Mental Health Counselor Uses Personal Experience to Rebuild Healthy Relationships with Food
Kelly Ulmer, a 27-year-old registered mental health counseling intern in Gainesville, Fla., spends her days helping others recover from eating disorders. She knows the psycologically draining experience all too well. She too developed an eating disorder during her first year of college. But, luckily, she had help.
“Therapy permeated practically every domain of my life during my undergrad years. Therapy was the first place I felt safe letting my guard down and opening up to my raw emotional experience,” Ulmer said. “In treatment, I learned that it was okay to be my genuine self and express who I was, and I even found that people accepted that person! It was an intense, but healing time for me. Somewhere along the journey, I decided I wanted to provide the same experience for others struggling with eating disorders.”
We decided to interview her to shed a light on common myths and misconceptions about eating disorders. She also offers advice about what to do if someone you know is exhibiting symptoms.
Q: Tell us a little about yourself and your job.
A: I am currently in the second year of my post-graduate work as a counselor, which means I have one more year until licensure! I love my job and it still often feels unreal to me that I have made it where I am today. I remember dreaming about being an eating disorder therapist when I was in my undergrad at UF, and that honestly feels like yesterday.
At my job, I see clients for both individual therapy as well as group therapy within our eating disorder intensive outpatient program at UF Health Medical Psychology. While I am most passionate about eating disorder treatment, I also work with clients diagnosed with other disorders such as OCD, anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, PTSD, and autism spectrum disorder among others.
When I’m not at work I try to mix things up and make my weeks more interesting. I honestly enjoy anything that makes me feel engaged and connected with others in my life, especially if it involves being outdoors and moving. Random things I love: my cats, cooking, handstands, knitting, biking, gardening, and being silly with people I love.
Q: What made you want to be a counselor?
A: Honestly, the time I spent as a client in counseling influenced my decision to become a counselor. When I started at UF as an undergrad, my initial plan was to major in environmental science. I had my whole life mentally mapped out, minus the part where I developed an eating disorder myself.
After reaching some pretty low rock bottoms during my freshman year, I began treatment for my eating disorder, which was quite involved. I attended weekly individual therapy, nutrition counseling, and group therapy in addition to seeing both a physician and psychiatrist. I soon switched my major to psychology and later decided to pursue degrees in Counselor Education and Mental Health Counseling in graduate school.
A: The hardest part of my job is seeing certain clients stay stuck and knowing that I cannot do the work for them. The reason I became a counselor was to help provide people with the same safe space and healing experience I felt that I received in therapy; however, I have come to realize that I was a big part in creating that experience for myself as a client.
Recovery from an eating disorder is one of the hardest things a person can do. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder and recovery rates are still disappointingly low. While successful recovery takes a comprehensive and specialized treatment team, it also requires the commitment and determination of the client, which is something that I cannot do for my clients. I can work with them in attempt to motivate and support their recovery; however, I cannot want recovery for my clients more than they want it for themselves. And in the world we live in, sometimes it is difficult to want recovery more than the false happiness that being thin promises.
Q: Most rewarding part?
A: While my work is tough and more than often heavy, it is speckled with uplifting moments that still make me tear up as I think of them now. Moments when a client comes in with news of accomplishment that they just cannot wait to tell me; or when I receive an email from a past client letting me know that their life has forever changed as a result of their time in therapy; and there are definitely those occasional mutual happy cries when a client and I review the progress they’ve made in their treatment.
The most rewarding part of my job though is when a client begins to see that they do not need the support of therapy in their recovery, essentially when they “fire” me. This occurs when they have reached a place in recovery that is so strong that they trust themselves to maintain their commitment and growth.
Q: In your opinion, what are three of the main triggers of eating disorders?
A: While the media isn’t entirely to blame for the prevalence of eating disorders, it is a large contributing social factor. We currently live in a society that glorifies thinness (and muscularity) as essential components for living a happy life. In addition, our society’s narrow definition of beauty does not help. Many individuals determine self-worth as a measure of physical attractiveness rather than other characteristics such as courage, kindness, compassion, and authenticity. The media frequently upholds this message supporting the thin ideal in our society, which is easily internalized by those exposed to it, especially younger individuals.
From a psychological perspective, eating disorders often function as an instrument of control. When we feel insecure about certain areas of our lives (career, relationships, self-worth, etc.), controlling food intake and body weight offers a (false) sense of control and security. We hyper focus on the number on the scale, our waist measurement, and calories consumed and burned, which provides us a sense of control amid feelings and situations in life that feel out of control. However, this behavior leads to a prolonged avoidance of the discomfort of insecurity and other underlying issues that are truly at play.
Lastly, more and more research is coming out supporting strong genetic contributions to developing an eating disorder. Eating disorders are known to run in families where there may likely be both biological and social influences in developing disordered eating behaviors.
Q: If you personally know someone with an eating disorder, what’s the best thing to do to help?
A: I have a very strong personal opinion on this matter that some may disagree with. I am very opposed to the idea of accusing someone of having an eating disorder or calling them out. If you know someone who you think may be struggling with disordered eating, it is important to state your concern and care; however, there is an appropriate way to do this.
Don’t accuse or shame. Simply state what behaviors you have observed and let them know that you care about them, are concerned, and are there if they need anything. For minors, this might also involve informing the individual’s parents of what you have noticed. Be open and supportive. Provide resources when appropriate and especially if asked.
Q: What are the most common misconceptions about eating disorders?
A: The biggest misconception about eating disorders is that they are just about eating. From a behavioral perspective, an eating disorder becomes apparent when looking at an individual’s eating patterns; however, that is just the tip of the iceberg. Eating disorders are fueled by a multitude of psychological issues such as anxiety, depression, low self-worth, lack of emotion regulation, poor emotional expression, troubled relationships, trauma, abuse, and more. Clients must work through these underlying issues in therapy in addition to the behavioral pieces.
Q: What’s the biggest piece of advice you could give to someone going through this?
A: Keep going and don’t give up. I do not believe there is a final destination in recovery. It is a lifelong journey that offers a continuous potential for growth and improvement. And it is damn hard. However, I truly believe that if you trust in your treatment team and commit to the journey, it will get better (and easier). In my opinion, true recovery involves absolute surrender to the unknown, which is the hardest part. It requires that we let go of our investment in thin ideal, to weighing our self-worth, and to using food to gain control.
Q: What do you think are the three biggest issues that women are facing in 2017?
A: Given that eating disorder prevention, advocacy, and treatment are foundational in my life, I view societal pressures of appearance as one of the biggest issues that women face in 2017 and have faced for a long time. There is a high prevalence of fat-talk, fat shaming, food judging, and bullying in today’s world. Often times it comes from women themselves. We get nowhere in this cycle of judgment and cruelty. We must instead support each other, show compassion, and lift each other up, while serving as role models to youth. This means calling out fat-talk, body-shaming, and other criticisms that we say to others and ourselves.
Secondly, even in today’s America, women continue to receive unequal treatment and regard. This appears in the ongoing wage gap; the prevalence of cat calling and domestic/sexual violence; the underrepresentation of women in politics and leadership roles in the workplace; opposition to reproductive rights; and more. We have a long way to go in our country and denying that inequality still exists is not an option.
Lastly, at a time when inequality and prejudice permeate more than just sex and gender, it is critical in 2017 that we discuss women’s issues in a way that includes all women, not just white women. Women’s issues include those faced by women of color, women of different ethnic backgrounds and faiths, women of size, women with disabilities, transgender women, and women of different sexual orientations. The word “women” represents all women and to include all women we must acknowledge special issues that minority groups face.
Thanks so much Kelly for being a Renaissance Woman!