I have an eating disorder. This has defined me more than being a lawyer, a business owner, a girlfriend, an aunt, and a friend. While I’ve battled my eating disorder for most of my life, it has only recently taken hold and forced me to pay attention. My inability to focus on anything other than food and body image threatened to take down my life and my firm, so I made the hard decision to scale back my practice and enter treatment.
Recognizing an Eating Disorder
For at least 25 years, my relationship with food has always been tumultuous. I have never seen food as food. Never. Pizza was bad, so I was bad when I ate it. Cookies made you fat, and I already felt fat, so I couldn’t eat cookies. I ate to avoid my feelings and to soothe myself. I ate because I hated myself, and because I hated other people. I often ate to fit in. In equally destructive ways, I restricted food to prove to myself I didn’t have needs, but I did have willpower. This led to a ton of shame and isolation; I restricted with others and binged when I was alone. I have been on every diet you can name, and I have spent thousands of dollars on cleanses, pills, books, and health coaches. There were moments, even months, of peace. But I would always return to constant judgment of my food choices.
It didn’t occur to me that this was a problem until I woke up one day and realized that thinking about food 95 percent of every day might not be normal. So I sought help and received a diagnosis of binge-eating disorder. I saw a dietitian a handful of times, started talking about it with a therapist—assumed that was enough—and swiftly put it in the back of my mind. I continued to restrict food, adhere to my own peculiar food rules, and firmly believed that I just needed to muster more willpower to make peace with food and my body.
And then, as it does, life happened. I lived through a harrowing month of personal and professional losses. I gained 30 pounds. My mind reacted by effortlessly reassembling all the pieces of my eating disorder.
And then, my eating disorder attacked my professionalism. There were the days I couldn’t get out of bed because I felt scared of the unknown. I canceled client and networking meetings because I didn’t feel good in any of my clothes. My self-esteem was so low I couldn’t imagine being a lawyer. I started to question whether law was right for me, and if I would ever feel successful.
Alarmingly, I also started resenting my clients. I had always considered myself a compassionate and empathetic lawyer. And I had worked on stressful cases with stressful clients for years. But all of a sudden, I couldn’t handle it. My eating disorder manifested itself deeply in every facet of my life, and I couldn’t even see it.
There were innumerable moments in my life when I could have sought professional treatment for my eating disorder. But the moment that made me finally enter treatment was so familiar and so ordinary: I woke up, had a slice of leftover pizza for breakfast, and wanted to die.
The pizza was enough—that cheese was enough, that carb was enough, that judgment was enough—to send me into a terrifying downward spiral. I hated myself and my lack of willpower. I hated the people who loved me, and my clients, and the law, and my mom for leaving when I was young, and anyone who could resist pizza and just eat eggs for breakfast.
Lost in shame and guilt and self-hatred, I didn’t recover from this downward spiral for a week. I didn’t shower. I didn’t engage. And I definitely didn’t do any client work—they were all so needy, and I couldn’t handle anyone else’s needs.
I couldn’t even handle my own.
So I called a treatment center and made an appointment for the following day. Feeling so bad was exhausting, and I was finally motivated to take my eating disorder seriously and get help. I cried in the intake as I told them that yes, I may seem fine, but I knew I would seem fine until I was dead. Finally, someone took me seriously. The intake therapist recommended intensive treatment and said I “needed eyes on me.”
It was validation, and it was the very first time that I felt someone really understood and cared about this part of me.
Once I determined that I was going to enter treatment, I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle certain cases. Demanding clients, constant interruptions, and court dates would take up too much time and energy. But my high-stress cases also paid the most, and I had concerns about making less money while finding a way to pay for treatment. So I cut back on my litigation work but kept open the transactional side of my business. That, coupled with savings, proved just enough to get by in the early stages of treatment.
After working out the financials, I followed the rules while withdrawing from my cases. Still uneasy, I also called my state’s lawyer support service. They honored my decision to enter treatment, validated my desire to withdraw from certain cases, and talked me through how to have conversations with my clients. When I expressed doubt about withdrawing, they reminded me that I might not be the most zealous advocate right now, and making space for myself might not only be in my best interests, but also my clients’.
By the end of the day, I had fully withdrawn from three cases. I talked with each client, found attorneys who would take over the cases, prepared and sent all case files, filed documentation with the courts, completed final billings, and returned unearned trust funds. I did all this in four hours; it was the most efficient I had been in months.
The relief I felt was immediate and palpable. I hadn’t been showing myself a lot of grace up until this point, but it didn’t take more than a day to realize that dropping these cases was the biggest act of self-care I could have shown myself. This step was necessary in order to make space for myself in treatment.
Upon entering the intensive treatment program, I found I was glad I made room for myself. It took all my emotional energy to sift through my disordered thinking.
Treatment brought up issues that overlap with lawyering: black-and-white thinking, perfectionism, and self-esteem. And slowly, I have learned new things: food is just food (which was like understanding a new language), there aren’t good and bad foods, and feeling intense shame while eating a brownie was not healthy. I realized I am worth more than the number on the scale, and other coping skills are more effective and just need to be honed. I learned to be vulnerable and to shed light on my disordered thoughts to take away their power.
But the most beautiful thing about treatment has been meeting the other people in it with me: we take classes together, we do group therapy together, we cry, get mad, and laugh together. We listen, and we share our struggles, and we realize we’re not alone with our eating disorders anymore. We talk about things we’ve never given voice to, we strip those things of their power, and we try to move on. We have people now. And we get it. For the first time, we are no longer alone.
I can see now why there was no room for anything else in my life. I can see now why I ran out of empathy. I can see now how important it is to practice self-care before attempting hard things—especially hard things that involve other people’s needs.
Looking Towards the Future
I am not writing this article from a place of recovery. I’m just four months into treatment, and I’m still fighting my eating disorder most days. But I’m taking it seriously now. I see a therapist and a dietitian every week. I still spend a lot of time thinking about food and body image, but my thoughts are more tempered now. I’m getting better. I’m reengaged in my personal life. And I’m starting to derive joy from my practice again. I’m doing transactional work with less anxiety. I’m enjoying conversations with clients and I am energized by helping them. I’m recognizing that there’s space for their legal needs and my personal needs to coexist. I don’t know whether I will ever add high-stress cases back into my practice, but I’m not feeling any judgment about that decision.
And most importantly in all this, I’m learning to let go of perfectionism. It’s probably what drove me to become a lawyer, it’s probably what makes me a good one, and it’s definitely played a part in my downfall. Needs are a difficult thing. Contending with your own is hard enough; working a job that mandates you take on the needs of others is another beast entirely. Throughout my experience, I’ve learned what I’ve always known but was never able to do: take care of me before I can take care of them. Once I was able to see that, once I was able to do that, it was clear to me how much more space I had to tackle other people’s problems. Because I am a healthier person, I am a better person. I am a better lawyer.