By Judy Krasna, F.E.A.S.T. Executive Director
I want to put something out there as food for thought and as a springboard for discussion. I have a bunch of questions and no answers.
I don’t have an exact figure, but a lot of providers who treat eating disorders have a personal history with them. A lot. In a way it makes sense; a provider’s own lived experience with eating disorders can add dimension to their work and may allow them to better relate to the people they are treating since they have an inside view of the illness. They themselves found a path to recovery, and that may make them well suited to help others find their path. They want to help others, just as others helped them.
Best case scenario, these providers are fully recovered. Their eating disorder is ancient history.
The thing is, best case scenario isn’t always the reality. I have heard from multiple providers that they continued treating people with eating disorders after they had relapsed and their illness was once again acute, even though they knew that they shouldn’t. They convinced themselves that they were okay to provide care to others despite their own mental state. And maybe they were okay. But maybe they were like people who get into a car after drinking all night at a bar and are under the delusion that they are not impaired or compromised. There are times when even the best driver in the world shouldn’t get behind the wheel.
If you look at this objectively, maybe it doesn’t matter. I’m sure there are oncologists who are cancer survivors, and it probably makes them better providers. Even if they relapse and their cancer comes back, it doesn’t impact the quality of treatment that they provide. But somehow, in my mind, this may be different.
What concerns me even more is that in my experience, people with lived experience of an eating disorder fall primarily into 2 camps. There are those whose parents were an integral part of their recovery and who received family support and there are those who feel that their parents caused or contributed to their eating disorder and were not at all supportive in helping them recover. My heart goes out to that second group; I want to reach out and give every one of them a huge hug.
Maybe eating disorder providers have a superpower that allows them some sort of disconnect from their own lived experience while treating patients. But what if they don’t? What if a provider has negative feelings toward their own parents and family due to their own history and experience and they can’t close that off from the treatment they provide? What if they carry that parent bias into their treatment space and foist it onto the person they are treating? What if their own history precludes them from involving parents in treatment?
I know, there are a lot of “what ifs”, and I don’t claim to have insight. It’s something that I worry about, and I think it’s something we should speak openly about with the provider community. I know that more than a few providers do not want to admit that they have lived experience of an eating disorder. My question is, why is that? Is it a stigma thing? Are they worried that other providers may look down on them? Do they think that admitting that they once had an eating disorder will put them under a magnifying glass?
I know many, many excellent providers who have battled an eating disorder in their past. They are inclusive of families in treatment, and they are wonderful at treating patients. Their lived experience has a positive impact on their work. And with that, I am left with nagging questions and concerns about whether this is always the case, and what happens to patients and families when it isn’t.
These are my thoughts, I would love to hear yours.