The right to privacy

Tonight my husband asked me if I had told anyone in my graduate cohort about having had an eating disorder, and how that experience brought me into clinical psychology. I have not told anyone yet, and may not do so for a very long time, if ever. Even within the field of mental health, there is still some stigma surrounding the admission of mental illness by its practitioners. When I was applying for Ph.D. programs in clinical psychology, for example, I studiously avoided any mention of eating disorders or my own experiences in therapy. It wasn't hard to do -- I had a story ready for anyone who asked me how I became interested in psychology, and though it is only part of the truth, it was enough to keep me feeling authentic.

The other night, however, I heard what was perhaps the best explanation yet for why psychologists and psychologists-in-training might want to think twice about letting other people in their profession know about their own histories with mental illness. I was at a meeting about externships in neuropsychology, and a member of a panel discussion strongly advised the students in the audience to avoid putting too much personal information in their application essays. "In this profession [clinical psychology], it is necessary for us to know how to maintain personal boundaries, and part of what you show us in writing an application essay is how well you will be able to maintain those boundaries in your practice."

Hearing her words, I felt a sense of relief. So I wasn't the only one hiding my past! And nor was there anything to be ashamed of in doing so -- in fact, it is de rigeur in the profession! In a sense, this speaker gave me the permission to do what I have instinctively done: protect my most fragile self, maintaining my own space in the midst of so much talk, and study, of mental illness. This is my experience, one that I am willing to write about here, but one that will remain unknown to my professional colleagues, at least until I know better.

For the meanwhile, I am grateful to have this space to write about eating disorders, food, and my own experiences. In this way, I have an outlet for all of the opinions that I am forming about eating disorders and a way to work out the experiences that still trouble and inspire me. I have a community here of fellow travelers, people who speak with the raw honesty of having lived through an eating disorder: they know, as I do, distress from the inside.

I am committed, for the next five years, to understanding distress from the outside, from the scientific, clinical viewpoint. But I am also committed to you, my reader, and to this, this process of writing out and writing through my past pain, in order to come to grips with all that I bring to my profession and to my present.


Lisa said...

I think you're going to be an amazing doctor.

Cammy said...

This is interesting, I always wonder about how psychologists feel about revealing their past issues to colleagues. Eating disorders are so tricky and often frustrating to deal with, I would think that someone would almost have to have some personal experience with the issues in order to have the passion to take on ED clients. My psychologist has mentioned casually that she was in therapy when she was younger, but only after I had been seeing her for about 9 months. I asked her directly if she had ever had an eating disorder, and she said no, but her mother did, which was interesting...ok now this comment is rambling, I just wanted to let you know that I think you're going to do an amazing job, and don't feel like the need to keep your own history to yourself means that it is something to be ashamed of, the right to (or need for) privacy shouldn't negate your sense of triumph over what you have achieved by dealing with the ED.

Ai Lu said...


I know that most therapist do therapy at some point or another, either before or during their training (and sometimes afterwards, too), so it is not at all odd that your therapist would have been in therapy before, too. However, for privacy reasons, therapists often won't talk about their own experiences -- those messy boundaries need to be upheld!

How did it make you feel knowing that your therapist had a mother with an eating disorder? One of my therapists was a recovered bulimic herself and it was so helpful for me to know that about her. In retrospect, however, I notice that she didn't tell me right away -- I think that she had to learn to trust ME, too, before letting me know something about her life, and she had to make sure that telling me about it would be helpful to me, and not just self-gratifying on her part.

Tiptoe said...

The issue of boundaries in the professional world is a big one. Everyone's ideas on it are different. There are some clinicians who do feel comfortable telling their past, but I think the majority do not (stigma reasons and the like) and certainly not in the early years of training. IMO, it is better to keep good boundaries than to blur them unless for strictly therapeutic purposes. And even with that, it can be hazy.

But one thing I will tell you is that through your personal experience, it gives you a much better insight into compassion and understanding. In college, I worked in a psych lab for three years that studied eating disorders, alcohol, and personality. I decided not to discuss my personal experience with eating disorders and instead just observed. By not saying anything, I was actually better able to give my own insight (which at times was different) into the project without implicating myself.

Again, IMO, the best clinicians are the ones who can learn to balance personal from private, subjective from objective. And I think you're on your way!

jenny said...

ai lu!

off topic now, but:
your last post inspired me to eat vegetables for breakfast: roasted parsnips, yams, and quince with a splash of maple syrup. perfect for fall, and so tasty! I will repeat.


Lisa said...

Entirely off topic and somewhat inappropriate, but oh well:

You've been tagged! Here are the rules:
1.Link to the person who tagged you
2.Mention the rules on your blog
3.Tell 6 unspectacular quirks about you
4.Tag 6 following bloggers by linking to them
5.Leave a comment on each of the tagged blogger's blogs letting them know they've been tagged.

kv said...

nicely put!