified Lauren Spencer and her family they were selected to receive a grant to attend the UCSD IFT program they contacted our staff directly. I remember my first conversation with Lauren and her mother, Tracy.

Lauren was struggling with completing her nutrition and eating disorder urges.  She was looking for support and wanted her family to be fully integrated in treatment.

I informed her family that some of the latest research in the eating disorders field points to potentially unprecedented levels of success when families become centrally involved in the treatment process. We provide parent(s) with an understanding and the tools necessary to successfully interact and manage their child with an eating disorder at home.

IFT takes place Monday through Friday and involves over 40+ hours of treatment over the course of the week. The program takes place monthly, with 3-6 families participating during each round. When Lauren attended the IFT program there were 4 other families and teens that she participated with. Having the extra support and assistance from other families who are in treatment can increase the positive outcomes.

Many families have reported they felt isolated and hadn’t met other families who had a child with an eating disorder. Thus, having a multi-family format fosters participation, support, and feedback. Additionally, the families often stay in contact long after the IFT week has ended.


Photo Credit: T.J. Spencer, Wild Shutterbug Photography

Lauren and her mother were together during the entire week-long program. Many teens reported they cannot remember the last time they were together with their family for 40+ hour in the same week. They participate in activities based on the neurobiology of eating disorders to have a better understanding of their internal thoughts and feelings, live meal coaching for 2 meals and 2 snacks/daily, psychoeducation by Dr. Walter Kaye and Dr. Emily Gray, psychiatric consultation, coping skills training, parent coaching groups, and behavioral contracting.


The behavioral contract is considered a “road map” to ensure that parents and children are successful in integrating and applying the skills and tools learned during the IFT week.

We encourage families to contact us after the IFT week to inform us how they are progressing and provide us feedback. One family participant stated, “We feel so much more confident in our abilities to help our daughter through this troubled time, and preserve our family. It helped reaffirm that the information we have been receiving is correct, and the best possible way to help our daughter. We are not afraid to parent her through this terrible disorder.

Our IFT clinicians feel honored to assist families and provide them with hands-on support and guidance. We are passionate about providing treatment that works and is effective! We are lucky to have gotten the opportunity to foster Lauren’s road to recovery and proud of her progress.



The Final Chapter: Reflections

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Seeing me. Photo Credit: T.J. Spencer, Wild Shutterbug Photography

It’s hard to believe it’s Christmas. Time has gone by so fast. When I reflect on the state of my being, the difference is profound. If you would have told me a year ago that today I would be at a healthy weight, that I wouldn’t be fighting with my Mom, my sisters, my own head, I wouldn’t have believed you. These things were inconceivable to me such a short time ago. It’s scary to look back and see I only understood myself after my disease destroyed me, but it’s an experience that has allowed me to know myself better, strengthen my relationships with family, and brought me to a place of peace.

“What I see in my reflection in the mirror makes me smile. Gone is the tattered spirit of a young life that held little self-esteem or confidence.”

You’ll find many layers going through the recovery process. It’s almost like peeling back each insecurity I carried on my shoulders.  What I learned in treatment is that there are many facets to my disease that kept me confused and sliding back into destructive thinking. Strategies incorporated and practiced at UCSD IFT program and continued work on communication skills with my family and therapist gave me the courage to keep working at my problems one at time until I climbed the mountain of obstacles my disease always puts in my way.

Together on solid ground. Photo Credit: T.J. Spencer, Wild Shutterbug Photography


Everything is different now. Every fragment of who I am, as well as every aspect of my daily life, has changed. This path through turbulent times has given me the ability to face whatever comes my way.

This year, I learned what I am truly capable of overcoming. Not only have I gained freedom from my eating disorder, but I have also been able to accept my diagnosis with a disease called Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension. For me, this diagnosis wasn’t the easiest. My father passed away from this disease almost eight years ago. Additionally, my grandfather had been diagnosed with this as well, not too much earlier than I was. Though treatments and procedures were quite difficult and new, having survived Anorexia, I knew acceptance was possible. I was equipped to handle the emotions that previously could have put me into a downward spiral.

