Group Therapy Was Anything But Helpful
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
I sat on a brown folding chair at a wide square table in a dingy one story building that a local Eating Disorder Anonymous (EDA) group rented out once a week for their meetings. I had gone through outpatient, seen two different therapists. Read books about recovery. Made many small steps forward and just a few less steps back. Many of my early therapy sessions run together in my brain. The crying, the waffling, the not wanting to change but wanting to get better. Writing notes to people that I never sent: my parents, my grandparents, my coaches, my teammates, my boyfriend. Digging up my past to try to find the root cause of my behaviors, learning about intuitive eating, learning to believe that I am enough. But the EDA meetings I went to were few and far between. I didn’t much like group therapy, but I also longed for community and thought I might find it there.
I was gainfully employed by this time, and when the meeting leader passed a basket around at the beginning of the meeting, I watched people plop change into it. A few one-dollar bills. When the basket came to me, the only bill I could dig up was a five, so I dropped it in. The collection basket helped pay for the meeting space, helped us all be able to gather each week, sit in a circle, and share our unique pains. When I dropped the five in though, a girl next to me raised her eyebrows, “sheesh,” she said, “someone came with cash today.” I felt my face flush even though I had nothing to be embarrassed about. Who thinks five dollars is a lot of money?
The meeting proceeded as usual; we all said the EDA prayer. Each of us took turns talking about the topic of the week, which was making reparations. I didn’t have much to say because I hadn’t made reparations. I barely talked about my eating disorder at all, to anyone. I found it interesting that these people apologized to their loved ones for their own pain. It wasn’t their fault that they had fallen into the deep end of disordered eating. I wondered if apologizing was self-indulgent, a way to show that the mental illness was really bad. “See how bad I was?” these people seemed to be saying. “I was mean to my mom, I hid things from my family, I snapped at my boyfriend, I lost touch with friends.” It was as if we were all competing to see who was the most fucked up, and I remember thinking, “I don’t belong here. These people really need help.”
Of course, I also needed help, which is why I was there. I just didn’t find much help in these meetings. I felt triggered by the stories of my fellow EDA members. Simultaneously, I felt like I wasn't sick “enough.” People with eating disorders can be competitive. I saw it in my outpatient program, and I saw it again in these meetings. We all want to have the most sensational story, the most intense rock bottom, the most severe fall from grace. We want to be the best at being at our worst, and that can seem sick if you don’t understand it.
I spent a lot of my life telling myself that my eating disorder wasn’t real because it wasn’t bad enough. People are still denied treatment because they are not deemed “sick enough” by their healthcare providers. Our healthcare system is broken in many ways, but perhaps in no way so obviously as when it comes to mental health. Moreover, I had internalized messages that led me to believe that our brains can override our bodies. “Mind over matter” “Pain is just weakness leaving the body,” “to give anything less that your best is to sacrifice the gift.” My mind was strong in that I could starve myself but weak in that I couldn’t stop. I needed an illusion of control in order to function, and that is a dynamic many of us are caught in. I could have sought help earlier, before my body weight dipped too low or my hair started thinning or my liver started shutting down. But I probably would have been turned away, my insurance claims denied, because on the outside, I didn’t look like I had a problem.
After the meeting, the girl who leered at my five dollar bill approached me, “this your first meeting?” she asked. “It’s my first meeting here,” I emphasized, “I used to go to meetings in Chicago.” She didn’t seem to care. “have you ever gone to a narc abuse support group?” I shook my head, not really knowing what she meant. “My mom was such a narcissist, she really fucked me up. Even now, she’s always fishing for compliments, always cutting me down. But this support group gets deep, it’s way better than this one,” she said, gesturing backward over her shoulder toward the building we’d just exited. “Let me know if you want to go sometime.” I nodded and started walking toward my car, her following my footsteps. “Thanks again,” I said as I slid inside the driver’s seat, closing the door firmly behind me. Her eyes were animated, almost manic, and I noticed dozens of scars lining her forearms.
Maybe she was on something, I thought, or lots of things. Eating disorders are addictions, and it isn’t uncommon for people to suffer from multiple ailments: depression, anxiety, alcoholism, drug abuse. I was suddenly very aware that the world can be ugly and cruel; twisted and unsafe. I came to this meeting for community and safety but what I found was a group of people competitive in their depression and a woman who offered me a glimpse into severe mental unrest. I was slightly shaken and felt sick to my stomach. I didn’t feel better after interacting with the people who came to this group. I felt considerably worse. I didn’t go back to that meeting, or any other EDA meeting, ever again.
I feel compelled to note that not everyone feels triggered by group meetings or group therapy sessions, but it isn’t uncommon for group therapy to have the opposite of its intended effect. I chose to focus on my individual therapy, meeting with my dietitian, and surrounding myself with ordinary people who were happy and uplifting. As the saying goes, you are the company you keep, and I didn’t want to identify so closely with my eating disorder anymore, didn't want to be the woman who goes to EDA every week for the rest of forever.
P.S. If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, contact the NEDA helpline at 800-931-2237. Find an EDA meeting near you here, or find a therapist near you here.