Why I Work in an Eating Disorder Treatment Center – Bonnie Brennan
April is Counseling Awareness Month. We asked one of our favorite counselors, Bonnie Brennan, to share her story on how she chose to become a counselor specializing in eating disorders.
Long ago, in 1987, while driving across the Throgs Neck Bridge on my way to college, my mind was full of ideas and stories. We still had typewriters then, albeit with new amazing, electronic features, and mine was the centerpiece of my dorm room. Not surprising now, my smudged and white-out-edited work tended to be about humans. I wrote about how they behaved, how they thought, what troubled them and how they found ways to connect with their inner selves.
My strategy was to take psychology classes, like the one I had taken in high school, which I believed helped me with my character development in short stories. How quickly I fell in love with the science of the mind and the art of helping myself and others write the wonderful — and often painful — narratives of our lives. Counseling and psychology became my canvas, and I am grateful for all the twists and turns that led me to the intimate practice of understanding the human experience.
Whenever I have new graduates from the mental health field inquire about working with me in treating eating disorders, I tell them there isn’t a better training ground — for being exposed to a vast variety of human beings, spanning all ages, genders, races and sociocultural types, with intriguing and diverse clinical and medical presentations — than working on an eating disorder unit.
Every individual with an eating disorder I have met has also struggled with some other issue such as anxiety, depression, substance use, trauma, OCD, relationship problems, medical complications, life stage transitions, gender identity, sociocultural differences, etc.
No one eating disorder is the same
When one uses food and their body as a way to deal with the problems and pain of life, there is a limitless combination of unique steps to navigate on the walk into recovery. I love the challenge of getting to know the individual or family in front of me, understanding their story and how eating-disordered behaviors have functioned and become a problem that was likely an attempt to solve another problem.
In looking back to why I fell in love with treating eating disorders, I am reminded that I actually wrote a paper in graduate school titled: “The Population I will Never Treat—Eating Disorders”.
As a young student who thought I had the world figured out, I was sure that I would want to be nowhere near the struggles I saw my mother go through with her body and weight and the behaviors she taught me to do to keep my weight down. Instead, I would be a family therapist. I would treat addictions and other substance use problems.
And, guess who ended up in my office, begging me to treat them? Persons and families challenged with eating disorders. You see, I actually asked the questions about food and body and weight and scales. I wasn’t scared or astounded at their answers. I did, however, quickly try to explain that I thought there might be an eating disorder problem and refer them on because I had “no training” to work with that population. And for a population that tends to avoid eye contact, they would look me in the eye and say things like, “I don’t believe you” or “I don’t care about training, I care that you cared enough to ask”.
Like many of us in our 20s, I had to make a few wrong turns before I allowed myself to embrace that life has more things in store for us than our brains have imagined. Maybe the patient finds the healer and that actually, because I could see, because I understood, that working with eating-disordered individuals and families was going to be one of the most important pieces of my life.
Starting work at Eating Recovery Center
In 2008, over a fish sandwich from a local deli in an office stacked high with paper charts and research writings, I had a conversation with a member of my peer consultation group, Dr. Emmett “Rick” Bishop. I was hoping to invite him to work at a residential program I was cooking up with a colleague and he said, “actually, I’m working on one myself.” Thus began my entry into becoming employee number 6 at Eating Recovery Center. It was another kick from life that said — just when I thought I had it all figured out — “here is another direction.” Life asked me, “are you willing?”
I became a member of a team so competent and creative that I couldn’t believe it was actually happening. We were creating the treatment center all of us wished was out there, where patients could be treated at all levels of care and where the most challenging cases were willing to take the chance to find out if we had something different and hopeful to offer. It was a blessing and a curse to see how quickly our beds filled. A blessing in that we had the beds, a curse to see how many poor souls needed our care.
Our mission explained
Anyone who has had to turn away a family with a loved one on death’s door with an eating disorder — because there isn’t space left to take them — understands wholeheartedly the reason our mission is this: to care for as many as we can, in a culture of collaboration, competence, compassion, integrity and innovation and to eliminate or reduce as much as possible the waiting lists for good treatment that were typical in the industry at that time.
Maybe I’m more open to noticing but it feels to me that more people, of all types, are open and invested in doing their own work with counseling today than ever before. My therapists and counselors, many of who are millennials, are teaching me about their values of the world and having a mission. They are just the right combination of curiosity and compassion to help others walk alongside them with mindfulness and integrity. They truly are saving lives. They do this mostly by being willing and loving and not being afraid.
Now that most of my day is spent leading and supervising the teams treating our patients and families, I realize that my skills as a clinician are enormously valuable in working with — and building — teams to treat them. Very similar to the authenticity that my patients, who are some of the most brilliant, sensitive and resourceful human beings on the planet, require of their clinicians, my counseling teams need a place where they can feel their unique qualities. They need a place where creativity is allowed to be part of evolving the field of treatment and mental health workplace environments.
I see the great minds and pioneers of this field ready for retirement, like Dr. Bishop, and I am proud to be able to take a baton and forge ahead. And, even though this work requires a lot, it is much like parenting. It is a part of my life that I treasure, and I don’t actually turn into a different person when I am at home.
Even though I got here in ways I didn’t expect, I still get to be the same me, writing, reading and enjoying things that I would encourage my patients and staff to do, being curious about the world around me and expanding my heart to have room for all the human beings who have touched it.
Bonnie Brennan, MA, LPC, CEDS is the Senior Clinical Director at Eating Recovery Center.