Battling anorexia: a conversation with Jane Kleeb

March 15, 2024, 11 a.m. ·

Jane Kleeb
Jane Kleeb (Nebraska Democratic Party photo)

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This page contains references to themes of eating disorders, body dysmorphia and recovery which some individuals may find distressing.

Jane Kleeb is a name most Nebraskans recognize for her work with “Bold Nebraska” to prevent TransCanada from building the Keystone XL oil pipeline through the state.  But as a teenager, Kleeb was nearly stopped by anorexia, telling Nebraska Public Media News that at age 15 she weighed only 70 pounds.

DALE JOHNSON: Anorexia. What images, feelings come back when you hear that word?

JANE KLEEB: It's kind of a gut punch. And immediately as you can already hear my voice brings back a lot of pain. I know what anorexia did to me for so many years and what it did to my family. But there's also a huge sense of pride in my recovery.

JOHNSON: Your eight year battle with anorexia started with dieting in the sixth grade?

KLEEB: I was at our community pool one day in the summer, I grew up in Florida, so we kind of lived at the pool. And I was jumping off the diving board, and a group of my friends, right, not just strangers, a group of my friends screamed, "Shamu!" which for folks who don't know anything about Florida, Shamu, was a famous killer whale. And it broke me, you know, I called up my grandpa to come pick me up. And that day, I decided I was going to go on a diet.

JOHNSON: What happened when you were 15?

KLEEB: At 15, I essentially was in the ICU unit. I remember distinctly looking over to my mom and sister's faces and just crashing. Right, my heart, like it's the biggest muscle and once your body doesn't have fat, your body starts to eat on muscles for survival. My heart gave out. That was one of several moments in my kind of path to recovery that shipped me to realization that I was in need of serious help.

JOHNSON: You dropped to 70 pounds at the age of 15.

KLEEB: I did. You know, now that seems like unthinkable. But my entire world was focused around food. You know, I tried to avoid anything to do with food.

JOHNSON: Did you see yourself as overweight? Or were you convinced by others that you were overweight?

KLEEB: In sixth grade, I definitely was overweight. When I was so in the throws of my eating disorder. I still felt fat. And for people who were to hug me and feel my bones, you don't understand how that can be reality. But one of the best exercises that the Renfrew Center, put me through, that was a inpatient residential treatment facility I went to, they had a draw on like size paper, what we thought our body looks like. And then they had us lay down on that large piece of paper and actually outlined our body. And that was the first time that I saw how skinny I was.

JOHNSON: Jane, I read where you said, "There were times when community service literally kept me alive." Take me into that statement.

KLEEB: When I was struggling and isolating myself, because of my eating disorder, the only thing that helped bring happiness was when I was serving other people. So when I was younger, that was mostly Habitat for Humanity, or working at soup kitchens for unhoused folks. And as I got older, I started to volunteer on all sorts of issue areas, like kids that had literacy and reading issues. But I felt like I was important to somebody, that my life had larger meaning than my eating disorder. When I was doing community service, folks, at the soup kitchen, didn't know all of that other stuff. And I was able to connect with people on like a really human and really loving way. So without community service, and of course, without my long kind of treatment plan. There's absolutely no question that I would not be here today.

JOHNSON: Jane, I don't want let time get away without giving you an opportunity to talk a little bit about the film, Thin, the 2006 documentary that you were involved in.

KLEEB: I remember my mom, actually, because I wasn't living in Florida at the time, I was living in Philly. I was working, if you can believe this, I started to work as the Foundation Director for the eating disorder facility that I went to as a young person that saved my life. In that role, the opportunity to help a filmmaker, the documentary film of Thin came up. The head of the Renfrew Center asked if I would be the lead consultant for that film. Because I knew what it's like, obviously to be in treatment, but I also knew the family side of things. And I remember that we were going to be filming down at the Florida Renfrew facility and my mom dropping me off and you know, she just started crying, as I did, because I was walking through those doors as a person in full recovery. And I knew that I was going to see myself in so many of the women and girls that were in that facility. You know, there's been lots of movies and documentaries about eating disorders. I think that Thin is one of the best portrayals because it really gives you kind of a raw view of what women and girls are going through, but also what those families are going through.

JOHNSON: You're healthy? Everything is good for you these days?

KLEEB: I am. I have three amazing girls, a loving, supportive husband, and, you know, I now enjoy cooking and I'm not terrified to eat a cheeseburger. You know, one of these days I'm going to create a cookbook for people in recovery. But yes. I'm happy, strong and have a very healthy relationship with my body and food.

JOHNSON: Jane Kleeb joining me on Nebraska Public Media. I'm Dale Johnson.