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How My Battle with Eating Disorders Influenced My Work as a Therapist

I felt a purpose, even during the darkest times, to find a way to use my struggle to connect with others who feel the same way.

I began an exhaustive and extensive battle with anorexia at the age of 14 and then bulimia two years later, which continued until I was 24 years old. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when I moved into my recovery process, as I believe awareness is a learned approach that comes gradually and with a lot of work. What I do know is I hit rock bottom at the age of 21, after I had moved to the United States from Israel.  

After a long spell of daily binging and purging, I had what can only be described as a physical and emotional breakdown. I truly believed I was dying; my heart and my body were ready to give up. I turned to writing, as I had many times before since I first started journaling as a teenager. This particular day, I began writing and did not stop. I wrote about dying, about my depression and about the misery that had taken over my entire body and mind—in what ended up as 100 pages of an emotional release, a tell-all of my psychological and physical journey to the darkest alley of despair. I knew as I was writing that I wanted to share this story with the world. I felt a purpose, even during this breakdown, to find a way to use my struggle to connect with others who feel the same way. 

Recovery from anorexia and bulimia was one of the most challenging things I have ever dealt with. My journaling became cathartic and helped me become aware of my illness, but it was not an overnight process. While I still binged and purged, the physical act of purging my thoughts onto paper helped me continue living, in a way. I knew I was looking for purpose and meaning in my own life, and I found a greater awareness and hope when I was accepted to college. It was also at this time, at the age of 21, that I met my husband. During the first three years of our relationship, I educated myself about my eating disorders, and I slowly realized that what I was doing wasn’t normal or healthy behavior. It helped to be in a stable relationship and allow myself to be open with someone, but first I had to be completely open with myself. Three years later, I moved to New York City, where I attended a lecture on eating disorders at Hunter College. I think this was the moment I had my big epiphany.

The dietitian who presented spoke about how people who struggle with eating disorders don’t behave in ways they want, but rather they act in ways that please others, often at their own expense. I realized then that I wasn’t living my true authentic life, and that if I wanted to be a successful, happy person I had to act in ways that made me happy. Throughout my life, I often struggled between growing into who I wanted to be and becoming the person others told me to be. The circumstances of my childhood were not conducive to allowing me to develop into my own person, but rather, societal pressures and a familial lifestyle guided me toward becoming someone I thought I should become.

Getting an education in psychology and learning about child development helped me gain insight into my history and realize how abnormal and dysfunctional my upbringing was. I began to understand that growing up with an emotionally and physically abusive father affected my condition, and how the fact that I was forced to leave my family and live on a kibbutz with a foster family at age 12 traumatized me and triggered my eating disorders. I also learned my eating disorders were the result of multi-factorial causes. In other words, there was no one thing, or person, to blame. Most importantly, I learned I was not to blame.

While recovery wasn’t an easy or quick process, I credit overcoming my eating disorders to my therapist and my community of friends and family. Education, writing and learning important skills such as mindfulness and cognitive behavior therapy skills were major components of my recovery process. I also learned what motivated me and what my career aspirations were. I came to realize I had to nourish myself (not just physically), and give myself the same time, attention, care and love that I gave other people. The most challenging thing for me was to learn to say “no” to people and to stop asking myself to please everyone around me. Once I gave myself priority and realized what my calling was, I paved the way for my goals and an inner sense of peace. I learned how to actively listen to others and how to actively listen to myself and be aware of what was happening inside myself when someone else was talking to me. 

Even while I was in college and had finally stopped binging and purging, I used education and reading as a way of escaping reality. It took years of gradual self-awareness for me to come to terms with my authentic self. My education demanded a lot of self-reflection, and through this academic lens, I was able to determine many of the causes and subsequent effects that happened due to my early childhood experiences. Now, after becoming a mother and finishing two graduate degrees in counseling and clinical psychology, I work to help others with eating disorders realize how to grow into their authentic selves.

I have no doubt that my eating disorders informed my work as a therapist and certified eating disorder specialist. Listening to others came naturally to me, but listening to myself is a continual process—something I still work hard at everyday. I don’t go out of my way to tell my patients about my struggles with anorexia and bulimia, but I believe that my personal experiences offer certain benefits, most notably a profound understanding of the guilt, shame and depression that accompanies eating disorders, in particular. I also recognize the deception that most people with eating disorders engage in, as well as the disconnection they feel from the rest of the world.  

In addition to understanding the disorders, I also know what it takes to achieve recovery. The recovery process isn’t something one should undertake alone—there is a profound list of people I believe should be included to make the process more complete. Dietitians, holistic professionals, behavioral therapists and even spiritual resources are needed in addition to a strong support group of friends or family members. In my work with eating disorder clients, it is paramount that in addition to utilizing the various orientations that I am familiar with, that I also consider a collaborative approach with a team of professionals who have eating disorder experience—including a dietitian, medical doctor and psychiatrist. I also connect the client with various sources of support that are not part of the treatment, but are external sources such as mentors and free group support systems like Anorexics and Bulimics Anonymous (ABA).

For far too long I was concerned with pleasing the people in my life and doing what they expected of me, and consequently, I lost sight of what made me happy. I constantly tried to live up to impossible standards that I assumed were necessary in order to grow into a successful, happy adult. I didn’t have a solid support system, and so I was left to fend for myself when it came to things like money, advice and encouragement. In hindsight, I believe my eating disorders and low self-esteem may have been caused by these elements in my childhood that were lacking.

My personal connection to such a dangerous and difficult disease largely influences my ability to connect with patients, whether they are struggling with something similar or whether they are dealing with other psychological issues. I think understanding the process of recovery in general and the level of awareness necessary to work through your past and drive your future extends way beyond the minds of those with eating disorders. Mindfulness was a key component of my recovery, and I believe it can help people who are on all different paths looking to reach their authentic selves. 

When considering the specific theoretical orientation I use with clients, the most important thing for me is to connect with them and develop relationships that will allow me to discover their real, authentic selves. This means I openly listen, I don’t seek an apology and I show no judgment for the difficulties they are facing. 

While the main intervention method I use is Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy—with roots in the work of Kabat-Zinn, a solution–focused counseling—I also integrate elements of other orientations such as psychodynamic theory and spirituality. One of the main goals of my work with clients is to help them develop self-awareness, acquire knowledge and learn skills relevant to their diverse cultural world views. Most importantly, I think our society’s view of mental disorders is distorted and negative, and contributes to the challenges that the client experiences. It is my goal to change this distorted view in the minds of my clients. 

Finally, in the last few years I developed my own therapeutic program called KARMA, which stands for the five steps I take clients through: Knowledge, Acceptance, Releasing the Past, Making Meaning, and Achieving Authenticity. I have seen great success in using KARMA with eating disorder clients as well as clients struggling with other mental health issues.

I now understand my personal challenge to reach wellness and wholeness prepared me for working with eating disorder clients. My journey laid the foundation to fulfill my life purpose and passion, and to provide an environment where hope, empowerment and healing are possible.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please contact me to schedule an appointment and begin the path to recovery!

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