This is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, so we have interviewed Johanna Kulp, LCSW, of Live Well Therapy Associates, about eating disorder recovery. Johanna is a therapist whose clinical expertise includes working with individuals and couples in the treatment of eating disorder issues. She is also trained and experienced in grief therapy, self-esteem building, personal growth, adjustment to life changes, and anxiety and depression. She graduated with a degree from the University of Pennsylvania where her training focused on psychodynamic therapy skills to help her clients heal and grow. Subsequently, she continued her work at the Renfrew Center for eating disorder treatment and the University of Pennsylvania before joining Live Well Therapy Associates. Read our Q and A with Johanna below:

1) Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to do this work.
Eating disorder recovery work is something that I have been passionate about for a long time. While in high school and college, I struggled with an eating disorder and was very lucky to have numerous people in my life help me along into full recovery. I’m honored to be able to be a part of that same type of support system for others now.

2.) What are some signs that you or a loved one might be struggling with an eating disorder?
There are numerous different signs but a few noteworthy things to look for are an intense obsession with food/calories/weight. Someone with an eating disorder will hyper-focus on these things, in part because of a great fear of gaining weight. Along with the preoccupation of food is also the avoidance of events that involve food thus limiting social interactions and increasing isolation. An individual will also experience poor body image, and may even try to hide their figure under layers of baggy clothes. It’s also important to note that there is no certain way that a person “looks” with an eating disorder—eating disorders come in all sizes and shapes.

3.) How can you broach the subject of treatment with someone you care about?
I would say the first and one of the most important things is to educate yourself. Read through all of the information on the National Eating Disorder Association’s page or check out the resources from Project Heal. Secondly, it’s important to speak openly but out of love and concern for your loved one. Avoid phrases that attack, but approach the subject with questions and ask how you can help and support the person. Examples would be “I’m concerned about…” “How can we get you help?” Lastly, know that you cannot force someone to get help, it’s ultimately their own choice.

4.) What sort of treatment is effective in healing and recovery from eating disorders?
One of the most important and effective things is to make sure that you have a multi-disciplinary team that includes a nutritionist, a psychotherapist, primary care doctor, and psychiatrist (if appropriate). All are central in recovery. Also, different types of psychotherapy have been proven to be effective, specifically cognitive behavioral therapy. And it is important that the psychotherapist you work with specialize in eating disorder work.

5.) What are some tips you give to individuals to help them in their recovery?
I have so many, it’s hard to pick just a few! The first thing I would say is that having an eating disorder is nothing to be ashamed of. And that letting go of that shame is one of the keys to recovery, as well as laying the groundwork to be open and vulnerable with others.  Secondly, I don’t ever want my clients to feel that it is impossible, or unattainable to feel free from their eating disorder; it can feel like an uphill battle, but that’s where your determination and focus comes in. Recovery is tough, but you are tougher!  Lastly, I also tell my clients to just take the next right step. Don’t get bogged down in what to do seven days from now, just take the next right step in this moment.

6.) What do you wish more people knew about eating disorders?
So many people assume that if someone WANTS to recover, they will and therefore if they aren’t recovering it’s because they really don’t want to. Not true! Recovery involves so many things being worked on—coping strategies, co-occurring mental health issues, self-esteem, body image, and relational issues. All of these things need to be worked on in order for someone to recover. It’s not just a matter of wanting, but of learning and growing.

7.) What do you want your clients to know about peer support?
Many of my clients shy away from talking openly with friends, family members or even attending group therapy for eating disorder recovery. But these can be some of the most helpful things to do! Realizing that you’re not alone, being vulnerable with someone and gaining connection can help a person move forward.

For more information, including tools and resources, visit the National Eating Disorder Association.  Here in Delaware, you can check out theAI DuPont Children’s hospital program for children.  Other Delaware practitioners who work in the area of eating disorders can be found at Mid-Atlantic Counseling, Alliance Counseling, and Mel Strunk Therapy in Sussex county.