What It Means to Be a Therapist in Recovery

October is a special month for me. October is my partner’s birthday month and it also marks the anniversary of my recovery date. October 22, 2014 was the day that I fully entered recovery from an eating disorder. This fifth year of recovery has been particularly meaningful.

Exactly one year ago, I came out about being in recovery. This act in itself was a pivotal point in my recovery because until that point, I held onto a deep shame about having ever been sick.

Even in the years after healing from bulimia, I was ashamed. I was embarrassed to admit that I struggled with eating issues. I didn’t want anyone to give me the side-eye or start analyzing my weight or my plate.

Opening up about my recovery last year was a liberation of sorts. I realized that anything I hold shame about and feel the need to “hide” does not serve me. Not everyone needs to share their struggles, but for me, sharing meant taking off the veil of shame and false appearances.

No one should be ashamed of an illness. Hiding it just keeps us sick and keeps us stuck. Mental illness is no different.

I am proud of my recovery. I am proud of the work it’s taken to get here, and I have compassion for the girl who was sick. That compassion, rather than self-loathing, is ultimately the thing that has facilitated my healing.

Recovery has been (and continues to be) my greatest teacher, both personally and professionally. Food and eating continue to force introspection and internal growth. There are some amazing eating disorder recovery advocates out there who are 100% healed and I am so proud of the work they’ve put in to get there.

While I can say that I’ve healed in tremendous ways, I am self-aware enough to know that I continue to work on my recovery and healing every day. I have not binged in 5 years. I have not purged in 5 years. I no longer over-exercise. I listen to my body about rest and exercise. I eat things I want more than ever before. I still am evolving in my recovery.

Three months ago, I severely sprained my ankle while trail running. The moment it happened, I looked up to the sky and started to cry. Not from pain, but because I knew why it was happening and that it needed to happen. I knew that I was becoming too reliant on exercise for my emotional release and I also knew that I was become too identified with the tone and shape of my body. This identification was lying somewhere in my preconscious. I wasn’t completely aware of it happening. This is perhaps one of the most challenging parts of eating disorder (ED) recovery – how slippery and subtle ED’s control becomes. It’s comfort in eating the same thing for lunch everyday or the security of knowing an exercise induced endorphin release is going to relieve a rough day. Taking 6 weeks off completely from exercise was (1) uncomfortable for the first few weeks and (2) liberating, empowering, and EXACTLY what I needed.

When I was bulimic, the red flags were obvious: bingeing, purging, exercising despite injury or illness. In recovery, the signs are far subtler AND they are things praised and admired in our society.

“You’re so healthy.” Or “You’re so disciplined.” I often want to respond with, “No, this is just where my control issues show up.”

Perhaps I will start responding that way so that it stops becoming idealized...

Today my recovery continues to look like high-fiving my husband when he comes home and I’m on the couch and I say, “I’m too tired to work out, so I didn’t.” It looks like pausing to ask myself what I really want when my first impulse is to go to the salad section on a menu. It’s savoring hash browns and pizza and ordering something I loved to eat as a kid. It’s putting the popcorn away and asking myself what I really need when I am zoning out and not tasting so much as shoveling.

Recovery As a Therapist

Most of us don’t become therapists by accident. Sometimes it’s the matching of our compassion, skill-set, and interests. And sometimes it’s these things plus our own life experiences, healing journeys, or family stories that bring us here. Rarely do we get here by accident.

As humans, we are all in recovery from something. Grief, past traumas, dysfunctional relationships, and self-criticism...some of these things just take on a more clinical pathology. An eating disorder, for example, has a whole clinical classification system in the DSM-5.

Regardless of what we are healing from, the individuals we work with will inevitably affect us. After all, most of us aren’t emotional robots (helpful as that may be). This emotional evocation is something that we must be keenly aware of. In the world of psychotherapy, when a client evokes emotions in us and we project our emotions or experiences onto them we call it countertransference.

Countertransference can be detrimental to aiding those we work with. It tends to happen a bit more in clients who remind us of circumstances that we have personally dealt with.

So how does this relate to being a therapist in recovery?

I can only speak for my experiences, as the management of countertransference issues is different for every therapist.

I work with many women who are in recovery from addiction. Bulimia, while not a substance addiction, was incredibly addictive and followed the same cycle. Having healed from this addiction has given me an insight, compassion, and an unwavering belief that true healing can happen and is possible. It’s also helped me to let go of the frustration of relapse and the sense that I can somehow control and facilitate someone else's healing.

My own experience has also forced me to be intensely aware of when I am emotionally triggered by a client whose experience reminds me of myself in some way. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t happen.

It’s in these moments that I’ve found the practice of mindfulness to be most helpful. When I notice myself leaning in a bit more or feel those emotional boundaries bending, I pause (internally) and remember that I am not the client and they are not me. I remember we are two very different and separate people.

It’s especially hard to let go when I see the red flags of relapse happening with those I work with. I want so badly to hit the pause button and feel this weight that I should somehow be able to stop it from happening.

And then I remember.

I remember that I am not the client and they are not me. I remember the countless amazing therapists and psychologists who I worked with every week for years to no avail. I remember learning the clinical skills and diving deep into self-understanding, only to slip and get sick. I remember going for a few weeks without bingeing and purging and then returning to it after I thought I was done with it. And I remember going to a residential treatment center, being the perfect patient for a few weeks simply to return to the familiar a few days after discharge.

I remember that I cannot heal anyone other than myself.

All I can do is offer compassion, tools, support, and a safe place for them to explore their world.

I can walk in my recovery. I can practice what I preach, treat myself with compassion, and continue to emotionally show up every day.

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