Today, I am living with a level of peace one would not expect to come from a girl having gone through such serious things.  I do my best to help others heal who are struggling, and in turn, that continues to heal me.  My life has vastly changed in just a few months. I am happier, stronger, and braver than ever thought possible. Now, my priority is to help others in any way I can and I am truly thankful to be able to use these blogs to give back.

Always brave.

I encourage you to take a moment and be grateful for all you have. If you are recovering from an eating disorder, be thankful for that. If you’re struggling, be thankful you woke up this morning and have the ability to heal like I did.

If reading any of the #LaurensRoadToRecovery entries authored by me and my family have helped or educated one person, then sharing this deeply personal, and at times difficult journey has been worth every moment.

Peace and love,

Lauren Spencer




Flowers in her hair – hope in her heart. Photo Credit: T.J. Spencer, Wild Shutterbug Photography







Chapter 5: Orchestrate Your Life

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Credit: T.J. Spencer, Wild Shutterbug Photography

I would like to say that orchestrating my life after treatment was a very smooth transition, but it is really where the work began. As a musician, I have always understood the importance of structure and repetition in order to make a truly beautiful melody–I just never expected recovery would require the same discipline and practice.

People have misconceptions about treatment being the only place where you put in the work and then after that you’re magically fixed and ready to return to your home environment with the expectation of being the child your parents knew before your disease took hold.

The truth is, after treatment, there is still a lot of work to do.

Making progress in the confines of a treatment center was the easy part – even if I did not realize it at first. Implementing what I learned in treatment at home and school proved to be as difficult as treatment.What I learned about myself in treatment and the continued support of the people from Project HEAL, my family, and my therapist, is that I am not alone and I can thrive in environments that used to be a trigger for me.

One of the biggest lessons I learned in treatment is one of the simplest ones: it is okay to get help. Through the therapy I received in treatment, I learned that I suffer, like most people struggling with anorexia, from high anxiety and depression. My psychiatrist at the treatment center prescribed a low dose of Lexapro to help me combat my anxiety around eating. What I did not expect, however, was this huge dark cloud that I did not realize I was living under was lifted soon after I started taking the medication.

While I did not notice the effects immediately, I felt so empowered when I was placed in a high stress situation and was not consumed with anxiety. I could think clearly and recall the tools I learned in treatment to manage my symptoms.

From there, it took off. We established a contract in treatment that my parents and I stuck to and continue to stick to today. There are strict, yet simple, guidelines for all of us to deal with my eating disorder. This structure leaves no gray areas in how things are done, and therefore, takes the anxiety and stress out of mealtimes and allows me to trust my parents with implementing my treatment.

Credit: T.J. Spencer, Wild Shutterbug Photography

The amount of trust and communication this has built between me and my family members has been the best effect of treatment and has spilled over into every aspect of my life. I have finally been able to trust and communicate with myself and with that, I have been able to reconnect with the things that make me unique as a person – like my ability to interpret and play music.

The joy I have playing now surpasses anything music has ever given me before treatment.

I can be light and funny and goof around with my sister now. I can go out with my friends and participate in school events. I never cared about those things before. I can take care of myself and clearly recognize what I need and want. I can be happy.

We all have a unique path in this life, and the abilities to orchestrate our dreams lies within us all. Eating disorders can cut you off from these truths about ourselves, but what I want you to know is that you can find it again…there is help and a solution. You never have to do this alone.

It is my hope that my story will be heard by those who need to hear it in a way they never have before and that they find a way to trust my words. And through this a way to orchestrate their own lives into recovery….listen to the music.

Credit: T.J. Spencer, Wild Shutterbug Photography






Chapter 4: What I Learned As a Father On My Daughter’s ED Journey

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Credit: T.J. Spencer, Wild Shutterbug Photography

It was difficult for me to become a father. I had no experience in raising children and then suddenly I had two teenagers, who had lost their father a few years before, looking up to me.

