Metamorphosis: the transformative work of therapy in eating disorder recovery

A counselor once shared with me, “What a caterpillar calls death, a wise man calls a butterfly.” Throughout my ongoing war against my eating disorder, therapy has been the catalyst that has pushed me into my own metamorphosis—a transformation that required deep pain and loss to achieve much deeper fullness and joy. My experiences throughout my recovery led me to my calling into counseling, where I intend to share the same lifechanging gift with others.

When I was 16, I committed myself to becoming a state champion track athlete in the 100 and 300-meter hurdle events. As an aspiring young runner, I was exposed to an array of false, unhealthy information regarding nutrition and training regimens. Naivety proved itself to be my Achilles heel as I diligently searched for avenues to lower both my times and my body mass index (BMI)—an aspect I was told would help me reach my goal more quickly. At the peak of my senior year of high school, I achieved my state title wins, despite the fatigue and decline of my body due to overtraining and undereating. 

When I went off to university, the plethora of changes I would face during this sharp transition to adulthood further launched what would become an undiagnosed, silent, six-year battle against anorexia nervosa, a disease that threatened many times to take my life. Though outwardly I was earning high grade point averages, volunteering in the community, leading campus organizations, running collegiate track, and working in university offices, inwardly I was wasting away: my resting heart rate was dropping quickly, my brain seemed to be operating at half capacity, and my muscles were deteriorating. I was dying. 

My physical symptoms signaled that I needed to seek out help soon; over the course of three years, I would spend time in the hospital and see over 12 specialists and two general physicians, all of whom misdiagnosed me under the assumption that I was a “perfectly-healthy, young athlete.” However, in May of 2018, a few weeks before my 23rd birthday, an eating disorder specialist formally diagnosed me with what I had feared but not fully comprehended, telling me that I had no other option than to receive immediate, intensive care at a residential treatment facility for eating disorders. With much trepidation, I chose to begin my recovery the following week at a center out of state, where I spent multiple months nourishing my body and mind alongside other patients fighting for healing too. Despite the trauma and difficulty of residential treatment, I recognize that without this higher level of care, I never would have been able to force myself to do what was necessary for total healing; treatment, therefore, saved my life.

Over the course of the succeeding two years, I have continued the gradual and grinding process of recovery, which has exposed me to various therapeutic modalities, including Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Interpersonal Neurobiology, neurofeedback, writing therapy, and art therapy, among others. Experts in these various fields have invested countless hours in me, and have helped me understand myself and others more thoroughly. As a result, I feel called to model and pass along this level of investment in others through the path of counseling, where I, too, will be able to help hurting people become whole again through their own metamorphosis.

By placing my trust in the experts rather than in my eating disorder, I have been able to gradually progress in my recovery journey, despite the trials and tribulations along the way. Each member of my team was vital in my transition from a life ruled by my anorexia to a life ruled by my healthy self. My physician, for example, patiently answered each of my concerns along the way, taking time to inform, teach, and train me to understand the risks of my disease, as well as the benefits of a life free from its mental and physical confines; I learned from him that the real issue is never about “fat, food, figure, or fitness. It’s about feelings.” 

My dietician was also instrumental in articulating the importance and necessity of a meal plan, despite my ongoing resistance to it; I later learned she was correct: the meal plan is the basic building block of recovery, and without mastering its art, one cannot expect to fully get well. 

My therapist, though, has been the key to my success. From the beginning of our work together, he made great effort to ensure our relationship was built on mutual trust, respect, and a shared desire for my holistic healing. He patiently helped me face the very aspects of my past that led me to acquire my eating disorder in the first place; he taught me the value of learning to love and treat myself with the respect I so readily gave others, but could not seem to do for me; and, perhaps most importantly, he guided me through the dark days by making himself readily available to answer my calls when I required immediate help, intervening in a way that provided the appropriate and needed support to see me to the other side. In addition to this team of three, I was afforded the opportunity to work with both a writing and art therapist, each of whom showered me with wisdom and insight regarding how art, in all its forms, can contribute to a person’s better understanding of themselves, and ultimately, the healing of their wounds into scars. 

While anorexia was never in my 10-year plan, it led me to know myself and my calling in a way I may never have realized otherwise. Before my diagnosis and commitment to treatment, I was literally running on reserves I no longer had, both in the physical and emotional senses. Looking back, I realize I was constantly running from something, rather than to something. I had a deep-rooted fear of both my past and my future that desperately needed to be tended to and cared for within the security of a therapist-client relationship. My treatment team provided the necessary support, understanding, and encouragement to help me continue on my journey down the broken path toward healing. To them, I dedicate this poem of resilience in choosing the hard, but rewarding pathway—a feat I may have never chosen to fight without them.

Two Trails

I’m walking in a wild wood,

my footprints showing where I stood

and traveled further in.

These marks reveal where I have been.

To my left, the path is deep;

its grooves reveal a part of me:

the path that I have worn in well

from years I spent under its spell.

Oh! The stories I could tell

of each time on this trail I fell.

The left side path was once appealing:

I toiled and denied my feelings

as I ran from dawn ‘till dusk.

As I ran myself to dust.

To the right, the path is hiding

from the weeds and briars lying

in my line of sight.

Tell me how this path is right

if I could die just in the fight

to make it past the dark to light?

This path is fresh and has no marks;

in essence, it’s a brand new start

that leads into the great unknown.

By walking right, I’ll walk alone.

The fork embodies our true test,

to which our courage will attest

for whether we can choose what’s best

or keep on left…just like the rest.

The “left-side-circle” has no ending,

other than to keep you spending

all your time on things that hurt,

which send you back into the dirt.

But choose the right path,

the one less taken —

and you’ll find you weren’t mistaken

that it led you someplace new.

It led you right

to you.

About Sydney Elizabeth

Sydney studied Business and Biblical Studies at a private university in Dallas, Texas, before earning her Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree in 2017. Sydney lives in Texas and intends to pursue her second master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from a university in Houston this coming January. Because of her own transformative battle against anorexia nervosa, Sydney plans to utilize her personal experiences and education in the field of counseling to assist others who are suffering from eating disorders.

All articles by Sydney Elizabeth

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