Closing the {Thigh} Gap – Part I.

Since I have been writing this blog and reading what is written about anorexia, I realize what many of you already know – as a field, we are extremely inconsistent when it comes to a clear understanding of this illness, let alone a consensus of how to treat it effectively. I certainly don’t know all the answers. However, I think what I do represent is someone who has been thoughtful in my professional journey. I have begun my process as we all do – by using the tools I was taught by my mentors. Some of these worked, most did not. I then tried to “follow the science” and find the best tools that the field has to offer, even with the limited outcome research that we have. I was determined to “do better’ as a treatment provider. I took my treatment failures personally. I always believed in full recovery for these patients even though the field itself is not fully supportive of this idea. I felt a sense of urgency with these patients, especially when I began to be a referral source for the younger patients. When you have a 10-year-old in your office who is slowly dying of this illness, your mind explodes with an urgency you never thought possible…..So, I am going to attempt to summarize what I perceive as the major “turning point” for me in my professional life, and more specifically, how I got to where I am today.

It all started many years ago with a patient I will call Stacey. She was 15 when I started seeing her for anorexia. She had all the classic signs and symptoms: restricting, over-exercising, sneaking, body image distortion, fear of fat, hiding food, food rituals, perfectionism, rigid thinking, and an ongoing narrative of self-attack for her latest “indulgence” in eating too much food. At this time in my work, I was completely unaware of the disease of anorexia in the way that I am now. I really thought it was something that was “caused” by poor parenting, exposure to trauma, and/or our unhealthy thin focused culture. Therefore, if I could help the patient become media savvy, help the family become less intrusive and controlling, and help the patient process their trauma, the patient’s illness would go away, or at least get smaller. So, this is what I did. I spent two years treating Stacey this way. Her mother would bring her to sessions and I would have her wait in the waiting room. I only included her for bi-monthly traditional family therapy where I would try and tackle the dynamics that I thought “caused Stacey to be sick”. I mostly saw Stacey alone. I spent most sessions trying to convince her in one way or another to give up this eating disorder. Stacey was also followed by a nutritionist who suggested ongoing ways that Stacey could tackle her anorexia.

Stacey came in, week after week and was willing to talk about the issues I raised: her childhood, her traumatic experiences, her social isolation, her frustration with her controlling mother, her fears of growing up, and her academic pressures. We would spend the session following the greatest stressor of the previous week from this list of topics. She would talk, complain, explore, cry, get frustrated, gain insight, confront her family, gain knowledge, use her voice, become empowered with the language of recovery, reach out to friends, and work on her often strained relationship with me during the sessions. She would do this every week, for two years. And here is the thing: many things changed in that time. She became more assertive, she became less stressed with school, she became better at making decisions, she was less agitated in her relationships, and her social anxiety decreased. This is all good, right? This was my goal, right? I was not so sure….

I decided to begin to more closely track three things I had never  tracked before during our sessions: Stacey’s weight, her eating patterns, and her obsession with her body and her fear of fat. Basically, the symptoms that make up this illness. And every week it would be the same. She never gained weight and hovered about 10-15 pounds below her ideal body weight. She ate in the exact same way and the exact same limited foods. She expressed severe disgust at her body whenever given the opportunity. What I started to realize is that despite all of these aforementioned changes in Stacey, one thing never changed – the strength of her anorexia. It was like it was never even touched by the treatment. It was surviving very nicely despite everything I was throwing at it. How could this be? Her family treated her better. Her trauma was mostly resolved. Her self esteem was better. She was savvy about the effects of the media….What was I doing wrong here?

And then one day, not long after her second hospitalization for her anorexia occurred due to acute periods of weight loss, I had a revelation. It was the Spring. Stacey was sitting in the chair she always sat in. She was wearing shorts and she made it clear to me that this was a “big step for her”. You see, Stacey hated her thighs. In fact, this was the only body part that she truly hated. She said she could stand her stomach, her arms, and even her face. But, her thighs had to go. Why? Because they touched. They touched when she stood up, and of course when she was sitting down. She didn’t have the thigh gap that was acknowledged to be the end all and be all for anorexics. She had failed  and she was miserable. She didn’t want to participate in her own life as she hated herself so much for allowing this to happen. So each session she would attempt to put her fingers around her thigh and talk about how she could no longer do this and how she just wanted to die. She did this every session. Every one. No matter what I did, no matter what her family did. No matter how many times she was hospitalized. She just kept doing it. The disease never stopped, never got smaller. And in September, she was supposed to go away to college. She had worked so hard and she and her family were so proud. But, how could I participate in sending a child away across the country to college when she couldn’t eat and when she couldn’t think right. I felt a sense of urgency unlike anything I had ever felt. I did not have much time before her start date at school. How could I help her turn this around?? Was it even possible? I had tried everything I had in my tool belt….

But, something inside me clicked. I could no longer sit here passively and let this disease win. I knew about exposure based treatment as I had previously done individual and group work using food exposure sessions with patients with anorexia. I still liked the idea of using food in the sessions. But I also liked the idea of using the family. I started reading about family based treatment and everything it had to say about treating anorexia. It incorporated family meals (although not as many as I would like) and it incorporated a very clear protocol for focusing on treating the way the patient currently ate which then resulted in an increase in weight. The treatment also proposed that when this re-feeding occurs, the patient begins to think differently as the disease is diminished via the weight gain. I was fascinated by a treatment that actually highlighted the issues that I saw as immovable in my patient.

I was ready to start something new.

(Please tune in next Tuesday for Closing the {Thigh} Gap: Part II).

Thank you.

One thought on “Closing the {Thigh} Gap – Part I.

  1. Dr. Ellen- Love reading your blogs! I can’t wait for Part 2 of this last entry. Remember I told you you have the gift of gab…well you also have the gift of writing! Looking forward to all that is to come. Emma Fogt MBA, MS,RDN,LDN, FAND

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