As I fell in love with these articulate, sweet girls I did my best to do what was right for them. T.J. was immediately trusting and eager for a relationship with me. Lauren was not as easy. She did not trust me. Did not trust that I wouldn’t leave them. It took time and patience to get her to open her heart to me. But when she did it was absolute. I had claimed these girls and they claimed me…such a gift.  I did not have normal parental instincts when it came to their emotional wellbeing, and when Lauren really began to struggle, I was at a loss with what I could do to help.

I was also scared to death. I made many mistakes.One of such mistakes was attempting to apply logic, rather than understanding.

Before Lauren received treatment, we all had different ideas of why Lauren had an eating disorder. Because I am so logical, I believed that it was an issue of control for her. But what we learned from treatment, however, was eating disorders do not stem from a psychological need for control but rather is a brain disorder that alters their response to food.

I had so many questions and no answers when we began dealing with this overwhelming situation. I have had some of those questions answered.

To hopefully help another father who is struggling to understand eating disorders, I have answered some of the questions that I think will help.

What has been the most difficult part of supporting your daughter’s recovery?

It was difficult to see her so upset and struggling, while also watching how upset it made her mother and how desperately she was searching for answers. Family dinners were either a total war zone or complete silence as I struggled to not comment on the amount of food she was or wasn’t eating. I thought that if she simply ate, all of this could be solved. I didn’t understand that she did not have control over her eating disorder.

What advice would you give another father of a loved one with an eating disorder?

Gather all of the information you can before you take action. Acting without knowledge is when you will make the worst mistakes. I remember telling her mother that maybe we should just get her a gym membership so that she could workout instead of restricting, however, we learned in treatment that the metabolism of an anorexic is much faster than normal and that for them to become weight restored, they need to have a high calorie intake that exercise would impede. The most important thing, however, is to be involved. Not being Lauren’s biological parent made it easy for me to take a back seat and let her mother handle this – but to beat an eating disorder, it takes the whole family being educated and providing an environment that she can properly recover in. That means being on the same page and no arguing. Period.herb-and-lauren

What has been the most helpful for your family to support Lauren’s recovery?

Finding Project HEAL, and through them, UCSD Intensive Family Treatment. It changed our lives. There are only so many answers you can Google. Only so many therapists a small town can provide. You need people who are educated and have research and data behind them when it comes to dealing with eating disorders. The support systems we gained through the other families attending treatment was also invaluable. It really helped to have other parents who understood exactly what we were going through. It is not only comforting for our daughters to know that they are not alone, but for us as well.


What misconceptions did you have or what mistakes did you make that you learned from during treatment?

I made the mistake of thinking we could handle this ourselves or that a therapist could fix this. I didn’t believe she needed treatment at first, but after learning more about the biological aspects of this disease, I now know that she could not continue to recover without treatment.

Life has changed so much in a few short months since treatment. We are now able to enjoy outings like baseball games and going to the movies once again. Family meals are now looked forward to and enjoyed. Laughter is heard more often than ever before.

This disease tore our family apart, but treatment put us back together again.

I encourage fathers to put aside our own logic and what we think works and accept what is presented in treatment. Be present, compassionate and engaged in the process. Removing the internal struggle and tension was such a relief. For Lauren. For me. For the wholherb-seattlee family. Knowing exactly what to do and what not to do, satisfied my logical side and helped me to gauge effective responses. Your support and understanding will move mountains.

Those girls looking up to me are a gift from God. I can see the trust in their eyes, and it’s a feeling I never even knew existed. Project HEAL truly saved this family that has become everything to me.




Click here and make a donation to Project HEAL’s Treatment Grant Fund, which will help individuals just like Lauren.








Chapter 3: My Sister’s Eating Disorder

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lauren-tj-3One of the hardest parts of leaving for college was having to move away from my best friend: my little sister, Lauren. I was going to miss our random dance parties, Netflix marathons and going to our favorite restaurant.

