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Meet Dena Larsen Gazeley of All Bodies Consulting

Today we’d like to introduce you to Dena Larsen Gazeley.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
The beginning of the end, which ironically, was the beginning of the beginning, began in 2010. At the age of 38, I was three things- a wife, a mother and a group fitness instructor.

One October morning, I woke and my body started to swell. Nine pounds of weight gain the first week, twelve pounds the next. I rushed to the doctor, demanding answers to why; why, despite my further restricting and increased exercise, why was I continuing to gain weight? By the third week, kidney and liver readings were altered, migraines and blood pressure on the rise. By the eve of my 39th birthday, I was hospitalized, declining towards organ failure.

Days and over ten different doctors later, all searching for reasons as to why this “healthy” body was failing, there were no organic answers. On the fourth day, the hospital psychiatrist came in, and we chatted, I had no reservation in sharing the years of struggle with depression and anxiety. It was forty-five minutes into our conversation when I was shocked at his declaration,

“You have a severe eating disorder, and you need to go, inpatient, tomorrow.” “What?!” I exclaimed, “I just told you, yes, I’ve been anorexic, and yes, I’ve been bulimic, but I TOLD you, I have it all under control.”

It was shortly thereafter that I had to make one of the most difficult decisions of my life. To leave my four little babies, ages 2, 4, 7 and 9, and enter inpatient stay at the Rosewood Center for Eating Disorders. I wasn’t “that” sick, and I did not look like I had an eating disorder. But I knew, in order to be there, to be alive, for my children, I had to go.

Here begins life I never knew possible. After ten weeks of eating disorder treatment in Wickenburg, Arizona, I was given an irreplaceable gift- I was no longer alone. I finally understood I was not the only one in the whole wide world engaging in disordered eating and compulsive exercise behaviors. I began to understand, the way I had been living life for thirty years, from the age of 8 to 38, was survival- the cycles of binge eating disorder, compulsive eating, chronic restricting, diet after diet, program after program- and it was literally killing me.

I began to identify, through the stories of others, my food and exercise behaviors were only symptoms of what could be seen- it was what was underneath that was keeping me so sick. The constant need for control, the drive for perfectionism, the needlessness, wantlessness, using anger as fuel, the compulsion, obsession, anxiety, and depression. I had accepted early on, that’s just who I was- I was angry and controlling and a perfectionist. But I began to understand, that was not the authentic me, not as a child, teen, adult, or as a mom- that’s who I had become.

Somewhere along the way, that little girl inside of me made up that she had to be those things, in order to survive. It is with that little girl, that is where the story begins. She was outgoing and excited, creative and a pleaser. And as far back as she can remember, she either felt as if she was “too much” or “not enough.” By the age of eight, there was the emptiness, this hole, in the pit of her tummy, and she used food to try and fill this void. Coming home from the school bus, eating bowl after bowl, package after package, never being able to get physically full. She hid containers and empty wrappers- eating these large amounts of food was not how she wanted to engage, but she didn’t know any different. And she didn’t know why. In the ’70s and ’80s, there wasn’t the mental health awareness there is today. No one discussed eating disorders, and Binge Eating Disorder (BED) wasn’t even classified until 2012. She was suffering, and the most difficult part, she was alone. She made up early, and she clung on to it fiercely, she was broken, and this was her cross to bear.

By the age of twenty-one, after graduation from the University of Southern California and at the height of my binge eating disorder, now a young woman, I began to count grams. And for the first time in my life, the one thing that I was never able to control, my body, started to change. And what began as a celebration for the unattainable weight loss quickly escalated into, too much. Left undetected and untreated, my eating disorder simply swung from binge eating and compulsive eating to anorexia.

Two years later, no longer maintaining the ability to restrict, I swung to bulimia. And a few years after that, I found my new magic formula; I was able to eat as much as I wanted, as long as I exercised X amount. Without awareness, I was now using my role as a group fitness instructor to purge my calories. And as I cycled between extreme binging, restricting and weird food rules, combinations and rituals, my exercise had to increase to maintain this fallacy of control.

My biggest fear throughout those next ten years, through four pregnancies and four babies, was the fear of gaining weight. Consumed with thoughts of food and exercise, every waking minute was spent obsessing on how to lose. Every morning, afternoon and evening my worth was measured by the same, my mood reflecting the direction of the number on the scale. My life was a constant pursuit of perfectionism- and not just for me. I now had a husband and four little children that also had to fit my definition of “good enough.”

