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National Eating Disorder Awareness Week: A Psychologist Who Recovered from EDs

National Eating Disorder Awareness week seemed like an ideal time for me to write this blog. Back in the early 1990s I was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa. I was 79 pounds and on the edge of existence. I knew I was too thin, but I liked it. I was the clinical supervisor of a large social service agency in California, and there I was, suffering from an ED. I had dabbled in Bulimia in my late teens, and had been a compulsive, emotional eater in my childhood. In fact, at age 12 I weighed 187 pounds. I know what I weighed because one Saturday that Summer my Uncle took me, my sisters, and cousins to Keansburg, NJ where there was a performer on the boardwalk who would guess your weight. If he got it wrong you won a prize. Well in my case, he got it wrong--way wrong. I did not look my weight. When I stepped on the scale there were gasps from the crowd and triumphant laughs from my relatives. I fooled him and I won a prize.

By age 20, I weighed over 200 pounds. I cannot say how much over 200 because I was too embarrassed to get on a scale after I saw that number. For a few years (very few), I adopted a healthy lifestyle and began exercising and eating healthy. But then at age 24, my beloved first husband died of a rare form of leukemia. My life as I knew it was over. I was devastated. I spent some time healing and eventually met someone who I planned to spend my life with. I was still doing well with food and exercise, had graduated from college and was trying to decide if I still wanted to go to graduate school and become a psychologist. It had been my dream, but my boyfriend (who was the son of a prominent psychologist) was not in support and sadly the relationship became emotionally and then physically abusive. I knew I had to leave and finally did.

I was heartbroken and became afraid of relationships. I relocated to San Francisco where I had a fantastic job and a wonderful career. I lived alone after being booted from a roommate situation where I was kicked out because I was “too quiet.” I had a great apartment in the heart of the City and loved my work. I had returned to school and was completing my PhD in Psychology. But I had started restricting and my weight starting slipping. Finally, my supervisor, who recovered from an ED herself, confronted me about my weight and my ED. I had been in denial and was shocked but I promised I would do something. Of course, I did not. She confronted me again, and I had no choice. By this time, I was cold all of the time (which the cool climate of San Francisco did not help), my hair was falling out, and I hadn’t had my period in years. I sought treatment at a new hospital outpatient program. I was paired up with a Registered Dietitian who worked with me on my diet and exercise regimens.

The Program was experimental and did not involve therapy. I was threatened all of the time with hospitalization though. But was determined to stay out of the hospital. I had been walking miles and miles every day (my job involved traveling to different sites in the City). Although I wanted to get better and recover, I was absolutely terrified. I was being asked to eat new foods in quantities I was afraid of and was not supposed to exercise or walk as much as I had been. I had spent 15 years in Freudian psychoanalysis as a patient and although I had plenty of insight, I needed a lot of help changing my ways. Over a long period of time, I gradually recovered. I can’t say I always complied with treatment, but I definitely pushed myself.
I never intended to start treating EDs myself, but word got out and now I have the great privilege of assisting many people on their journey of recovery. I am happy to say that although I still sometimes hear the old scripts play through my head when I eat or exercise, I don’t listen. This was a hard won battle that I could have lost. I did develop osteoporosis, ammenorhea, and Raynaud’s Syndrome. Fortunately, I recovered from those too. Not everyone is as lucky as I was and I know it.
When you have an eating disorder, it takes over your life--with anorexia, your food choices became narrower and narrower, until there are only a few “safe” foods. Things like bananas and pizza can be scary. I remember when I was Bulimic, stuffing myself to the point where I felt I might explode. I was very afraid of having leftovers in the house. Eventually, the ED takes over your life, pushing out friends and family, and it gets harder and harder to do normal things like eat with friends, go to parties, and you schedule your life around unreasonable exercise regimens. You start to have a building anger and constant, gnawing anxiety. You can end up living in a box that gets smaller and smaller and you basically have no life.
If you have never had an eating disorder, it is hard to understand why the person can’t “just stop” or “just eat something.” You may think it’s “just a piece of bread” and not understand why the person doesn’t see that they look “fine” or “too thin” If someone told me I looked fine, to my addled mind it meant that I had gained weight, If they said I looked too thin, I liked that, but didn’t always believe them and then I worried about how I would stay too thin.
Having been on both ends of the weight spectrum, I can honestly say they both feel horrible. In getting away from thinking of food as calories or food as my friend or enemy, we can develop a healthy relationship with food that focuses on eating a balanced diet with healthy moderate exercise. The focus is on good health, not on numbers. I admit, I still don’t like getting weighed but I think many people don’t. I am no longer willing to restrict or binge and am very glad I am able to eat in restaurants and with friends without worrying about calories and weight gain or loss.
In my work with patients who have eating disorders, I use an individualized approach and work very hard to motivate, assist, coach, and believe in the person’s ability to recover.
If you or someone you know may have an eating disorder, talk to them today, get help today. Make that first phone call or send an email to reach out for help and information. If I could get better and recover, anyone can. If you would like to discuss how I may be of assistance to you please give me a call or send me an email and I will be happy to talk with you about your unique needs and what I can do to help.

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