Eating as an Eating Disorder Therapist

Noticing how others can watch what you eat as an eating disorder therapist has its downsides when it is known what you do for a living.

What someone does for a living is a common topic of conversation when meeting people for the first time.  Usually, in social situations, I casually avoid talking about what I do when the gathering involves food.   It is a generally a protective act toward others (so that no one who may feel bad about their own eating will be concerned that I am judging them.  It is also a protection for me, that I won’t be judged or have expectations about how I am supposed to eat.)   Most times people don’t notice and I generally don’t watch what other people eat.

But sometimes….

I was a guest at a dinner for the cast and producers of a new movie my significant other is filming.  A mob movie…set in Brooklyn – many of the actors and production staff are my paesano (my Italian brother and sisterhood.)    The venue was an Italian restaurant….perfecto. I was excited to go to an Italian restaurant in my hometown and eat my favorite southern Italian food.

I sat next to a woman who was providing publicity for the film.   She asked what I did.   I told her.

I am a normal eater and I have my preferences.  I have not eaten red meat, (anything with four legs) in more than 25 years.  I eat lots of chicken, fish, eggs, salad, and all dairy products with fat, wonderfully rich cheese, breads and desserts.

Back to the dinner – About 25 people were seated at a long and lovely table. Bread was brought out.  Yum.  I was eagerly waiting for the waiter to bring a short menu since this was a private party.  (Assumptions – never helpful.)  I quickly learned that everyone was getting the same meal; there were no menus, no choices.  OK.  This could be good, mostly manageable or bad.  Generally, in these situations, I figure that there will always be something I can eat.  I tend not to unnecessarily disrupt a restaurant staff or make requests of the host who has graciously invited me to a meal and insist/ask that I am brought poultry, fish or a vegetarian meal.

First came the appetizer.  All was good  – a puffed pastry with fresh ricotta (rich creamy Italian cheese) with slices of fresh prosciutto (dried-cured ham.)    I happily ate the puffed pastry, not the prosciutto. I gave the meat to my significant other.  (He will eat most anything and loves all meat.)

Next came the serving of rigatoni (fat macaroni) covered in meat sauce. The pasta was very salty and al dente (hard.)  I moved the meat sauce over in another attempt to find a compromise as I did with the ricotta and prosciutto.  No such luck.  The pasta was hard and very, very salty, plus the Parmesan cheese added more salt to the dish.  I did not eat the pasta.  I did not give my significant other the pasta as it was not tasty and I worry about his salt intake.

The final course was two lamb chops on a plate with a tiny dollop of something green.  I gave my significant other the two lamb chops and he gave me his dollop of the greens.   Dessert was a few bowls of Tiramisu (creamy Italian dessert) that was placed in the center of the table, each bowl was designed for people to share and eat with separate spoons.  No small plates were provided.  This did not make me happy.  I was not willing to dip and re-dip my spoon in with others who I did not know.  I do not have an irrational fear of contracting a dreaded illness, but if I can prevent the typical viruses from happening, like a cold or stomach bug, I will do my best.

So, there I was, hungry.

The publicity woman next to me was noticing that I was eating practically nothing.  She leaned over and said, “You did not eat very much.”  I felt compelled to reveal why each food was not satisfactory.  I felt like I had to justify why an eating disorder therapist was not eating everything that was prepared.  I felt guilty and under observation. (Was this her intent or my perception?)

This is the part of my work that has unfortunately given me lots of opportunity to remind myself that the rewards I get from my work is in helping others recover not in being under scrutiny sometimes (maybe more than sometimes) for my own eating habits or behavior.

As I say to my patients….why does it matter what someone else says or thinks?  Why be defensive when YOU know that how or what you are eating is consistent with normal eating?

Part of the fish bowl effect of being in a profession that is in the public view and where you are entrusted to help others is that it leaves you somewhat exposed to observation, comparison and sometimes criticism.  This is reasonable.  Would you want to see a therapist or send your child to a therapist who you did not believe was physically and emotionally stable?

Part of the more personal reason for being concerned about what others’ were thinking was that I was in a new environment meeting new people and I wanted to make a good impression on behalf of my significant other and myself.  Despite feeling nervous, I wanted to appear comfortable, relaxed and show my gratitude for the opportunities and gifts given us both.  So, not eating the meal provided left me feeling ungrateful and perhaps wondering whether I was being perceived as “high maintenance”  –  kiss of death on a movie set.

So, why I am writing a Blog post based more on personal experience rather than my usual academic reflections?

My motto is generally; practice what you preach, and authenticity in life, relationships and work matter.

As I have said in previous blog posts, the Internet i.e. Face Book has made any attempt to live under a rock impossible. What I believe most is that a significant reason why patients recover from an eating disorder is because they see their therapist as a real person with boundaries intact.

If someone ran in to me on the street in my motorcycle gear (I am a novice) they would likely not be not surprised at all by this fact, but rather think, “Yes, of course, this is consistent with the woman I know.”

Authenticity is not perfection.  If someone believes you to be an authentic person (no matter what your line of work,) trust and safety can emerge in the relationship.  I trust this to be the case for me as a professional and as a person.


Judy Scheel

PS:  When we got back to the apartment where we were staying, I prepared two chicken breasts and a salad with cheese.  I was very happy.

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