When I Realized My Therapist Wasn't the Enemy


As may be the case for many people with an eating disorder, my first therapist was imposed on me at a time of medical crisis. It was far from a match made in heaven.

He was a busy intern with scant understanding of anorexia and even less empathy. His questions were superficial and often insulting, and it felt like he saw me as a set of symptoms, not a person.

But to be fair, anyone in the grip of an eating disorder can be a difficult patient, and I was no exception. My illness had turned me from a compliant, communicative adolescent into a hostile and openly defiant patient. And my ability to engage in meaningful therapy was compromised by the confusion my starvation had caused.

By its very nature, this was an adversarial relationship — one side advocating weight gain and one resisting. As a result, I cycled through petulance, defiance and despair during his daily visits, and we got nowhere.

Over the course of several hospitalizations, I encountered countless psychologists, psychiatrists and counselors, all of whom treated me with disrespect and contempt. After my last hospitalization, I decided the best thing I could do for myself was to try to reestablish a “normal” life, which meant a break from my medical team. They saw this as an attempt to go back to my “bad old ways” and in the most patronizing of ways said they would wait until I needed them again.

I never went back. I worked hard to create a new life and was proud of what I achieved. But in moments of honesty, I admitted to myself the causes of my anorexia had not been dealt with, despite my much healthier weight.

So after many years, I found a new therapist, and while she was a vast improvement on those I had encountered during my hospitalizations, I was still defensive, and we made limited progress. When she retired, I made no effort to replace her — it seemed like so much trouble to start again with someone new.

Fast-forward another few years, and my general practitioner suggested I see yet another therapist. Finding a doctor I trusted had been a major achievement for me, and when she said she knew a psychologist who specialized in eating disorders, I understood my doctor really believed this would help me heal.

I remember her exact words: “I think you will like her, Clare.”

“Like”? Could I really like a therapist?

Yes, I did like her, and this time I have come to understand the power of a positive therapeutic relationship. I have come to believe you do need to like your therapist, because this is hard work, and you need a sense that your therapist is your partner, not someone to be outsmarted.

I don’t mean “like” as in someone you want to hang out with — although I do think if I met my therapist at a party we would hit it off.

By “like,” I mean someone you value, respect, and maybe even want to please.

Unlike my previous therapist who was a lot older than me, this time I have someone whose life experiences are similar to mine. And our communication is not one way — she shares little parts of herself with me, which is very brave I think.

And perhaps most surprising of all, we are able to laugh together. If you strip away everything, I feel there is something quite absurd about an eating disorder, and it is amazing to me that it was a therapist who showed me this.

None of the progress I have been able to make would have been possible without a truly nonjudgmental environment, and this was the crucial flaw in the approach of my early therapists. Now, I have a safe place where I can reveal the worst parts of myself without fear.

Many people may blindly accept a therapist just because they don’t want to create trouble. I now believe this never ends well.

To be clear, I am not talking about rejecting everyone because you are not ready to do the hard work (and it is hard!). That shortchanges everyone.

But if you are ready to commit to recovery, find someone who feels right. Even then, understand there will likely be times when your therapist will challenge you, and you may feel rejected. This relationship is a confronting one, but in my case, I have never felt like running away when things got tough. I know how blessed I am to have found my therapist, and I encourage everyone to fight to find the support they deserve.

Image via Thinkstock.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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