“I’ve been in therapy for 18 years, and I’ve still got a pretty significant case of Anorexia.”
Recently, these words were uttered to me over the phone by an adult with Anorexia Nervosa (AN) who was desperate for help. A successful professional and devoted mother to three young daughters, she, like so many who suffer from AN, seems to “have it all.” Her husband was aware of her illness – he had attended a few therapy sessions – but it was never discussed openly. Although he was terrified that she would die, he had no idea how to help her. In fact, he had been advised by her former treatment providers that he should not try to “fix” her – that was her job. Like most men, he was begging for something concrete, a specific job to do, something to latch onto and work towards to help save his precious wife.
“I know my life inside and out,” this woman told me. “I have so much insight. It just hasn’t gotten any better.”
If someone has been in therapy for 18 years – or even 18 weeks – there should be marked, measurable improvement. Even 18 days into treatment, there should be something concrete – a written treatment plan, psycho-education for the patient and family, recommendations of reading materials and resources, development of specific goals. There should be hope. Psychotherapy research has shown that the instillation of hope – which is one common factor present in all types of psychological treatment – is the predominant mechanism of change in the first few weeks of treatment.
If someone who is suffering from a life-threatening, soul-killing mental illness for 18 years without making any improvement, where is the hope? How can someone possibly have hope that their condition will improve when they have been dutifully going to therapy with eating disorder experts for almost two decades? In the amount of time it takes to raise a child from birth through high school graduation, there has been no measurable change. Can you imagine such an interminable, grueling, agonizing battle?
In these chronic cases, inevitably the patient begins to blame herself. Her family, once supportive and nurturing, becomes paralyzed with guilt and fear, with anger and frustration. They, too, lose hope.
Let me tell you this: if you have been in treatment for 18 years, 18 months, even 18 weeks, and your condition has not improved, TREATMENT HAS FAILED YOU. No matter how long you have suffered, no matter how many treatment programs you’ve been through, or how many therapists you have seen, or how many relationships have been destroyed by this horrific illness, THERE IS HOPE.
New science offers hope for people with AN. We know so much more now than we did even 5 years ago. This new knowledge is power – it is ammunition against even the most severe, chronic, “treatment resistant” cases.
If you have been in treatment for a significant period of time without improvement, please do not blame yourself. It is your treatment team’s job to help you get well. Even if you don’t want it. Even if your motivation wavers. Even if you are ambivalent about change. These feelings are symptoms of the illness, and you deserve treatment regardless. If your therapist is kind and warm and empathic and you have wonderful relationship, that is terrific – but these things alone will not get you well.
You need a treatment team that will stand up to AN; a team that will insist upon prompt nutritional restoration, achievement of your optimally healthy body weight, cessation of eating disorder behaviors, skills to cope with unhealthy thoughts and negative emotions, and treatment of any comorbid psychiatric conditions.
If your clinicians have not been able to help you, I beg you, I implore you, to find a second opinion. Find a third, fourth, fifth opinion if needed. You deserve effective treatment, and you need something concrete – a specific plan – to help you reach full recovery.