An article was published today that highlights the positive feelings that anorexics feel when they accomplish things like weight loss or a achieving a new level of restricting calories. The article states that this is a good thing because most research on these patients focuses on their negative feelings vs. their positive experiences. For any of us in the trenches treating these folks, it is no surprise that most of these patients will acknowledge that restricting and obtaining a goal to lose weight brings them pride, joy, and in general the only positive feelings they are experiencing once they have fallen down the rabbit hole of this disease. The article goes on to state that perhaps we should keep in mind these things that make them happy (like exercise) and shift their love for let’s say running on a treadmill for hours a day to a less aerobic yoga class. That way we can harness the things that continue to give them pleasure but offer them in a more moderate fashion.
From a family based perspective, the patient is not pleasing themselves by exercising or restricting. They are pleasing their master – the eating disorder. It is the anorexic mind that is driving them to exhaustion on the treadmill and telling them they are “better than everyone else” if they can run to the point of falling over. It is the anorexia that is instilling the pride in them and I believe we need to be very careful at reinforcing this type of pride in any way. Once the patient’s brain is recovered, we can then help them “feel good” about accomplishing things or gain pride in achieving goals as these are usually the kind of kids that very much thrive on this. However, it is just this type of vulnerability to externally based pride in achievement that the anorexia exploits when it takes over the child’s being. I have had many patients tell me that when they first got sick, they couldn’t tell because they thought they were just pleasing themselves and their coaches and their parents with their achievements like being able to run faster and play harder at their sport. This pleasing of the adults in their lives moved quietly and often quickly to pleasing the voice in their head – the voice of the illness.
I would like to suggest another way in which we can harness the patient’s pride to aid in her treatment. When I have a new patient come to my office, I make it very clear that my job is to kill off the illness in their head. I make the parents very aware of the severity of the illness and how hard it is going to be to kill it off. However, I make it clear that I know how to do it and I will do it, I just need them to follow what I suggest in the treatment. Along those lines, I tell the patient that I am now going to become the person they need to please. I, along with their treatment team, will tell them what to do and our voices will become stronger than the anorexic voice in their heads. If we are not strong and persistent, we will easily be drowned out by the anorexic chatter. I have seen again and again the patients come to the place that once these new treatment rules are in place and once they see that their parents are fully on board, the healthy part of them gets on board with “pleasing us”. There remains the part of them that wants to please the anorexia but this part gets smaller and smaller with the weight gain until the only thing that is left is a child who actually gets upset if they step on my scale and lose weight. They get disappointed in themselves if they have not gained…..This is one point in treatment that I become quite confident that the anorexia is on its way out. It is no longer the master of the child.
Some may say that this approach seems wrong in that it reinforces dependency and even subservience from the patient. I agree, it goes against my grain to have a patient be so obedient. However, like many of my posts before, the key here is that eating disorder treatment is sequential and it has an order to it. I would never say a patient is “better” when they are still solely focused on pleasing me or any other person. The goal is for the patient to please herself and to internalize this process. However, this takes time and often lasts much longer than the original treatment for the anorexia. This is more long term work, both in individual and family domains. But I am well aware that this is my ultimate goal – to first free the child of her current master and to then help her to fly.
I am always thinking about ways we can summarize and simplify the huge amounts of data that are being thrown at us every minute. The often conflicting data, the hundreds of inspirational quotations that we should follow, the reams of parenting advice……. and this is just on our twitter feed! Let alone books, research articles, and good old verbal advice. How do we make sense of all of this? How do we know what advice to follow when one finding looks as good as the next?
With these thoughts in mind, I was consulting the DSM-5, the “bible” for psychologists and people in the mental health field. It is our “map”, our way of trying to understand the complexity of human nature that often is presented in front of us. I was consulting the section on Personality Disorders to try and find some diagnostic clarity regarding a particularly challenging client, and I turned to the back of the book. There was a section on a proposed new way to classify and understand personality disorders which caught my attention. Instead of the current classification system, it proposes an overarching system of understanding personalty dysfunction: classifying if and how severely patients are struggling in four central areas of their lives: their overall sense of self, their ability to get things done, their sense of empathy, and the quality of relationships in their lives. Patients are classified along a continuum of mildly to severely impaired in these four areas. Pervasive dysfunction represents the most severe pathology.
