A father and daughter reflect on recovery from anorexia

This month I am publishing an interview with a former patient Emma*, a recovered anorexia sufferer, and her father, as both reflect on the journey to recovery through psychotherapy.

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Interview with Emma:

How old were you when you began therapy with your therapist, Mary?


What were the circumstances?

I had been suffering from anorexia for more than 8 years. I had seen a number of different therapists and had had in-patient treatment several times. I had had CBT and hypnotherapy. Hypnotherapy was relaxing but it didn’t solve the problem. I had both helpful and very unhelpful in-patient treatment. The unhelpful treatment was from consultants and nurses who didn’t listen, thought it was all about getting me to eat and didn’t look at the underlying causes of the disease. The last residential centre recommended Mary.

What were the main benefits of therapy?

The benefits of seeing Mary are that my attitude towards my eating, my body and my relationships changed. I was motivated and supported to make pro-active changes. The therapy allowed me to be more flexible and a great benefit is that I enjoy life so much more. Before, I was scared of eating out. Now there are all kinds of social activities that I do. I would never have done that in the past. Now I don’t have to make excuses; I can go out with my friends and enjoy a sociable evening with them.

Has it changed your relationship with your parents?

It has taught me everyone has flaws and now I can deal with that. I can manage my family relationships much better. And my parents have changed how they deal with me. Mary asked me how I felt about meeting with my parents. That was a really good idea. It changed how my parents treated me and they didn’t watch me anymore. It helped us all to know that my parents also trusted Mary. Our relationship is so much better now. Everyone is a winner.

Have other relationships changed?

As I have recovered I have been much more interested in other people.

Are there other aspects of therapy that helped you?

Mary understood me and provided a very safe, confidential space. I felt there was nothing I couldn’t tell her. I can talk about anything that is worrying me. Sometimes we didn’t talk about food and eating at all – that in the end led me to having the confidence to manage all aspects of my life, which then included food and eating.

Can you give an example of how therapy helped you?

I used to get very, very stressed about going on holiday. With Mary we would plan what would happen and that really decreased my stress levels. I now really look forward to my holidays. I could never have done that on my own.

Do you think this is sustainable?

Yes, definitely. I know how good life is at the moment and I would never want to go back to that dark place. I have learned a lot about myself through therapy. I have strategies now for coping with life’s challenges and its ups and downs. I also understand it is hard and it takes work. It is so worth fighting for.

What have you learned from your therapy with Mary?

I have learned it is good to get things out in the open and be completely honest. I could do that because I knew I could completely trust Mary.

What would you say is the greatest challenge?

An eating disorder is insidious in the way it becomes a comfort. It is a safe place to be. It takes a big “leap of faith” to leave that safe place and keep going for the long haul. For me, it would not have been possible without the support of someone I trusted.

Is there anything else you would like to add about how Mary helped you?

Mary recommended that I have sessions with a yoga teacher. That was also a game changer. The yoga teacher helped me to focus on how my body could be strong and flexible. That made a big difference in helping me to respect my body and improve my body image.

Interview with Emma’s father:

What were the circumstances that led you to seek therapeutic support for Emma?

Emma clearly could not have coped on her own and been able to return to university without on-going support from a therapist with experience in eating disorders. It was the most important factor in sustaining her recovery. She had been in residential care and that had taken her through her crisis.

Why did you choose Mary?

She was recommended by the residential centre.

What were your first impressions?

My first impressions were that she very quickly won Emma’s trust. Quite early on, and with Emma’s consent, she included the family in sessions. It was so heartening to be included in the process. It was a safe environment for the family to talk openly about the role of each of us. At the beginning we were very stressed, especially about what would happen when Emma was at university. Through our conversation we understood that Emma would be supported by Mary in taking responsibility for her recovery and we as parents should not feel we had to monitor her eating. It was also important that she had advice from a nutritionist. Having clear roles for everyone was crucial. All of us bought into that contract and that transformed our family life.

In what other ways did Mary help?

Mary had contact with the university and without that Emma would not have been allowed to resume her studies.

Recovering or healing from an eating disorder is a long process that has many aspects. Emma’s confidence in herself was very shakey at first and I think Mary gradually worked to build her confidence and to give her practical strategies for coping with life’s ups and downs. For example, at exam times, Emma felt pulled back into that anorexic way of thinking and controlling her eating. Mary was her first point of call. Gradually I could see that Emma was building her resilience.

*Names have been changed

Mary Wood

“Food is much more than just a matter of fuel – it marks us as human, situates us in time and place and shapes our relation to each other and the rest of the world” (Polly Russell) Mary Wood has over 15 years of experience working with individuals and families to treat the full spectrum of eating disorders, weight management and body image. Mary helps clients move beyond the established diet myths and beliefs, to a new and mindful relationship with food and eating. Mary helps clients understand and address root causes, which may include trauma, stress and low self-esteem and she understands how disordered eating can blight happiness, relationships and self–belief. Mary empowers her clients to achieve greater vitality and resilience by challenging destructive patterns and establishing new routines and relationships, and teaching new skills to cope with everyday situations. Mary uses an integrative and multi-disciplinary based approach to focus on the unique journey of each patient. When appropriate Mary works with clinical practitioners, dieticians and nutritionists. Mary sees clients in West London and online. She also runs online group programmes for weight management.