Gabrielle | Volunteer to Career
As someone who recovered from anorexia nervosa, I never imagined that I would one day be supporting others who are wearing the shoes I once wore. I applied to and went to university to study psychology because I was interested in supporting others with anxiety and trauma. Specializing in eating disorder care never crossed my mind until later in my educational career.
Why am I here?
“Professionals who work with eating disorders are very hard to find.” A former professor of mine stated this in front of the class at the end of our lecture on eating disorders.
I felt sorrow hearing that a group of people with a mental illness I once struggled with are not only challenged with their eating disorder, but also with seeking psychological help to overcome their illness.
I deeply reflected upon whether I had healed from my eating disorder and could provide unbiased and adequate care to others before concluding this was a specialty I wanted to and could pursue. In the end, I knew I could handle it.
When I graduated university with my Honors Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, I knew I wanted to provide psychological care for patients with eating disorders. By this time, I had already engaged in 2 years’ worth of peer support experience with many different non-profit organizations, but I truly wanted to apply what I’ve learned in a clinical manner. After weeks of job searching, I found the first and only opening for a Mental Health Technician/Recovery Coach providing eating disorder support and treatment in Vermont. The Kahm Center is the first treatment center in Vermont to offer Intensive Outpatient and Partial Hospitalization Programs for eating disorders. They focus on nutritional healing rather than weight restoration alone to support a patient’s recovery. As a strong believer in this approach, I knew I had to try my best to get the position.
I was fortunate and feel very grateful to have been hired at the Kahm Center. During my onboarding process, I was told that my role was to support psychotherapists in day-to-day tasks and run groups that utilize peer eating disorder support, art, writing, mindfulness, and music to support their recovery. However, before I began to run these groups, one of the first things I did for the patients was reassure them that I am here for them and asked them if there were any topics or groups they would like to see more of in their recovery. In my eyes, building rapport is one of the most important things a worker in this field can do. You never know what patients have gone through at other treatment centers or with other treatment providers, thus it is crucial that you facilitate a safe environment for them.
How do I navigate my feelings around triggers and observing behaviors I used to engage in?
I promised myself that I would be honest with my team if I felt that providing psychological support to individuals with active eating disorders was too much for me. Fortunately, I have never had to question whether this was a specialty that I was ready for. That doesn’t mean seeing certain behaviors isn’t tough for me. When this happens, I identify the emotion or feeling I might be experiencing and briefly reflect on why. With many years of practicing this exercise, it has become more and more automated. If internal reflection alone doesn’t resolve my stress, I try to listen to my mind, body, and soul to determine what kind of self-care is needed.
How did I get here?
Quite honestly, the best answer to this question (besides getting experience in the field) is time. Before considering whether this was a job I wanted, I had to consider whether this was a job in which my eating disorder would not fog my cognition. And before ever knowing of this career path, I had to learn how to recover from my eating disorder and manage my anxiety. This all came to place with almost 8 years of effort towards recovery.
As for experience, being a volunteer and running peer support groups with ANAD and other non-profit organizations gave me a solid, foundational understanding of what working in the field of clinical psychology was like. These experiences also provided me with opportunities to further build my active listening skills and develop an in-depth appreciation for the field. I also encourage folks who are interested in this specialty to explore what it looks like to provide support for a variety of different mental health challenges! Not only will this help reassure whether working with patients with eating disorders is the specialty for you, but it will also help prepare you for working with patients who have more mental health challenges than just their eating disorder alone.
You will not know the answer to every question a patient asks. You will not know how to respond to everything patients say, which can feel overwhelming and difficult to accept without feeling like a failure. During these moments, I like to remind myself to practice radical acceptance, ask for support from my coworkers/supervisor, and treat myself with kindness.
The message that helped you heal may not help someone else in the same capacity.
Everyone has a different story and benefits from different approaches to counseling and peer support. One of the best things you can do for patients is to keep an open mind. By doing so, you’re able to take in a patient’s experience holistically and filter out your own biases about eating disorder treatment. When I wear my mental health technician cap, I try hard to respond to what the patient needs, not what I needed to hear when I was in their shoes.
In my experience, it’s best to ask someone for their advice rather than make a choice on my own that may lead to more conflict or difficulty down the road. Not to say that making mistakes is a bad thing; these can be great learning opportunities! However, you’re not the only employee at a treatment center for a reason. Teamwork makes the dream work!
Having confidence and feeling self-assured can go a long way. This can be easier said than done. Thus, it’s so important to foster a mental environment for yourself to allow these elements to grow when you are home and at work. Your team brought you aboard for a reason, and trusting their decision can help you grow in your workplace. Once again, if you feel uncertain about something, help is out there!
Gabrielle Albert is a recent university undergrad graduate from the University of Ottawa. In addition to working at the Kahm Center’s IOP/PHP program for eating disorders, she enjoys playing video games with her friends, watching anime, exploring nature, and exercising (with mindful intent and for fun!).