A Smoother Road to Eating Recovery

Alisa Fliss, EdS, MBA

Sierra Tucson’s Evolved Approach to Disordered Eating
by Alisa Fliss, EdS, MBA
Director of Business Development, Acadia Healthcare – Recovery Division

Recently, I received an invitation to a conference call to learn about the latest updates on Sierra Tucson’s Eating Recovery Program. I have to admit, this was a conference call to which I looked forward. There’s a real need in our communities for programs like that of Sierra Tucson’s, a treatment center that truly treats the entire individual using an integrated approach and addresses the underlying issues alongside the behaviors. During the call, it was announced that, from now on, Sierra Tucson will treat disordered eating as a co-occurring condition to primary diagnoses such as depression, anxiety, trauma, chronic pain, or substance use disorder.

At first, I was somewhat perplexed. I took the weekend to reflect on these changes, and it brought me back to my early years in recovery from anorexia and bulimia. I thought about my own treatment experience, and my mindset started to shift. I thought about what my recovery might have looked like had I, after multiple times in treatment, received help to address the underlying issues as the primary focus of my work, while concomitantly receiving the support needed for my eating disorder. I wondered, “Could this be what the eating disorder treatment industry has been missing all along?”

Let’s face it: I was an expert on food before treatment, and I was an expert on food after treatment. I knew what I needed to do, but I did what my disordered self wanted to do. Subsequently, every inpatient or residential stay for my eating disorder was spent with the majority of those weeks learning how to eat all over again, every time. I’m not saying that I didn’t need structure and to regain a normal state of nutritional and behavioral equilibrium, but did I need to return to the basics? I couldn’t help but wonder.

Given I had the unique experience of having one of my final eating disorder treatments chronicled in an HBO documentary, I could very well say that most people with whom I have a relationship know my story. Unfortunately, though, even the documentary focused predominantly on weight and food, food and weight, and the maladaptive behaviors that I used to lose weight. That’s not actually my story though, and today I am proud to say that. My story is so much richer and goes far deeper than the behaviors. To understand the disorder, wouldn’t one need to know the back story?

What most people don’t know, and what I’ve very rarely acknowledged or disclosed even to those who know me, is that my eating disorder was how I managed, or mismanaged, and suppressed my depression, anxiety, and trauma. Most people have heard me say, “I’m in recovery from an eating disorder.” Nevertheless, I don’t know that I’ve ever said out loud that I have battled with depression and anxiety, and that I am a trauma survivor, probably because most of my residential therapeutic work was around the disordered eating behaviors, symptom stabilization, and body image work.

I’ve been in recovery for 13 years now. Early on, I had an encounter with someone who was still struggling with her eating disorder, and she asked me what recovery felt like. I paused for a moment and tried to put feelings into words – feelings that, at the age of 30, I was just realizing were actual sensations in the body and not just thoughts and ideas. I remember responding to her question, “It’s awful, grueling, painful, anxiety-provoking, miserable, and depressing!”

She then asked, “So why in the world do you do it?”

I confidently stated, “Because all of the pain, anxiety, and misery are still so much better than the nothing I felt when I was active in my disorder.” I also remember saying, “I don’t starve myself anymore, nor do I binge and purge, but I still get anxious over having to pay bills, among many other things. I still get nervous in certain situations, and I still go into avoidance mode when I get too overwhelmed, and…” the list goes on.

The road to recovery was very bumpy, but I’m not so sure it needed to be. For someone like me, who knew “how” to eat, was a program with a primary eating disorder focus necessary the second, third, or fourth time around? Had I known there were primary programs for mood, anxiety, trauma, and/or PTSD, where I could focus on the underlying issues while still receiving the necessary support for recovery from my eating disorder, would I have learned to deal with the uncomfortable emotions and core issues? Maybe the road to recovery would not have been so riddled with pitfalls.

Sierra Tucson gets my stamp of approval! As a clinical community, it’s time to evaluate what clients need at any given time in their process. For one individual, stabilization and medical intervention may be required, in which Sierra Tucson might not be appropriate; but for another, time might be needed to figure out how to live a healthy life in a world filled with fears, stressors, triggers, flashbacks, feelings of depression, and, let’s not forget, those who trade their eating disorder for other addictions whenever the going gets tough.

As the director of business development for Acadia Healthcare – Recovery Division, I work with professionals to match treatment and recovery programs that are right for their clients/patients. Our team of treatment placement specialists (TPS) is an important link in the recovery chain. Every TPS must fully understand what makes each facility and its offerings unique. These dynamic professionals come from a diverse collection of healthcare backgrounds and individual experiences in behavioral health treatment that allow them to guide individuals in finding the most comprehensive help available. As such, it takes more than just education for us to be effective. It takes a special kind of expertise and compassion that serve as a true resource for professionals and their clients/patients.

There is hope, and Sierra Tucson, with its evolved and comprehensive approach to disordered eating treatment, is here to help. If you, your loved one, or your client/patient continues to struggle and is ready to address the underlying issues that keep him or her stuck in the cycle of disordered eating, call (800) 842-4487 to speak with an Admissions Coordinator, or find your local treatment placement specialist (TPS) by visiting www.treatmentplacementspecialists.com.