I had lunch recently with a couple of colleagues who do not work primarily with eating disorders. We were discussing the issue of whether it's appropriate to keep in contact with ex-patients. Both of my colleagues seemed quite clear in their position, that it's never appropriate: "once a patient, always a patient"; "our ethical guidelines indicate we don't create dual relationships". We also discussed the pros and cons of attending events, such as graduations or weddings, on the invitation of a patient. Again they were both of the opinion this would not be acceptable. I shared with them that my experience as a therapist has been quite different. I have, in fact, attended events when invited by patients. I do, in fact, keep in contact with some of my patients, at their initiative: although I have also contacted patients to encourage them to participate in a survey, or to invite them to a special event involving Eating Disorders Awareness Week. A few of my patients have gone on to become therapists or dietitians, and we have even allowed one young woman to shadow the dietitian at our practice.
My style as a therapist has always been to be somewhat accessible about my own life. I share from my own experiences: although I have never had an eating disorder, I have had the struggle with self esteem and body dissatisfaction that is common to most women. I don't mind talking about what's "normal" during adolescence, or my experiences as a professional juggling career and family, or ideas about child raising that worked for me. I believe one of the most powerful avenues for healing is the modeling we bring to young women who are confused and overwhelmed with their life choices. In fact, whether we acknowledge it or not, our behavior is being watched closely. I see no harm in allowing questions and opening ourselves up to mentoring.
NEDA is also a unique professional organization in that families and sufferers are invited to attend our national conference. Many professionals in this field have themselves recovered and appear to draw from their recovery when helping others. We stand shoulder to shoulder with families and sufferers as we work to bring change to our culture. Involvement with NEDA has likely also encouraged my thinking in this regard. I know I've been "changed for the better" as a result.
I'd love to hear from other professionals about this issue. Your thoughts? Until next time, Gail