Having Recovered Staff is Important
from, “Been There, Done That”, by Criag Johnson and Carolyn Costin, 2008)
Even though some of my best therapists have never had
an eating disorder, there are advantages to having at least some staff members
who are “recovered” from an eating disorder. It is not recovery alone that I’m
drawn to, as I have interviewed many people with an eating disorder history
whom I did not hire. I am drawn to
someone who has suffered from an eating disorder and made peace with food and
body issues and sees their eating disorder as a thing of the past. It is more
of a “been there done that, over
it,” attitude that I am attracted to in potential staff. “Over it” means being “recovered” rather than “recovering,” or in “recovery.” Recovered staff exude confidence in
understanding and challenging eating disorder symptoms while offering hope and
inspiration that they can be overcome.
Understanding, Hope and Motivation
Many of our patients, after years of struggling with the
illness, are exhausted, defeated and quite hopeless. Staff who have
successfully accomplished recovery are often able to quickly establish that one
can lead a stable and productive life.
Recovered staff members are a concrete representation of the “light at
the end of the tunnel,” a living, breathing example that recovery is
attainable. Patients consistently report that one of the most important aspects
of our programs is the hope and motivation they experience from the staff
members who “have been there.
It is difficult for staff members who have had no
personal experience with an eating disorder to fully grasp the profound
struggle that recovery can pose for individuals. Recovered staff members can empathize authentically with the
phobic-like fear of change and the need to take a “leap of faith.” They can discuss this and also offer
proof that it can be done.
Many of our patients fear that if others discover the
full extent of their thoughts, feelings and actions they will recoil in horror
and disgust and/or abadone them. When patients see recovered clinicians being
valued and occupying positions of status within treatment programs, it can be
powerful. It can send a message that individuals who have had eating disorders
can expose these shame-filled aspects of themselves, master them and then use
the experience to consolidate a more authentic self system that can be valued
Narcissism and Grandiosity
Some eating disorder patients wear their illness like
badges of honor. Unconsciously, if
not consciously, they enjoy the competition and "oneupmanship" around
issues of size and shape. This is
a subgroup of patients that can often “hook” staff and provoke them into
nonproductive dialogue and behavior.
Recovered staff who have personally experienced this seem to recognize
it sooner and be given greater license by the patients to confront it.
There are also patients who are swamped in despair and
hopelessness, becoming so preoccupied with their despair that they begin to
drown in it. Staff members who
have not experienced this kind of emotional hardship can become too sympathetic
and can become immobilized by over identifying with the patient’s sad state,
seeing the patient as fragile and tragic.
Staff members who have confronted and passed through this process in
recovery are usually quick to point out the folly of this way and are less
ambivalent about confronting the patient’s immobilization. Patients seem to give more leeway to
rcovered staff in confronting self-pity, helplessness, etc. because those staff
have actually had to deal with it. The direct or indirect message that gets
communicated by recovered staff is, “been there, done that; learned how to
manage it and moved on. If I can do it, so can you.”
The traditionally trained, non-recovery staff can
sometimes become caught up focusing on the process and underlying dynamics over
the need for symptom improvement (i.e. weight gain, abstinence from bingeing
and purging, exercise, etc.). Recovered staff members can be exceptionally
effective at reminding the team to stay on top fo the patient’s thoughts, actions and feelings.
I strongly believe that all eating disorder patients
need to be exposed to individuals who are recovered. They need to actually know
and experience that being recovered is possible.