I started thinking about the parents of my eating disordered patients and how we as a field are finally getting to the point of not blaming them for their child’s illness. I am very clear in my sessions that these parents have not caused the suffering in their child. This has been extremely helpful in the entire therapeutic process – alleviating guilt and allowing the parents to become empowered catalysts of change for their children. However, while we are moving on from blame and causal issues, we are still left with the fact that parents DO influence their children. They may not cause a particular illness, but they certainly leave an imprint on their child. In the world of eating disorder treatment, there are many times that the ED is lifted and the patient still struggles with some underlying personality dysfunction. The parents want to know – “What are we doing that is not helpful to our child?”. The child is now re-fed and their brain and body has come back to life. But the child continues to struggle. The parents continue to struggle. What next?
Instead of re-inventing the wheel each time wouldn’t it be nice if we could take what we know and work backwards. If we know that dysfunction in these four above mentioned areas can create ongoing issues, why not target these four issues? Why not help parents learn to parent better across these 4 domains? Why couldn’t we teach these (and all) parents to parent “better” in the areas that they struggle the most:
- do they have good enough boundaries to create a child with a clear sense of self?
- do they create enough structure (both consequences and reinforcements) to help the child manage the things they have to do, even if they don’t want to do them?
- do they model compassion and empathy to the child through their relationship with their self and their child?
- do they engage in truly reciprocal and mutually validating relationships with the child so that the child can take this model out into the world?
Helping a parent accomplish this on a consistent basis is extremely challenging in the world we live in. But how empowering it could be to give parents this map as well, to let them know what we know….and to show them that they can create health in their child not only by re-feeding them but also by supporting their emotional growth. Parents (and all of us) have a limited amount of energy to give – let’s help them figure out the most effective way to put this energy into action to best support their child.
I have been doing a lot of thinking over the last week about how I can be most helpful to families that are struggling with a child who is diagnosed with the illness of anorexia. On this blog, I have begun to share my treatment approach, one that incorporates evidence based approaches offered within a framework of compassion and understanding. Over the last several entries, I shared the development of my current approach and where I have landed in my current thinking. However, I am always left with the feeling that I am not expressing myself as well as I would like to. You see, my thoughts about this disease spread beyond my ideas of how to treat it. It really begins with my thoughts on what it is. I learned in my training a long time ago that an accurate assessment drives an accurate treatment. But in this field, the lack of consensus of a clear understanding of what anorexia is daunting. How can we ever agree on how to treat it if we can’t even have a universal dialogue about what it is?
I have decided that part of my “mission” in this social media world is to try and bring some consensus to the field. This is a completely overwhelming task and I really sit here with no clear idea on how to even start such an undertaking on a large scale. However, I can start small…very small. And so my idea for #beedinformed was born. I am going to share my thoughts about what this disease is on facebook, twitter, and any other social media that I am part of. My sincere hope is that other professionals join in and share other pieces of relevant, current thinking about this disease. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if families could find this place as well? A place they could learn to trust as “the truth” about this disease. A place they would find first, instead of last.
My intention is to try and teach people what I see every day, all the time, in my office. The truth about the illness – its origins, its effects, and most importantly what things make it smaller and what things make it bigger. Things that families can do and things that therapists can do to extinguish it. I want to convey my sense of responsibility to the families and to my colleagues. I truly understand this disease, even though I have never had it myself. I experience it all the time, from the inside out and have exclusively been “swimming in it” for the last 16 years of my professional life. I have absorbed this important information. I have been a diligent student. And I am motivated to pass on this intimate knowledge of the illness to cause its demise, once and for all.