My mind read constant static, chaos, and confusion. I had no idea what it meant to be present, to be still, to be joyful. I only knew how to mentally survive. But along with that eating disorder diagnosis came an entirely new outlook on life. Those first days were the hardest and the darkest, and in order to live differently, everything had to be stripped away as I began the journey of self-trust.

Early on, the psychiatrist told me, “You will never teach group fitness again, it’s like an alcoholic working in a bar.”  In order to recover, I had to be willing to give up the one thing I was truly good at. I was the instructor, the best, the hardest, the fastest. I lived and breathed the, “no pain, no gain,” philosophy. I preached that to myself, and I preached that to you. I, you, we were defined by our last workout. Fitness had given me the ability to disconnect, the music, the movement, loud and hard enough to quiet the thoughts of planning my next meal or binge or restriction in my head.

In recovery, I learned how, how to slow down and find value in the walk around the block, a bike ride with the kids, a hike on a spring day. I learned that the physical was only one of the four pillars of fitness and movement, and I began to explore the mental, the emotional and the spiritual. I learned to feel the sun and watch it set. I saw desert flowers for the first time- there was space in my head and moments of gratitude for the beauty that was around me, not based on numbers or calories or sizes or pounds.

One of my earliest memories was playing with my kids on the swing and for a few moments feeling nothing but joy, and I thought, “Is this what recovery is?” Without noise, and condemnation and anger. And it was! Over the years, those moments without the eating disorder voice turned to minutes, which turned to hours and eventually days. I was discovering life, recovered. And I was not the only one benefiting from this new life. My four children, who had been subject to the intensity and madness that is life with a family member living in addiction, also experienced change.

By 2, 4, 7 and 9, their lives had already been tainted by this need for perfection and the demand “to do.” This had to be undone, and it had to start with me. I had to take responsibility for a disease I didn’t choose, for a way of life I only knew, and I had to intentionally make this decision, each and every day. But I couldn’t do that alone. It takes a village, and I had a team. Therapists, dietitians, a Recovery Coach, accountability partners, 12 step groups, a connection with my Higher Power; art and music and movement in moderation; intentional reading, self-care, time outs.

I had to learn to rest, and I had to learn to let others in. I had to really, really understand and accept, at 38 years of age, I did not know what was best for me, and before I could begin to trust myself in this new way of life, I had to allow others to do for me. I also had to learn to let go, to let go of the what should have been, and instead trust in, not what I planned, not what I wanted, but more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. As my recovery unfolded, I began to notice a trickle effect onto others. I changed. My children changed.

As I gave grace to myself, so did they. As I forgave myself, we began to ask for and to forgive one another. And as I began to search for self-acceptance, a love for what my body can do, rather than how it looks on the outside, so did they. They often have to model for me, to remind me, of the recovery lessons I was learning, and then trying to teach them.

Just a few Christmases ago, hanging ornaments from the top of a ladder, a porcelain mouse my late grandmother had given me, having been displayed for over 40 years, came crashing to the ground.  Tears sprung up and quickly came that familiar feeling of rage, the fallacy of power behind blame and wrath. But what beat me to releasing those emotions, in that moment of pause that had recently replaced extreme reaction, was a little face, innocently telling me, it’s ok. That it can be fixed or replaced, and sorry, Mom, it was an accident.  Christmas was still Christmas. My family was still safe and together. And instead of allowing a moment of breakage to ruin a night of celebration, I was able to acknowledge the sadness, the disappointment, and then choose joy and togetherness.

These are now the life lessons I take outside of the home. Recovery is not a gift that was given just to me, just to my family. In maintaining eight years of recovery, and now considering my eating disorder recovered, I had to intentionally live recovery in all areas of my life.

As a woman, I balance life with self-care.  As a mom, I understand my four kiddos, now ages 17, 15, 12 and 10, are also walking their own journeys, with their own challenges, decisions, and motivations. As an educator, I have found my passion in my ability to connect with students, by being honest and authentic. Becoming an Arizona Certified Teacher in 2017, I have been gifted with space to create lessons on self-love, self-acceptance, body positivity and treatment of others.

From 5th grade through 12th grade, my interactive classroom lessons have engaged hundreds of students with the message, you are important, you are worthy, you are precious and invaluable- you are enough. Having lived in my disorder from such a young age and for so many years, this ability to share and connect has extended from children to teens, to adults, men, and women, and to parents, who understand the pressure of having to be perfect.