What I didn’t realize, however, was how much she was going to miss me and the toll my absence would take on her.

After I left for my first quarter at school, my sister’s eating disorder rapidly progressed. I came home for Christmas and my best friend just wasn’t the same. She looked so frail and the light inside of her was gone. The person I waited months to see was no longer really there.

There weren’t any dance parties or Netflix marathons, nor did we eat at our favorite restaurant or go out for ice cream.

I watched as she locked herself away in our room everyday while my mother begged for her to just take a couple bites of her dinner or to come watch a movie with us.

I watched as this disease took away my sister and tore apart my family. We no longer were a team. In between the arguments over every meal with my sister, we argued with each other over how to deal with this. None of us knew what to do and we took out our frustrations on each other.

We were providing the perfect environment to perpetuate an eating disorder.

img_0156What we now realize after my sister’s treatment is that we play a direct role in her recovery. We must work every day to make sure that we are all on the same page and that we provide an environment in which Lauren can thrive in.

Thanks to a grant from Project HEAL, UCSD Intensive Family Treatment, and the support of our family – Lauren is now on the road to recovery.

My sister and I are now closer than ever and I get to watch her as she rediscovers her love of music. Our random dance parties are crazier than ever and we’ve watched way too much Grey’s Anatomy.

I feel so blessed to be able to have a wonderful relationship with my sister again.

I also had the opportunity to photograph the pictures featured in this campaign and though Lauren has been featured in my photographs since I began doing photography, I have never seen her so genuinely happy and confident as she does in these photographs.

Project HEAL provides lifesaving grants to recipients who might not ever be able to afford treatment. My sister was one of them… her life like so many others can be saved. We are asking the world to acknowledge eating disorders. And to donate to help fund more treatment grants. My sister is worth it and so is every other person suffering from an eating disorder.



Click here and make a donation to our treatment grant fund, which will help individuals just like Lauren.



Chapter 2: A Mother’s Love

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A mother’s love is most often expressed through her cooking. She spends time everyday planning and cooking what she knows her family will enjoy. She plans special meals to celebrate birthday’s and achievements. Her favorite times of the year are fall and winter because she gets to make warm and cozy baked goods for those rainy days.

But then one day your son or daughter may start rejecting your meal all together. Not because they didn’t like it – it might have even been their favorite – but because they have gradually fallen into the dangerous grip of an eating disorder.

_dsc9654-1It didn’t happen all at once for us. It started with “I don’t feel like having dessert today” or “I’m not hungry tonight” to eventually arguing over every meal every single day.

It was watching her become more and more distant. It was watching her struggle with her confidence and self-esteem. It was watching her become someone I didn’t know.It was me feeling hopeless and helpless. It was me begging her to eat, then negotiating, then failing to force her to eat through loud words and tear streaked cheeks.

She needed help.
I needed help.

How could I not notice this? How did I not see my daughter’s eating disorder lurking behind every rejected meal?

I spent hours searching online for answers – I wasn’t even sure I’d find. I tirelessly looked for therapists and treatments centers desperately trying to find something to build my daughter back up again.

The worst part, however, was realizing that it would take money I did not have to save my baby. A struggle I know so many families unfortunately face.

During my research, I came across Project HEAL. I discovered that Project HEAL funds treatment grants for those dealing with eating disorders who cannot afford or get access to the life-saving help they so desperately need. I knew they received an overwhelming amount of applications, but I was hopeful for a miracle  and willing to try anything.

I filled out the application and by the grace of God and the wonderful people at Project HEAL, my daughter was awarded a grant for Intensive Family Treatment at UCSD.

While I immediately realized what a blessing this was, it didn’t sink in how life-changing this experience would be for us as a family.

The advantage to Intensive Family Treatment is that the whole family gets to take part in the process, which allows the family to learn about eating disorders in depth and the crucial role each member can play in helping their loved one recover. This treatment type also prevents those struggling to returning to the same environment they were previously in. Together as a family, we worked to make changes that reassured Lauren she was not alone on her recovery journey._dsc9441

After going through the rigorous days of treatment at UCSD, we returned home empowered with so many tools and so much knowledge to help our daughter recover. Allowing us to be the greatest support system we didn’t even know we had the strength to be.

