How My Therapist Helped Me Heal From my Eating Disorder
I spent 30 years living with an eating disorder. My eating disorder took many shapes and forms. The simplest and most pervasive form of my eating disorder was bulimia, but there were periods during which I didn’t binge and purge, and instead restricted food, lived in fear of food and fat, counted calories and weighed myself obsessively. I never called it anorexia because I never became underweight, but in hindsight that’s what it was.
When I got pregnant at age 30, one of the first things I did was get myself to a therapist, where my goal was to “fix” my eating disorder so that I wouldn’t pass it along to my unborn child. We barely scratched the surface before I decided I was “just fine” and opted out of therapy.
I managed to not engage in eating disorder behaviors during my pregnancy and the first months of my child’s life, but, of course, it came back. Five years after my daughter’s birth, I returned to therapy to “figure things out.” I had a very vague idea that I wanted to stop my eating disorder behavior, but it definitely wasn’t clear to me what that meant or how it would happen.
Almost six years later, in mid-2016, I finally entered full recovery. That might seem like a long time, but remember that by the time I went back to therapy, I had spent almost 70% of my life with an eating disorder. It was my “normal” processing mechanism. I had no tools for managing emotions outside of my disorder.
So yes, even with therapy, it took time for me to even consider healing from my eating disorder, but I believe it took exactly the time it needed to for me to feel secure in my recovery. Today, I have non-eating disorder tools for metabolizing feelings and emotions. Here is how my therapist helped me do it:
Time to heal: I went back to therapy in 2010, but I still wasn’t ready to talk to my therapist about my eating disorder. Over the course of five years, we addressed many underlying issues, including a major depressive episode and generalized anxiety.
We addressed the fact that I have trouble with worthiness and getting my needs met. She helped me deal with a tumultuous period during which my husband’s father died of cancer and we became estranged from his stepmother and half-sister.
She helped me work through professional conflicts that were based on my lack of self worth and perfectionism. She helped me strengthen my marriage and become a better mother. But I was not ready to address my eating disorder behaviors (which remained strong throughout therapy) until early 2016.
During all this time, only my husband knew I had an eating disorder, and I kept him at arm’s length regarding the details and intensity. Nobody else in my family, and none of my friends, were aware of my disorder. I was too afraid to let anyone else into my eating disorder world.
My therapist never rushed me. She never tried to “fix” me. She supported me until the time at which I was able to face my eating disorder behaviors and consider letting them go on my own terms.
Accepting my eating disorder: One of the reasons I didn’t talk to my therapist about my eating disorder for so long is because I hated that part of me so much. I believed bingeing and purging was a violent act that I was taking against myself.
I was so disgusted by my behavior, because it seemed so out of character given the successful professional I see myself as. My therapist helped me see that I don’t have to be either a successful professional or someone who has an eating disorder; I am both.
She never told me that I had to be abstinent. I think it took me a really long time to trust her because I was so afraid of giving up my eating disorder, and it was surprising to me that she accepted no only me for who I am, but she accepted my eating disorder, too. She taught me that I was no bad or broken for having my eating disorder.
My eating disorder was, in some ways, my best friend for 30 years. It was doing everything it could to protect me from the threats it perceived in my life. Through my therapist’s guidance, I learned to accept what my eating disorder had given me, and it was only then that I was able to begin to consider life without it.
Unconditional positive regard: The greatest gift my therapist gave me was unconditional positive regard. She provided a safe space in which I was able to heal slowly and at a pace that worked perfectly for me.
Healing was neither linear nor easy. While many people begin recovery by addressing their behavior and then address the underlying conditions, my therapist let me take my own winding path.
We addressed many underlying conditions before touching directly on the eating disorder behavior. That’s what worked for me, and at no time did I feel she judged me for the path I took.
Her unconditional positive regard for me made me feel truly emotionally safe for the first time I could remember. I think this is the greatest gift a therapist can give anyone healing from an eating disorder.
It is so hard for someone who lives with someone day to day to continually give unconditional positive regard, but my therapist did it beautifully, allowing me to flower one hour at a time under her care.
Airing dirty laundry: In my family, as in many families, therapy was viewed with suspicious eyes, with a deep fear of “airing our dirty laundry” with a stranger. I internalized this message, even though as an individual I live a much more open emotional life than anyone in my family.
Perhaps this is part of why my therapeutic journey to recovery took so long, but at the same time, it is why it feels so good. I gradually and over time revealed “dirty laundry” and it didn’t destroy either my therapist or me.
I remember one day walking in with what I believed was going to be a serious “truth bomb.” I literally thought it would explode in my face if I told her about the sexual abuse I encountered at age 10, and I was also worried that she would be upset by the situation, and possibly unable to handle the ugliness.
But, to my surprise, I found that when I unwrapped my truth bomb for her to see, the fear and anxiety around it completely dissolved. It was as if, under her care, my truth bomb transformed from something made of gunpowder to something made of tears. I cried the tears, and with them I released much of the pain I had been holding on to.
These are just four of the ways my therapist helped me heal from my eating disorder in my own way, on my own schedule. Today I am still learning to live in the world as someone in recovery, but I do feel very confident that her patient care and support set a solid foundation for the healed, whole self who emerges from me a little more each day.