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Two clinics, two approaches to treating eating disorders

by ChiChi Madu
March 03, 2009

Two local clinics for eating disorders offer hope and healing with treatments that range from family therapy to building new relationships with food to yoga.

NorthShore University Health Systems at its Highland Park Hospital and The Awakening Center in Chicago use a range of different approaches to treat patients.

About 8 million people battle eating disorders in the United States. Of those 8 million people, about 7 million of them are female and about 20 percent die from their symptoms or related complications, according to the United States Department of Human and Health Services. The most common eating disorders are anorexia and bulimia. 

NorthShore University Health Systems

The eating disorder unit at NorthShore's Highland Park Hospital offers four different levels of treatment: partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient care, regular outpatient visits and nutrition counseling.

Dr. Suellyn Alexander, the director of the clinic, said these options have built NorthShore’s ability to treat a wide range of patients since the unit opened in 1985. “We are one of the most experienced hospital-based clinics in the country,” she said.

For people with the most severe cases of anorexia or bulimia, partial hospitalization provides an array of therapies for people who come to the hospital from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday.

During the course of any one day, a patient will receive cognitive therapies to help modify behavior and family therapy to provide support. 

“We emphasize a lot the importance of family in therapy,” she said. “Even though many of our patients are local college students whose families live far away, they still come to all family therapy sessions.”

In between therapy sessions, the patients are given three “super meals” each day. The super meals are balanced, healthy meals that are individually prescribed for people by staff dieticians.

Alexander said people suffering from eating disorders have such a poor relationship with food that it needs rebuilding. “[The super meals] are to help that patient normalize their relationship with food again,” she said.

Alexander said the phrase “eating disorder” can sometimes be a misnomer. Someone with an eating disorder is usually dealing with other ailments such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety and substance abuse. A typical patient changes eating pattern to lose weight and provide a brief boost in confidence and self-esteem, but unfortunately, it sometimes spirals out of control, Alexander said.

Weight loss can start to make life feel better for people, Alexander said. “But then the illness progresses to the point where they can’t break the cycle.”

At this point, Alexander said, the psychological gain from poor eating habits is no longer effective and the person requires help.

Awakening Center

Since opening in 1994, The Awakening Center, located on Chicago’s North Side, has provided a psychological and spiritual approach for treating eating disorders.

“We believe that eating disorders are a sacrifice of one’s sense of self,” said Amy Grabowski, founder and director of the clinic. “You need to recover your sense of self in order to fill the emptiness inside.”

Like most clinics, the Awakening Center utilizes cognitive-behavioral therapy and other traditional techniques. But doctors and staff at the center view psychological therapy as one piece of their “holistic approach” to recover in every aspect of life.

The holistic approach relates to the belief that eating disorders need to be treated at the mental, physical, emotional and spiritual levels, according to Grabowski.

The clinic provides outpatient care for people with less severe cases and supplements their therapy with weekly yoga sessions and visual expressive therapy. During the expressive therapy workshops, patients are encouraged to explore their emotions by taking photographs or creating works of art.

“We do not believe that CBT [cognitive-behavioral therapy] alone is enough to recover completely from an eating disorder,” Grabowski said. “Unless you change your core belief system, your thoughts and behaviors will relapse to their previous negative state.”

Some workshops incorporate spiritual aspects of support.

“Full recovery is truly possible,” she said. “You must work with the problem from all aspects of life.”