I love stories and have since childhood. I was (and am) an avid reader and found so much excitement, engagement, and comfort in having a window into a character's life and being a participant in their adventure. I was always especially drawn to historical fiction and biographies, mostly because it thrilled me to think that I was immersed in a story that was real.
In some ways, becoming, and practicing as, a therapist has been an homage to my admiration and adoration of stories and their inherent vulnerability. I love being able to be in a room with someone and to be entrusted with their story – their rawest, most uncomfortable, most insecure parts. With some clients, being able to listen to and understand the story thus far is what they've needed most. For others, editing the story and continuing to write is what's important. I'm of the mind that even the darkest, “ugliest” stories have incredible merit, and that's something I make clear to clients.
The story is never truly done, even when everything is pointing to the adventure coming to a close. I support and guide (and sometimes push) clients to continue writing, editing, and discovering new and unforeseen adventures. I love that about my job. And, I especially love that therapy always provides an exceptional opportunity for metaphor use.
What kind of clients do you see?
I see children, adolescents, and young adults with eating disorders, disordered eating, and body image concerns. With this population, I also work with families, significant others,etc., which I believe is essential to the therapeutic process. Additionally, I see adolescents and young adults with other presenting issues, such as mood disorders, anxiety, and substance use.
What’s something you wish you could tell any client with an eating disorder considering therapy?
There's never going to be a time when you're going to feel 100% ready to go to therapy and/or ready to recover. Entering therapy for an eating disorder can be a terrifying first step. Even thinking about entering therapy for an ED can be a terrifying first step. But, fear and discomfort do not have to be impediments; rather, they can be impetuses. Starting points. Propellers. Feel the fear and do it anyway! Fear and discomfort cannot, and do not, last forever.
What is your definition of an eating disorder? Is this different from society’s view of what an eating disorder is? How come?
Society, including many in the healing professions, tends to believe that eating disorders are weight- and body type-specific. This stereotype is perpetuated by media in that movies, books, tv shows, etc., often portray a very particular type of eating disorder – anorexia – and rarely attend to other presentations. There's been an oversaturation even recently of anorexia in media (e.g., Netflix's To The Bone, Feed, starring Troian Bellisario) and thus, people tend to believe that that's what an eating disorder truly is – a young, cisgender-, heterosexual-, able-bodied-presenting, upper middle class woman in a very thin, often emaciated body.
However, eating disorders are characterized by much more than simply low weight and restrictive eating patterns. People of every shape, size, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender, age, and socioeconomic status have eating disorders. Similarly to other mental illnesses, eating disorders don't discriminate based on these arbitrary categories.
I think that people often struggle to understand how eating disorders present and operate because it's undeniably physical – for a percentage of people with EDs, it is something that's tangible – it's something you can see. Additionally, because we live in a diet culture that overvalues thinness, anorexia has sometimes been viewed – grotesquely – as a symbol of will power, beauty, and self-control. It seems that people believe that anorexia = becoming thin, but it's much different than that, and all eating disorders are much different than that, and beyond that. So to conclude a very lengthy explanation, my definition of an eating disorder deviates from society's in a number of ways, but it's consistent amongst those of us in the field who are familiar with the disorder – it's a mental illness that manifests physically and through manipulation of one's food and body, often causing significant impairments across domains. I'm sure it's obvious that I can speak about this all day!!
What’s something you commonly say to your clients?
As an eating disorder specialist, I often have to be direct, and sometimes irreverent, with clients. It's important for me to balance that tough love with compassion and humor, which clients usually know about me. A phrase that I've come to use with clients in a humorous (but also in a no-nonsense, no-BS way) is “quit your shit.” It catches clients off-guard and usually makes them laugh. Some even say it back to me now!
What are therapy sessions like with you?
Sessions with me are usually very dynamic and interactive. I am absolutely not a smile-and-nod therapist and I take a lot of pride in that. I think that this have been informed through my work with adolescents, but it's something I've also carried over into my work with adults. I am always ready to roll my sleeves up and get the damn thing done with clients, whatever that means. Sessions are also usually filled with laughter. Part of some eating disorder pathology is isolation and being very hyperfocused and serious. To undermine that ED's power through laughter is a gift I try to give all of my clients.
What’s something you feel passionate about?
I think most of my questions already have highlighted what I'm passionate about: educating people about EDs, especially about how different “real” EDs are in comparison to sensationalized/media portrayals of EDs, and intersectionality and EDs/marginalized groups with EDs. I'm also super passionate about the anti-diet approach (i.e., diets don't work), health at every size (HAES), and working toward the eradication of fatphobia. The last is a particular focus of mine, as fatphobia not only exists in general culture, but also within the eating disorder world, to the point where people are denied treatment of any kind and/or will avoid seeking treatment because they live in a larger body.
What are your favorite books of all-time? (1 related to therapy, 1 unrelated to therapy)?
I'm an avid reader (and always have been), so this is a tough question! My favorite non-therapy related book of all time is probably Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer. As far as therapy books are concerned, I'd divvy this up into two categories: books about individual mental health and books about therapy. My favorite book about mental health is Madness: A Bipolar Life, by Marya Hornbacher and my favorite book about/related to therapy is The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists, by Irvin Yalom.
What has been a private practice success for you so far? (Can include New Jersey)
I'm in the process of building my PP in Texas right now, so no big successes so far! I previously worked in PP in NJ, though, and a major success for me was being able to achieve and maintain a full caseload throughout my entire 3 years working at the practice. And, being recommended by other professionals and previous clients!
What is a private practice goal you hope to achieve in 1 year? 5 years?
In NJ, I was an associate of a multidisciplinary private practice that specialized in treating eating disorders – we had therapists, dietitians, and a psychiatrist on staff. It's my ultimate goal to create something similar in Austin, as there's a desperate need for more cohesive care, especially with EDs. Within a year, I'd like to achieve a full caseload! Fingers crossed!
How would your clients describe you in 3 words? What about your closest friends?
I think that my clients would probably characterize me as quick-witted, authentic, and animated/interactive. I polled my best friend for three words that he believes would best describe me and he said, “honest, sassy, and well-spoken,” which I'd say are spot-on!
What’s a song lyric or quote that you find meaningful?
One of my favorite quotes is, “The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark,” by John Muir. It's a personal reminder to keep exploring and discovering and learning while I'm still here and still able to fully participate in my life.
Crazy cat lady or one of “those” dog moms? Who’s in your fur tribe?
I'm an indiscriminate animal lover, but I am currently the crazy cat mom to three tabby cats – Eowyn, Faramir/Nugget, and Matt Damon.
You can find out more about Jess on Social Media via Instagram or Twitter at: @thecrankytherapist and @JessSprengleLPC