Day by day we utilized what we learned and I began to see a light in my daughter again. I finally began to hear the sounds of piano keys and guitars strumming as she reconnected with her love of music. She was present at family movie nights again and I watched as her friendship with her sister began to rekindle.

What I didn’t expect after treatment, however, was her becoming the best self she could possibly be. Most families go into treatment wishing they had their child “back.” What they often don’t realize is that that old child didn’t feel like they were enough.

I watched my daughter blossom into someone who was passionate about life. She longed to spend time with our family, even if it was just a short car ride to the grocery store or running errands. She began to excel in school and learned to love how she looked in the clothing she wore. I saw a smile on her face and a light in her eyes that I had never seen before.



Hearing her laugh is one of the sounds I never knew I would appreciate hearing so much.

Treatment saved my daughter and gave her the power to not be defined by her disorder. She is so much more than that – she is a daughter, a sister, a student, a musician and a fighter.




Click here and make a donation to our treatment grant fund, which will help individuals just like Lauren.



Chapter 1: My Journey to Recovery

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I can recall two times so far in my young life when I felt an internal shift inside. Some would say I was at a crossroads. I was – and I knew either path would alter my life forever.

My name is Lauren. I’m 16 years old. And this is my story of how I came to that crossroads, and which path I bravely chose to go down. One path was anorexia – continuing to restrict my food intake as a way of coping with my emotions. The other path, the one I am currently on, is recovery._dsc9567

The quote, “The light in me recognizes the light in you,” is associated with the word, Namaste. The idea of having  others recognize the light inside yourself that you may not see is necessary was essential for me in recovery. I was fortunate enough to receive a lifesaving grant from Project HEAL to attend the University of California at San Diego Intensive Family Treatment (UCSD IFT) program last July.

This program gave me the opportunity to connect and relate with four other girls who were walking the same empowering path of recovery, alongside their families.

This was vital and crucial in my recovery. It gave me a sense of relief that I was not alone in my struggles. It also helped educate my family about eating disorders, and how to best support me on this path to recovery. The parents in the group developed a support team which, in turn, aided my recovery tremendously.

The turning point in my recovery was being educated on the biological aspect of my disease. Up until that point, I blamed the  disorder on myself and that I had made a conscious decision to restrict. During one of our group sessions in treatment, Walter Kaye, neurobiologist and UCSD IFT program director, explained that anorexia is a brain disorder.  

That new outlook showed me that I couldn’t just one day quit restricting; it was out of my control. As scary as that fact may seem, it was comforting to me. It made me believe that “my way” of fixing this wasn’t going to work, and that I must rely on tools learned in the IFT to reprogram my brain to have a positive response to food. Rather than associating food with anxiety and risk, knowing the biological aspect of this disease assured me that recovery is possible if I trusted in the program.

It didn’t take long in the program before I craved the freedom from the eating disorder that I so desperately needed. I have only been out of IFT for 3 months, and have already achieved that freedom I hadn’t even known I yearned for.

It brings me back to that same quote again that “The light in me recognizes the light in you.” Because alone, our light can sometimes be very dim. Together, our light can shine like the sun.

My hope is that we may all bask in this light that replenishes our spirits and hope for a brighter tomorrow. Project HEAL helped light a torch in me to choose that path of recovery, and surrounded me with an indestructible support system,. All  which happen to be  undoubtedly stronger than my disease._dsc0197

Recovery is possible. There is a solution. I hope you will walk with me on this journey.

Join Lauren on her journey to recovery by following #LaurensRoadToRecovery on all of our social platforms. Each week our blog will feature a personal, intimate look into Lauren’s recovery journey from different points of view – her family, Lauren, and others.

Project HEAL is on this journey with Lauren and her family, will you join us?