Looking Past the Eating Disorder Label – Jen Ballman
Sometimes, when people learn that I’m an eating disorder clinician, they ask me,
“Do you work with anorexics or bulimics?”
My answer is, “Neither.”
I work with women, men, moms, dads, daughters, sons, sisters, and brothers. Each person has a name and each person has a story that includes an eating disorder, but none of them are their eating disorder.
It can be challenging to explain that patients struggle with an eating disorder and how their identity can become lost in this struggle. I see these individuals as the same as anyone else, but with a mental illness that is so frequently misunderstood.
Patients become labeled as “anorexic” or “bulimic” by those around them, and these labels can suggest that the person is nothing more than the sum of their illness.
These inspiring individuals have had the eating disorder whispering in their ear for so long, telling them what choices to make, that they sometimes cannot tell the difference between who they are and who their eating disorder is. They can feel as if they’ve become one with the disorder. If a person who is battling an eating disorder has difficulty distinguishing between themselves and their disorder, it makes sense that those around them have difficulty as well.
Uncovering one's true self
Patients I work with are so much more than their eating disorder. Part of my job is to help them, and to help their loved ones, see and understand this.
We work together to discover their personal values, what brings them meaning and hope, and how to create a plan to use these things to help them find their true self. They work in treatment to envision their life of recovery and to envision what life could look like without their eating disorder.
Looking past labels can be significantly challenging for an individual. Sometimes, not having known this person prior to their eating disorder, this can be challenging for me as a clinician as well. I have to work hard to help this person through this process.
Overcoming negative messages
Patients have often had the eating disorder voice whispering in their ear for so long. The messages they may have been struggling with can include:
- You are not good enough
- You are not thin enough
- No one is going to like you if you eat that food today
These messages, unfortunately, can lead them to identify themselves based on these thoughts.
In therapy, we are able to work on a person’s relationship to these thoughts to help them create space between themselves and the thoughts that consume them.
Using a skill known as cognitive defusion, patients can begin to separate their thoughts and feelings from their identity. (“I am having the thought of not being good enough” or “I am having the feeling of being worthless” — rather than “I am not good enough” or “I am worthless”).
While patients are creating opportunities to build an identity outside of the eating disorder, my job to help them envision what this might look like. As a wise clinician once told me,
“Sometimes patients have to believe in what other people are telling them until they are ready to believe it for themselves.”
Sometimes, I, too, have to see beyond the symptoms to the person sitting in front of me.
This isn’t always easy, but I can tell you that it’s worth it. The amazing identities that I’ve seen emerge when someone is recovering from an eating disorder remind me of how important this process is. And I’m often reminded of just how fortunate I am to have this chance to be part of the process.
Jen Ballman is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor and clinician for the CORE program and the Merit (ED) program at Eating Recovery Center, Ohio.