Jennifer Rollin speaks with recovery coach Sarah Rzemieniak about her role helping patients with eating disorders.
Jennifer: Tell me a little bit about yourself and what prompted your interest in helping people to recover from eating disorders?
Sarah: I struggled with an eating disorder for a long time starting in early adolescence, and it took away so many of the normal experiences of adolescence, my teenage years and early adulthood.
Deep down I knew I wanted to recover, that this couldn’t be it for me, but the changes required of me were so scary. I couldn’t have done it on my own, and it took way longer to recover than I thought it would.
Based on what I went through, and from working with so many different health professionals during my recovery, I always felt drawn towards working with others going through difficult times like I had, especially in the health and mental health fields. The personal growth I found through the difficult recovery process, having to learn to live without the ingrained coping mechanism of the eating disorder, was so huge for me, and I’ve just had this passion to help others through their own difficult journeys ever since.
My first career was as a dietitian where I worked with outpatient eating disorder clients, and it was here that I realized how much I enjoyed helping others on their unique eating disorder recovery paths. I soon realized though that it was the coaching aspect of the dietetics work I loved the most and felt the most passionate about pursuing.
Jennifer: What would you say are some common misconceptions when it comes to eating disorders?
Sarah: The first one that comes to mind is where we think someone needs to look a certain way to have an eating disorder; that unless someone’s extremely emaciated or at least noticeably thin, it can’t be that serious or even exist at all.
Another would be the misconception that recovery can be a mind over matter thing. That if someone has insight into their disorder and says they are motivated to recover or feels motivated, I think there can be a misconception by others and even sometimes, the sufferer, that they should be able to change their behaviors and recover just like that.
However, motivation and ambivalence are so tricky with eating disorders because as much as part of someone might not want to have their eating disorder anymore, in the beginning it’s almost always just a small part of them. There are so many needs the eating disorder is still meeting for them, regardless of how badly part of them wants to recover right then and there.
And as much as they might have insight into why they do what they do, facing change is so scary. To me, the eating new foods and gaining weight felt like facing a phobia, and no amount of insight or rational thinking or motivation could just make that phobic feeling go away or be easy to face.
Jennifer: What is the difference between eating disorder recovery coaching and therapy?
Sarah: Eating disorder recovery coaching is a wonderful supplement to therapy because it gives the client extra time, strategies, tools and support for making those scary changes, facing that sense of phobia and those ingrained behaviors in the here and now.
The main differences are that therapists are able to explore with the client the underlying causes of their eating disorder and delve into past and underlying issues, as well as diagnose and treat, which coaches are not able to do.
Therapists are also able to treat co-occurring conditions such as depression, anxiety, OCD, substance abuse, or a trauma history that might also be present. This work is invaluable, and a coach is in no way a substitute for therapy.
As a Carolyn Costin Institute Certified Eating Disorder Coach, I’m trained to focus on the here and now and to work with the thoughts, feelings, and behavior changes in the present moment, and to help the clients implement the work they are doing with their therapist and dietitian into their daily lives.
Therapists do this present and future-focused work as well, but for a coach it is the primary focus.
Also, while therapists typically meet with clients for one hour in an office setting, I meet with clients for variable lengths of time and more in their daily lives. For example, eating meals, cooking, grocery shopping, buying new clothes after weight restoration, being available for on-call support between sessions, and other activities of daily living where the eating disorder is very strong and hard to challenge in the moment alone.
Jennifer: How might therapists benefit from referring a client with an eating disorder to a recovery coach?
Sarah: I’m trained to be an adjunct to an overall treatment team and to help clients implement what they are working on with their treatment team into their daily lives. Because of the deep work that a therapist can do, having a coach who can support the client with meals during the week, provide on-call support between sessions, and provide support and guidance to help the client implement the work and goals they have with their therapist between therapy sessions can allow the therapist more time to focus on the underlying and more deep-rooted issues with the client.
Also, as someone who has recovered myself, I am trained in how to use my personal experience in the best interest of each client, providing the client with a tangible role model for recovered living and a source of hope and inspiration that full recovery is possible.
Lastly, I always make sure to communicate closely with the therapist to ensure I’m aligning my work with theirs so as to truly feel like an added support for them. This clear communication also ensures that the client is receiving the most consistent and effective coaching support.
Jennifer: What would you say are some of the biggest challenges and most rewarding aspects of your job?
Sarah: I would say that one of the biggest challenges is making sure that the boundary remains really clear between me as a coach and me as a friend, since I accompany clients with so many things that a friend might such as eating meals together, grocery shopping, shopping for new clothes after weight restoration, or even supporting them at a social or business event.
Another challenge, but something that means so much to me, is being able to sit with someone in their pain and ambivalence and not rushing to try to fix the situation or make them feel better right away. This takes practice and can be hard to do in some moments, but it is something that I believe is so important for the healing journey and that is so appreciated by clients.
And then the most rewarding aspects of my job are being able to connect with individuals in extremely authentic moments in their lives, where they’re facing huge fears and self doubts. Being by their side and helping them to work through scary things, helping them to see that they can do what they didn’t think they could do, and seeing them become more and more hopeful about what their future could look like, and then actualizing this – it’s truly amazing. I feel so blessed to be able to do this work.
Jennifer: What prompted you to start Radiance Recovered Coaching?
Sarah: When I was majoring in sciences in university, in my third year I really wanted to switch into psychology and become a therapist. It didn’t seem reasonable at the time though, and I soon chose a nutrition major and happily became a dietitian.
I still wanted to work with people in an individualized and helping manner, and I did this for some time as a dietitian, including working with individuals with eating disorders, and I truly enjoyed it. However, I soon realized that my passion really was working exclusively with the behavior change piece and the thoughts and feelings around the eating patterns.
When I found Carolyn Costin’s eating disorder coach training program, it felt like fate. I knew I had found what I truly wanted to do.
Jennifer: What kinds of services does Radiance Recovered Coaching provide?
Sarah: I provide one-on-one recovery coaching in person in Victoria, BC Canada and online worldwide for individuals 16 and over struggling with eating disorders and any form of disordered eating.
I’m extremely flexible in how I meet the individual needs and goals of each client so my services vary a lot! But the main things I provide support and guidance with are:
- Eating meals, snacks and fear foods with clients
- Talking sessions where we focus on ways of implementing recovery actions and exploring what comes up and stands in their way of moving forward
- Supporting and guiding clients with grocery shopping and food preparation
- Providing on-call support by text, email or phone between sessions
- Doing sessions with family and friends to support them in implementing helpful strategies to support the client’s recovery
- Supporting the client with other activities of daily living to help change entrenched eating disorder behaviors in a gentle, safe, and non-judgmental environment.