Over 30,000 people in the United States alone are suffering with eating disorders. Every 62 minutes, someone is losing their life directly to the obsession and compulsion with dieting, restricting, binging, purging, compulsive exercise. (https://anad.org/education-and-awareness/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics/)

What may begin as a healthy lifestyle or clean eating, a “program” for a child to lose a few pounds or to increase their strength and athletic performance, can quickly escalate from a tool for control to controlling that person. Eating disorders affect everyone, every gender, every age, every ethnicity, race, and socioeconomic class. We have been raised in a culture that defines goodness as thinness, and if your body falls either under or over the BMI ideals of perfection, the pressure to conform, configure, to cut out, suck away, inject in or modify, is relentless.

The body positive and fat-positive movements are rising in presence, yet, as a society, we continue to feel not good enough in these bodies we live in. My recovery from eating disorders has given me the foundation to fight that message. I have had to loop back almost 40 years to that little girl who had already made up by the age of eight that she wasn’t “good enough.” And I’ve had to come to terms that’s what we, as a society, are doing to our kids.

Every diet program, weight loss advertisement, food labeling as good vs. bad, scales at home, at school, this obsession with our weight- calories, carbs, protein, grams, ounces, macros- every decision we make as parents to criticize our bodies and model self-hate for our kids- that is what is continuing this cycle of shame and lack of acceptance. It is through my recovery experience, that by living self-acceptance, by declaring imperfection as good enough, by asking for help and at times borrowing your hope when mine felt momentarily unattainable, that’s how we bring change. That’s how we challenge this cultural message of having to fit into a narrow definition to find happiness. It begins with us, and it begins with change.

In 2018, I felt the nudge to link my eating disorder and body image advocacy work with my professional path. Building upon my experience from the past seven years, traveling nationwide to present to schools, treatment centers, recovery groups and lobbying Capitol Hill in 2015 and 2017 for change in legislation to support eating disorder treatment and insurance coverage, my focus has narrowed to how I can support my Arizona community.

With my company, All Bodies Consulting, I have partnered with Eduprize Charter School and East Valley public school districts to present and share with their students, you are not alone, and there is hope for change. Casteel High School has embraced this message, allowing All Bodies Consulting the opportunity to present two-hour interactive lessons to every 7th grade Learning Connection and Career student and every 10th-grade Health student.  I applaud our administration, teachers and staff for recognizing the value, the critical importance of this conversation, and having the willingness to invite all students into this space.

At Sossaman Middle School, we worked with all Physical Education and Dance students, using movement through the lesson to celebrate what our bodies do for us. Adults, through private Body Positive Experience workshop, are questioning the societal standards and expectations that we have been brainwashed with, as have our parents and their parents before them and are declaring no more- no more diets or punishments, we are making a decision to reject the messages of advertisers or fitness companies who make billions on our feelings of being not good enough.

Change is happening. It is happening in our communities, in our schools, in our relationships with others and within ourselves. We are seeing a representation of all bodies, engaging in all forms of activity and adventure. One of the greatest gifts of my recovery has been the ability to return to fitness instruction. Four years after that psychiatrist told me I would, “Never teach again,” I returned to what I loved. Only I had to do it differently.

Recovery was not just about an absence of behaviors. It was not just attending meetings or classes or keeping up with appointments. I had to make the decision to talk the talk and walk the walk. I had to rewire those fitness messages, for whatever I was telling myself, the messages of no pain, no gain, were directly impacting those around me. And I now understood, those messages harm, they destroy and ultimately, they kill, our minds, our bodies, our souls.

As a group fitness instructor, I have learned to teach through gratitude. Every class is focused on what our bodies do for us, this is where we find our strength and motivation. We refuse to move to gain permission to eat, we will not be shamed for enjoying a birthday or Thanksgiving or for simply eating dinner. We move because we have been gifted with the ability to do so.

We exercise our biceps and triceps and quads and glutes because we feel strong in spirit and ability. We come together in space to share our energy and our motivation because we believe in the power of community, we believe in our bodies, and through movement, we are able to celebrate, alongside one another. It is important we find safe places that build us up as we begin this journey towards self-acceptance and self-love. Find a tribe, a village, a community that allows imperfection and preaches self-acceptance- for all you are.

Mountainside Fitness has allowed and promoted the space for body celebration classes.  This Arizona company has promoted the instruction and certification of BloomFit Body Positive Fitness Coaches. Throughout Mountainside, you can find instructors who come in all shapes and sizes, challenging, motivating, and sharing with you, you are good enough. And for those outside of Arizona, companies such as SuperFit Hero and their Body Positive Fitness Finder can help you find instructors, groups and fitness instructors committed to this change, from the inside out.

