I often write about people and professionals who have greatly impacted my recovery journey, but there has been one professional category that I have yet to write about. The Nutritionist. (Insert negative ‘Dun-dun-dun’ music here.) Nutritionists get the worst rap out of anyone on the ED Treatment team. Not to mention, they also own various pieces of rubber food to teach portion size, which certainly does not buy them any cool points.
My first encounter with a nutritionist was in an outpatient setting and was terrible. Not because of the nutritionist, but because she represented everything I was scared of – food, body, weight, symptoms. She also produced a plate full of rubber food at my second appointment. No. No. No. I took one glance at the murky brown patty of rubber rice and I ran out, vowing never to go back.
Since I could not ‘opt out’ of nutrition therapy at the Carolina House, I had to face the person (and the rubber food) I feared most. Before treatment, I had this idea that nutritionists were the food police. They were there to tell me I wasn’t eating enough or judging me for eating a certain food or quantity. The Carolina House nutritionist proved me wrong in every aspect of my stereotypical thinking. Jenn Burnell treated me like a person and not a patient, never making me feel small or judged. I could feel the compassion and she had for her patients and the passion for her job.
Every week I met with Jenn. And every week I was adamant that I did not have food rules or food fears. She always nodded politely and responded with a simple, “Okay.” But each week I discovered that maybe I had one or two food rules. Then those rules started to add up, like really add up. Okay, maybe I did need work on a ‘few things’. Week by week, meeting by meeting, she not only helped me realize the damage my eating disorder did to my body, but also how it destroyed my relationship with food. However, the greatest gift she gave me was in helping me realize that I could eventually undo all the rules and ultimately find peace with food and body again.
While we did not have daily one-on-one meetings, I saw her every day in the kitchen, preparing her lunch and leading by example. I would look on with watchful eyes to see what she ate and to my disordered surprise, she ate like a ‘normal person’. She ate with flexibility and ease, just like the rest of the staff members. That was a huge plus of the Carolina House – the family style kitchen where staff would flow in and prepare their lunch. It blew my mind as staff members were able to come in the kitchen and fix their plates with ease. That was my goal – I wanted that, but I was sure it probably was not possible for me. I knew I was a Salad (dressing on the side) For Life person and would never have the flexibility to order off the right side of the menu…or so I thought.
For one of our last appointments we sat outside. It was a gorgeously warm day in early spring. Her sweet dog (whom I loved and love) was there with us. It was the day that I ‘confessed’ that I liked ice cream – Moose Tracks Ice Cream. Gasp. The thought of someone liking ice cream with peanut butter and fudge deliciousness. How terrible! I told her this as if I was confessing a mortal sin to a priest. She looked back at me and simply said, “Yum. It’s good isn’t it?” The sincere truth and compassion behind her simple statement knocked the wind out of me. You mean it is OKAY to LIKE ice cream? WOW. This was a new concept to me: realizing there was nothing shameful about enjoying and eating food – whatever food it may be. And also that food was food – there was no good food nor bad food. Our society tends to put moral value on food. Celery = Good. Ice Cream = Bad. From an early age, I believed that I was a bad and shameful person for liking ice cream. Over my time at the Carolina House and the work since, I began to see that what I like and what I eat has ZERO to do with my character as a human being.
This past week, I had the absolute pleasure of sharing a meal with Jenn after SmashTALK: UGA. She was there representing our sponsor, Carolina House, and also served on the panel. As we sat down to dinner that evening, I wanted to make sure she was comfortable having a meal with a former patient. She laughed and said, “Well, we’ve eaten plenty of meals before together!” So true. And how nice that this meal was simply a meal – not a challenge snack or a restaurant outing. It was a delicious meal celebrating the success of another SMASH/Carolina House partnership, but moreover a toast to the journey of recovery and the extraordinary work that professionals, like Jenn, do each and every day.
To my readers who are fighting the good fight of recovery and may struggle with those nutrition appointments:
Next time you want to throw the rubber food back at your nutritionist, remember that they are people too. He or she is not there to hurt you or ‘make you fat,’ that’s your eating disorder talking. He or she truly wants to help you heal that relationship in any way he or she can. So slowly put down the rubber mashed potatoes and hug your nutritionist. Their job is not easy, but my guess is that the reward of seeing you make it to the light of recovery is worth every rubber food smack down.
And to Jenn,
Thank you for restoring my faith and helping me understand the monumental role nutritionists play in eating disorder recovery. The impact you made on my life is felt each and every day, with each and every bite. My day is no longer consumed with what I will eat or what I have eaten. Food is simply food. And like you always said, your body will tell you what it wants and what it needs if you let it. Lo and behold you were right! Thank you for helping me repair the damage and believing that even I could order off the right side of the menu. You believed in me all along, even when I didn’t. Thank you for your compassion and the work you do. And most of all, thank you for never using rubber food.
With gratitude and love,