by Tasha Castor, MSEd., LPC
My work as an eating disorder specialist began long before my graduate school education, when I would spend my free time researching the most confounding mental illnesses. Naturally, eating disorders were at the top of the list. At that time, I had no idea I would be a practicing psychotherapist helping individuals and families battle and survive eating disorders.
By the time I received my master’s degree, I had done a good bit of individual studying on eating disorders and treatment protocol. When I was given the opportunity to join Kovacs Counseling as a treating therapist, there was no doubt I would accept the offer. I knew that empowering clients to beat eating disorders would be a challenge. I had no idea the challenge would be so exhilarating.
One of the first things I encountered as a therapist was the relative lack of information the general public had about eating disorders. Of course my clients were experts, but their families and friends had knowledge that was usually a composition of a few television movies, a Dr. Phil episode, and a middle school health class. I had no idea that I would have to fight so many stereotypes about eating disorders just to get support for my clients.
According to The Renfrew Center Foundation for Eating Disorders, “Eating Disorders 101 Guide: A Summary of Issues, Statistics and Resources,” copyright 2003, this illness affects more than 24 million people in the United States of all ages, genders, and races. Why don’t people know more about this illness? Perhaps it is because the very nature of eating disorders demands secrecy. Symptoms of the illness that cannot be hidden come to represent to the general public the entirety of the illness. I had no idea that I would have to defend my clients’ need for treatment beyond the presence of symptoms like starvation, purging, and bingeing.
Eating disorders are tough. It can take a long, long time to recover from this biologically based mental illness. Sometimes, I have to remind my clients of this fact. They tell me that while they are not restricting or purging or bingeing any longer, the thoughts are still there. I would assert that the thoughts are more difficult to heal from than the physical symptoms. Those thoughts are constant, endless, and relentless. My clients tell me that even if they can use cognitive restructuring (i.e., changing the eating disorder lies to truthful statements) to counter the thoughts, they are bombarded with mental guilt trips (e.g., “You shouldn’t be thinking this way!”). The trouble with this part of eating disorder recovery is that people don’t see the battle and conclude that their loved ones are doing “just fine.” I had no idea that I would have to reinforce the need for support to families and friends support so often.
This year’s National Eating Disorders Awareness (NEDA) theme is “I Had No Idea.” The campaign, which will reach its peak during Eating Disorders Awareness Week (February 23-March 1), focuses on challenging the misconceptions the public holds about eating disorders. Maybe you’ve thought that only rich teenagers develop eating disorders. Maybe you thought eating disorders were a life choice. Maybe you thought an eating disorder was just an extreme diet. Whatever your knowledge about eating disorders, you deserve to know more. Why? Chances are, you know one of those 24 million people that has an eating disorder. You don’t need to be an expert, but sometimes all a person recovering from this illness needs to hear is, “I had no idea it was so hard to beat an eating disorder.”