Life in Balance

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‘Cutting edge’ therapy to fight eating disorders

October 6, 2013

by: Chris Traber

Janice Morgante, executive director, Eating Disorders of York Region’s Riverwalk Eating Disorders and Wellness Centres, left and psychoterapist Molly Pocklington Thompson discuss emotion focused family therapy.

From her early teens to mid-20s, Galit Osadtsuk was imprisoned in a nightmare.

Suffering from eating disorders anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, she described her 10-year battle as drowning daily, feeling trapped in a seemingly inescapable world.

“I felt helpless and hopeless,” the 28-year-old event specialist said of the disorder prevalent among 14 per cent of adolescent females and 6.5 per cent of boys.

She is unashamed, candid and graphic about the disorder, understanding that its genesis is mental illness. Eating disorders are affected by and affect in turn, biological, psychological, emotional, familial, cultural, spiritual, sexual, gender and social factors.

Ms Osadtsuk said she was made to feel fat for numerous reasons as a youngster. She was plagued by people’s thoughtless comments and her self perception.

“Messages weren’t being filtered,” she said. “Some can take it as a joke. Some take remarks seriously. Bulimia was merely a coping issue.”

By 14, she was binge eating and purging.

She would gorge then make myself throw up within 90 minutes so she wouldn’t have to think about the food being digested or the calories in her body,” she said.

To regurgitate, she would trigger her gag reflex with either two fingers or a toothbrush handle.

“It’s a terrible thing,” she said of the stomach acid and bile that erodes the esophagus and teeth. “I have major dental issues. It’ll costs thousands to fix. There’s no coverage. The whole thing is quite unfortunate.”

Ms Osadtsuk hid her activities, remaining silent. While coping with the disorder, she did earn a professional communications masters degree from the University of Western Sydney in Australia.

“I’m very proud of that,” she said.

Returning home, the five-foot, eight-inch woman weighed 88 lbs. Her watershed moment occurred at the airport when she couldn’t pull her luggage due to weakness, anemia and a vitamin deficiency.

“It was my breaking point,” she said. “I was in terrible shape.”

Her mother was instrumental in finding a road to recovery. The path led to Eating Disorders of York Region’s Riverwalk Eating Disorders and Wellness Centres in Aurora. She credits executive director Janice Morgante for a second chance at life, a renewed perspective and recovery.

“I was made to feel welcome,” she said of the non-profit agency founded in 2004 by families with experience of the devastation and death eating disorders cause. “It’s a safe, non-judgmental place. I never felt alone.”

The organization, based in the rejuvenated, historic Aurora post office, provides support programs facilitated by psychotherapists specializing in eating disorders for men and women of all ages struggling with all types of eating disorders, as well as support programs for their family and friends. The agency also offers assistance to individuals and families through a telephone help line and advocates for awareness and education for the purpose of prevention.

Ontario has Canada’s highest incidence of eating disorders, said Ms Morgante, a founding member of the Association for Recovery Coaching.

It’s a highly complex issue. Therapeutic resources are short and wait lists are long. Conservative estimates suggest 3 per cent of males and 6 per cent of females struggle with an eating disorder.

The malady doesn’t discriminate, affecting a cohort from preteens to seniors. More prevalent than breast cancer, HIV and schizophrenia, eating disorders receive far less attention and treatment resources.

Ever vigilant for new treatment techniques, Ms Morgante recently attended an emotion coaching conference. There, she met Toronto psychotherapist Molly Pocklington Thompson, an expert in emotion-focused family therapy, a new protocol for front-line professionals.

Beginning tomorrow, the centre, with Ms Pocklington Thompson facilitating, will launch an eight-week emotion-focused family therapy program.

Defined as “cutting edge, revolutionary” by Ms Morgante, the eating disorder therapy is the first of its kind in York Region. Given the high numbers of those whose with lives at risk and the sparse resources available, it is imperative to address the need with accessible, affordable and effective resources, she said of the session that costs $150 per person.

The therapy is rooted in the deep belief of the healing power of parents and family. As such, only family members participate. The individual struggling with the disorder is not present.

The program supports family members by teaching practical skills and tools. They learn to work through emotional blocks that may cause parents to feel helpless on their journey toward their loved ones’ recovery.

The therapy has three elements, Ms Pocklington Thompson said. Behavioral recovery coaching gives caregivers the tools to “re-feed” their children, be they young or adult.

“We are trying to demystify their role in their child’s recovery,” she said. “Many parents are walking on egg shells, afraid of making thing worse.”

Emotion coaching, part of emotional recovery, coaches parents as if they are new therapists. The third piece is working through the fear and challenges that surface along the way, fears of pushing too hard, fears of being unable to do the first two elements.

Working specifically with emotion in a family-based way is unique in the treatment of eating disorders in children, teenagers and adults, the women said. There is new research coming from the United Kingdom that shows the benefits of increased and active parent involvement in the treatment of eating disorder with adults is in line with this new research.

This way of working with families of adult children struggling with eating disorders is very different from what is being offered as part of standard treatment programs in Canada,” Ms Morgante said.

The therapy teaches parents to tune in and listen to the person with the disorder, Ms Pocklington Thompson said.

Ms Osadtsuk, now at an ideal weight for her height, credits the centre for her recovery. She recommends the same for anyone with an eating disorder.

“Reach out for help,” she said. “Know you’re worth it and know that it gets better.”

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