Eating Disorder Therapy

Eating Disorder Therapy

By Nancy Maes

Entertainment news has recently chronicled the re-appearance of pop singer Ke$ha after she spent time in rehab for an eating disorder at Timberline Knolls in Lemont, a suburb southwest of Chicago. They’ve quoted her tweet “Feeling healthy & am working on tons of new music,” pointing out that she has now replaced the dollar sign in her name with the letter “s” and published a photo of her wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with “Ima(sic) survivor.”

Timberline Knolls, where Kesha found treatment, is a 43-acre wooded residential treatment center for adult women and teen-age girls with anorexia nervosa who starve themselves, with bulimia nervosa who binge eat and then purge to eliminate the food and with binge eating disorder.

The cause of eating disorders varies from one patient to another, but one thing remains true. “We say that genetics loads the gun and the environment pulls the trigger because we think that people who develop eating disorders have a genetic predisposition as well as environmental exposures that lead to the expression of the illness,” explains psychiatrist Kim Dennis, MD, CEDS, who is the medical director of Timberline Knolls.

Patients with an eating disorder may have experienced outside influences such as physical abuse or the loss of a loved one, or they may have been the object of bullying or felt the need to be perfect with the mistaken belief that they can achieve perfection by being thin. The media, in its glorification of thin actresses and waif-like models as the epitome of the ideal of beauty, also play a role in promoting eating disorders.

Because each patient has his or her own unique personality and his or her own causes for the eating disorder, and perhaps for additional problems such as substance abuse, depression or self-injury, treatments are designed specifically for each individual. While all patients attend one-on-one sessions with an individual therapist and see another therapist with their family members and attend nutrition sessions, they might also participate in art and dance therapies.

“Patients are willing to engage in these therapies because they’re fun and there has to be some amount of enjoyment in the process because it can be really hard to get through it,” says Dennis. “The bigger reason is that these types of therapies help get at the underlying issues of the eating disorder because they capture the emotions and feelings of the patients that it may be impossible for them to express verbally. They also help patients get back in touch with their creativity and their own true selves.”

Therapy with dogs and horses can also play a role in helping patients to heal. “Many patients who have a history of trauma, and even those who don’t, feel a lot more comfortable with animals than with humans because they’ve never been hurt by animals the way they’ve been hurt by human relationships,” says Dennis, “and many animals are extremely sensitive to the emotional experiences people are having and that is meaningful to patients.”

Dennis can easily relate to the issues of the patients at Timberline Knolls because she suffered from bulimia when she was in college and during her first years in medical school. Her two attempts to find help were unsuccessful because she encountered professionals who were not specialists in eating disorders. In her third year in med school, she finally talked to a family member about her bulimia and started seeing a specialist in treating her disease. “That really saved my life in a lot of ways and I’ve been recovered since 2001,” says Dennis. “It’s a gift to be able to let people know that this terrible disease is treatable.”

Stars in the entertainment world, like Kesha, who talk openly about their recovery from eating disorders can motivate teens and adults with the same eating patterns to find help. “It’s great if people with celebrity status who have had experience in getting help for a disorder that kills a lot of people in our country every year share a message of hope and healing and recovery in the media.”