And if you can’t find it, you create it. You start with you. We have resources right here in Arizona that will walk this journey beside you. Serving as the Lead Educator for Ophelia’s Place, non-profit organization in downtown Gilbert, I invite you to experience our free support groups, designed for individuals, families and loved ones, focusing on eating disorder, disordered eating, body image, health at every size, self-care and so much more.

My story is not unique. If you do not relate personally to disordered eating or negative body image, you most likely know of someone who struggles. Together we can create change in our community and within our society. But not until we look within and dissect those messages our culture has so deeply ingrained. We need to make the decision, from our social media community to our communication with our children, to our eagerness for weight loss- it’s time to say, no more.

This is my life, this is my body. I will find peace, and joy and acceptance. And it will start with me. Through my work, through my story and through my teaching, my deepest wish is that one person reading this piece feel not alone. And that by knowing you are not alone, you believe, if only for a moment, that may turn into a minute and then an hour and then a day, that hope, and change, is possible.

Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about All Bodies Consulting – what should we know?
All Bodies Consulting is an educational service, I provide eating disorder education, body positive awareness, and self-care tools to students and adults.

Through group presentation, my lessons are tailored to the audience, including PowerPoint, media, literature, art, music, journaling, interpersonal work, and movement. I partner with private, charter and public schools to create classroom or group lessons. I also plan and execute student and adult private workshops. I provide public presentation on any topic related to my story, that may provide hope for change to a group or organization.

Our next workshops will be held in Gilbert, Arizona, The Body Positive Experience for Parents/Educators/Caretakers in April, and The Body Positive Experience for Children, ages 12 to 17, in May.

I am also Lead Educator for Ophelia’s Place, nonprofit eating disorder, disordered eating and body image support organization. With offices in Gilbert, Arizona and Liverpool, New York, we provide free support groups for those struggling, for their loved ones and family members, as well as assisting our community in treatment connection.

I am a believer in Recovered Fitness. As a BloomFit Body Positive Fitness Coach, I am committed to changing the definition of fitness from the inside out. Through my classes at Mountainside Fitness, we are creating safe space for all bodies, and equally celebrating the importance of the four pillars of fitness, the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.

I continue to advocate, travel and speak with Rosewood Center for Eating Disorders alumni program, Operation RecoverED-
https://www.rosewoodranch.com/rosewoods-operation-recovered-alumni-program-works-local-mothers-raise-awareness/

I am an Arizona Certified Teacher. I both substitute teach and provide a group presentation at Eduprize Charter School and Casteel High School.

I am proudly partnered with SuperFit Hero Positive Body Image Fitness Finder, located here –
https://superfithero.com/blogs/superfithero_trainers/all-bodies-consulting

My story has been shared with People.com, here-
https://people.com/bodies/woman-battled-eating-disorder-for-30-years-four-pregnancies/

I have been featured on podcast, Why Arizona-
http://whyarizonapodcast.libsyn.com/overcoming-an-eating-disorder-with-dena-larsen-gazeley-why-arizona-podcast

I provide interview and insight specific to pregnancy and motherhood while battling eating disorders-
https://www.thebump.com/a/pregnant-with-eating-disorder-recovery

Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role?
-Shannon Hershkowitz, Rosewood Center for Eating Disorders Recovery Coach, AZ.

-Rosewood Center for Eating Disorders, inpatient, partial inpatient and intensive outpatient program in Wickenburg and Tempe AZ.

-Ophelia’s Place, non profit organization, offering eating disorder, disordered eating and body dissatisfaction support and connection to treatment, Gilbert, AZ and Liverpool, NY.

-Celebrate Recovery, international 12 steps biblically based group that supports all hurts, habits, and hangups.

-Shelby Lawson and BloomFit Body Positive Fitness Coach certification, AZ.

-Ashley Law and Speak Up in Buttercup, AZ.

-Casteel High School, Sossaman Middle School, Eduprize Charter School, Queen Creek, their teachers, counselors, and students.

-Mountainside Fitness and their willingness to explore space for all bodies within the fitness industry.

-Every therapist, dietitian, and doctor who has supported me through therapeutic intervention, beginning with that “crazy” psychiatrist, Dr. Daniel Merrill, at Mercy Gilbert, who provided the first and only eating disorder diagnosis after a thirty-year battle.

-My accountability team, others diagnosed with eating disorders who walk beside me daily, offering support understanding and always reminding me, we are not alone. My friends and family who loved me before loved me through, and continue to love me, today. My four babies, Dominic, Carson, Jaida, and Davin, for the lessons they continue to teach me and all the love and support they provide me.

-My fiancé, Jon DeZeeuw, who picked up broken pieces and stood beside me as we put the puzzle back together, piece by piece.

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