I had to seek professional help for my eating disorder. I was in my late twenties, so it was about six years ago, when I finally realized I couldn’t recover on my own. I had been living alone for close to 5 years. I had no accountability for my actions. I had tried my way for close to twenty years and I was still bulimic.
Clearly my way wasn’t working.
At the time, I had Kaiser health insurance. I spent a long time on their website researching my medical benefits. I didn’t see any details pertaining to psychologists, so I made a phone call to their 1-800 number. I remember my ears feeling hot from anxiety when I told the customer care representative I was researching a therapist for my bulimia. Her straightforward response eased my insecurities. My disease was not a big deal in her book; she was just doing her job.
She explained that Kaiser had a separate website for Mental Health needs. This was the first time I had ever heard about “mental health benefits” through my insurance company. I had misunderstood the nature of mental health. I had thought mental health care was for people with illnesses like schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, or multiple personalities. I was oblivious to this new vocabulary.
Out of thirty therapists, I only found one woman therapist who specialized in the treatment of eating disorders. I made an appointment.
She was older and petite with blondish-grayish hair, shaped in a sensible bob. She covered her arms in cardigans and ironed her jeans. She looked like a retired newscaster. She wasn’t overly-friendly, but she wasn’t necessarily cold, just clinical.
Upon my arrival, in a defeated tone, she explained that Kaiser was on a new software program and that she was required to take notes from our session on her computer instead of her standard yellow legal pad.
I sat on her couch bawling my eyes out while I shared my eating disorder history. I was sharing my deepest, darkest secrets and she had her back turned away from me, towards the computer typing away. This is strange. But maybe this is normal? It felt uncomfortable to talk to an office wall about my eating disorder. I felt ridiculous.
Towards the end of my first session, she rummaged through accordion files under her desk while telling me that she had a handout that would help me understand my behavioral problems. She handed me a double-sided sheet of paper explaining Beck’s Cognitive Distortions and asked me to take it home and circle the applicable definitions.
She told me that I should schedule appointments with her every two weeks.
For my 2nd appointment, I continued to cry on the couch as I spoke about my bulimia and my shame for having an ED in the first place. She asked me about my relationship with my mom and I became defensive. I wasn’t ready to talk about my family or my friends; I had just met this person and we barely made eye contact during our appointments.
She changed the subject and asked about my daily food choices. I started off by explaining my breakfast choices. I typically melted a little cheese on three corn tortillas and then I divided two eggs evenly on each one. She told me that she thought my breakfast was “excessive” and that I should cut back to one egg, one tortilla and stop consuming cheese. I was confused. My breakfast had never felt like too much food in my body. It was the binging and purging that I thought was “excessive”.
I had decided to keep going even though I wasn’t 100% certain if I was into this “therapy thing”.
On my fourth visit, I arrived for our appointment but her office door was shut. After waiting ten minutes, I knocked and there was no answer. I waited for another 10 minutes in case she was running late. I walked up to the reception desk and asked them if my therapist was in today and I offered to reschedule.
The receptionist looked at me confused and said with wrinkled brows, “Are you a patient of hers? She retired on Monday. Didn’t you know?” I stood there stunned. What? This lady up and quit her career and I wasn’t informed? Why in the world had she taken me on as a new patient? I was infuriated. I felt betrayed.
I decided that therapy probably wasn’t for me.
In April of 2013, four years later, I decided it was time to try therapy again. I was making myself sick once a week, always the Monday before I had to start my Tuesday-Saturday work week. I felt out of control and full of secrets.
I had Cigna insurance at the time so I went online to research their mental health therapist profiles. I had learned a thing or two from my first therapy experience and I had a wealth of sales experience. If I was going to give my hard-earned money to someone on a weekly basis, I wanted to connect with this person. I wanted to feel like they had my best interest at heart. I had worked with hundreds of brides at this point and I knew I wanted my therapist to be invested in me the same way I was invested with my clients.
The research began. I created a spreadsheet and started taking notes. I wanted my therapist to be a woman and I wanted her focus to be eating disorder recovery. I’d love it even more if she had personal experience with recovery. I googled the therapist names from the Cigna website and studied their online reviews. I even put their names into the search engine and added the word “SUCKS” in hopes of discovering bad reviews. This is a trick I used to do when trying to research hidden, negative online reviews about the wedding venues where I worked.
I contacted my top 3 therapist choices. My first choice wasn’t currently taking on new patients. My second choice was booked out for 2 months. My third choice scheduled an appointment with me for the next day. Upon arriving, I sat in the waiting room listening to the overly loud classical music blaring out of a boom box. I later discovered that this is common for therapists to create privacy for their patients.
She was a teeny-tiny woman in her late fifties and her office had multiple candy jars scattered on the coffee table, the side tables, and her own desk. I started explaining my history with much more composure than I had initially done with my Kaiser therapist. I felt caught off guard when she told me she primarily worked with children and I was her first adult client in a long time. This detail had not been mentioned on her Cigna profile. Is she going to understand me?
I saw her for about 2 months and never felt a connection. I assumed I would click with my therapist. I felt like we focused too much on the food. She wanted me to count calories and she asked me to keep a food journal. This request brought back too many memories of dieting failures. I had sporadically tried to keep up with a food log and never quite succeeded with the follow through. Food logs felt too diet-y.
We also focused too much on my indecisiveness to have children because it was a topic I was just starting to consider. I felt her push a childfree agenda on me since that was the path she and her own husband had taken.
When I was making the decision to stop seeing her I googled, “How to Break Up with My Therapist”. I put my tail between my legs and left her a v/m on a Sunday night when I knew she wasn’t working. She left me a v/m letting me know she was disappointed but that she understood. All of it was awkward but I knew I was making the right move.
My first choice therapist called the following Monday to say she now had Mondays open. This seemed too serendipitous too be true. Mondays worked perfectly with my work schedule.
I started seeing Debbie every Monday afternoon for a full year. This was the professional help that I had been searching for all of my life. In her office, I felt safer than I had ever felt anywhere else on the planet. I shared my feelings, childhood memories, grievances towards the people I loved the most, secret food behaviors and my binging and purging routines.
Without judgment, she listened to me ache with remorse and she watched me breakdown without interfering. She told me that everyone experiences some level of anxiety and/or depression. She had also experienced and recovered from an eating disorder which made her all the more relatable.
I found solace in spending our Mondays afternoons together. I learned to talk about my feelings instead of stuffing them down.
Overtime, all the little triggers, the white lies and the shame started to evaporate. For the first time ever, I learned to communicate my secretive behaviors with my partner, Mike. He began understanding the importance of me telling him the truth about my eating disorder.
On days that I had a binge or a purge or both, I would tell him about it. If I covertly bought junk food from the grocery store preparing for a binge, but not following through, I would tell him when he got home to explain why we had Cheetos and candy bars in the breadbox. The control I felt from keeping my bulimia a secret stopped working for me, my shame and guilt dissipated.
My therapy shares became less about beating myself up and more about the mini-triumphs I experienced each week. By committing to a weekly therapy program, I began having enough confidence to share my story with close friends because I no longer felt the shame I had associated with my disease for so many years.
Asking for help was no longer as important as offering hope was to those who needed it.
I learned to be brave. I am sharing my journey without shame.