Today is National Registered Dietitian (RD) Day, and International Women’s Day. Last week, I received the following question from an anonymous RD. To be clear, I received this question through my Let’s Talk About It form (which is always open) without a name or email address, so it’s purely my assumption that it came from a woman. I assume this because an estimated 7 million women suffer from an eating disorder (ED) in America, compared to 1 million men. (Both sexes deserve equal attention, awareness, and care, of course. Also, YES, we will continue to talk about eating disorders.) And the Commission on Dietetic Registration’s 2013 report shows that out of 89,300 dietitians, 94 percent (84,177) are women. So today, a day for dietitians and women, felt like the right time to address the question below.
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I feel like I’ve made huge strides with my eating disorder on my own, but still feel like there are things left unresolved since I never received proper treatment from a therapist or dietitian, and sometimes I don’t know how to deal with the thoughts and behaviors that are reminiscent of my ED days when they sometimes pop back during times of stress. As a professional in the health field myself now (I’m an RD), I feel like I’ve missed my chance. What do you think I should do?
I think you should give yourself some credit, first. A lot of it, actually. It is NOT easy to make strides in recovering from an eating disorder, with or without professional help. Maybe you thought, “I’m a professional, so I can figure this out myself.” Or maybe help wasn’t available to you for a while (it can be expensive, it’s hard to find the right person, all the things). Or maybe you weren’t sure where to seek it, and the process was (or still is) a little bit overwhelming. That’s how I feel about finding and working with an accountant right now. It’s a fraction of how I felt when I knew I wanted to put my eating disorder behind me, but had no idea how to unleash it from my psyche. So, first, just know that you are in the a (generally) positive emotional place—meaning you want to get better, you know you can— and it seems like you’re working hard for yourself. That’s just about all we can ever hope for, in any situation.
OK, that said: You did NOT miss your chance.
Recovery is ongoing. I’m not convinced it ever fully stops, but maybe that’s because it hasn’t for me. I say I’m recovered because I don’t think about food all-day-every-day anymore. I don’t count calories at all. I’m fine with indulging a craving for eggs or one for a cookie. I don’t stress about fat, or overanalyze the way my body feels. I don’t feel guilty after eating anything, and that’s maybe one of the biggest signs of recovery for me. I felt ready to be open about my personal struggles, how they resulted in amenorrhea, and what I did to climb out of the ED hole. But I’ve been doing actual rock-wall-climbing recently, and it’s teaching me a lot of weird life lessons through very simple metaphors. One that feels appropriate here: you can climb up and come down over and over and over, there’s not just one peak or one “top” to reach. Some climbs feel easier than others, some days you just don’t have it, and sometimes you don’t reach the top before you need to come back down. Some days you reach the top repeatedly, and are so proud of what you’re learning and accomplishing, the way you can problem solve with a certain route, and the way you’ve learned to engage your muscles and pull or push yourself up. Some days you belay down with the sweetest feeling of relief because you’re not holding on so tightly anymore, and you can let someone else do the work for a few sweet seconds.
If you’ve never been climbing before, 1) give it a try and 2) just know that what I mean to say is that recovery is up and down for a while. And then even when you’re recovered, you may have a bad day. But you’ll have so many good days that even on a bad one, you’re strong enough to shake it off and keep yourself engaged in the climb up.
I think you should reach out to someone for help.
Maybe it’s another RD, maybe it’s a therapist, maybe you talk to both! Due to luck and good timing, I benefited greatly from shadowing a private practice RD for a while. At the time, she had been in practice for a few years and had worked with some eating disorder clients. Sitting in those sessions allowed me to tune into a healthier narrative about food than the one that was trying to sneak back into my head. In hindsight, actually working one-on-one with a dietitian would have been extremely helpful, too.
Our culture holds both RDs and women to unreasonable health and body standards. In your (not-so-rare) eating disorder case, the potential stigma of not being in perfect health while working in a health-related field is preventing you from getting care. I didn’t speak up about my eating disorder for years because I was scared of this exact stigma. I didn’t think I could be taken seriously as a dietitian if I didn’t have my shit 100 percent together. (Side note: no one has their shit together 100 percent of the time.) In social situations, I didn’t think I could be taken seriously as a woman if I ordered something too “healthy” at a group meal, or filled my plate with only “healthy” things at a party. We’re expected to be both thin and toned, and cheese-burger-guzzling bottomless pits whose metabolism miraculously makes up for all the sweets, wine, and giant burgers we can impressively down without gaining a pound. That person doesn’t exist, nor should she have to.
Real talk: You do not have to be in perfect health to be a certified registered dietitian.
Technically, you have to complete the prerequisites, get your supervised practice hours, and pass the exam. Getting help (to recover from an eating disorder) is not a sign of weakness or a knock to your credibility, it’s a sign of strength.
Last but not least, I think you should remember that you’re not alone. That’s why I write about my eating disorder experiences, however common they may be among both women and dietitians. My stories may not be unique, but they are necessary for awareness. You are not the only person who has struggled with this—I hope that brings you comfort. I hope it also provides you with whatever last little push you needed to do what’s right for you, not what you think might be right for your career in dietetics. But actually, I hope you see that they are one and the same.