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About Abigail Natenshon
Over 45 Years of Eating Disorder Specialty Practice

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Abbie’s Personal Statement:

From One Parent to Another


The origins of my passion to treat eating disorders

Typically, when people immerse themselves in the treatment of a specific disease as I have done for the past several decades, there is some kind of substantive motive underlying and propelling their passion. A great many eating disorder specialists are motivated to become clinicians having recovered from their own eating disorder or having been through the recovery process with a loved one. I am often asked by prospective clients seeking a therapist who can relate to their problem first hand, "Have you ever had an ED?" With a strange sense of something that feels like apology, I am forced to say "no," even while hastening to assure them that one need not be “a horse to be a horse doctor!” In actual fact, I love food and eating and have had a healthy relationship with food all of my life. I love to cook, and to nurture my family through food preparation and presentation. When my children were growing up and living at home, there was a hot dinner on the table every night. It was the best way I knew to insure some daily quality time by sitting down together across the dinner table and sharing each other's lives.

Naturally, there IS a certain depth of understanding that comes of personal life experience, and on a very deep feeling level, I have served my time personally on the front lines of life's ordeals and struggles… if not with an eating disorder, than through the birth of my daughter 31 years ago, who was born with a brain dysfunction that left her virtually unable to move, and therefore unable to develop neurologically from her first moments of life. I believe that the "hook" that lured me into parental advocacy for the child' in distress was my own personal experience as a parent advocating for my own daughter's personal survival, dedicating myself to doing what had to be done to insure that she could have a life of movement, growth, development, health and personal freedom.

The lessons I learned so poignantly through our experience in providing help for Elizabeth throughout her young life helped her to surpass all of our fondest dreams of success for her. These lessons have inspired my passion for bolstering, empowering and mentoring parents in their efforts to sustain themselves and their child in the face of what typically feels like hopelessness, despair and "nay-saying." Today I wear two hats…even as my children are grown and gone from the nest... of parent and professional…enabling me a poignant sensibility and responsiveness to parental neediness and fear, to the complexities of vulnerable family relationships that can so easily fall off balance, to a dependency and reliance on professionals who may or may not understand fully the condition they treat and who most likely do not know the child as well as does the parent.

Parents have typically been held responsible for causing their child's eating disorder, based on the professional literature for the past hundred years, but particularly during the 1970’s and 1980’s.  Equating parental involvement with intrusion, over-control and interference, the commonly held misconception is that parental participation in treatment corrupts the process, breaching the child's confidences and stunting the child's budding autonomy and independence. Recent research has borne out the thesis that I first presented 12 years ago in my pioneering tribute to the benefit of the substantive involvement of parents in their child's eating disorder recovery in When Your Child Has an Eating Disorder: A Step-by-Step Workbook for Parents and Other Caregivers. (Jossey Bass Publishers). Studies concur that it is NOT parents, but heredity that predisposes a child to developing a clinical eating disorder. Though parents may play a role in some instances of “pulling the trigger,”  it is “genetics that loads the gun.” The key to a child's successful recovery from an eating disorder is the proactive and appropriate involvement of parents in the child's recovery, accommodating the child’s ever-changing needs for support throughout the healing process as a member of the child's treatment team.

I believe that even the most proficient and expert treating professional cannot not know as much about a child patient as does the parent. A pediatrician who is renowned for his diagnostic acumen once told me a piece of information that I have always held as gospel… "Trust the parent. The parent knows." It took my husband and I four months and the final diagnosis from the chief pediatric neurologist at the most prestigious hospital in the city of Chicago to persuade Elizabeth's pediatrician of the reality that she was born with a problem that was real and needed attention.

My goals, for myself and for parents

In my work with children, young adult patients, and their parents and families, my goal is to help parents identify what they have been doing RIGHT… to help them recognize what they already know, so that they can discover what they need to learn to enable their child's recovery. Parents need to be reminded about what they do BEST… caring for their child responsibly, confidently, and lovingly. They need to give themselves permission to take charge of what might otherwise become a dangerous and life threatening situation, moderating their level of involvement as the child becomes ever more capable of resuming self-control, self-reliance and self-regulation. The need for an authoritative and compassionate parental presence in a child's life, when it comes to eating disorders or any other life crisis during the growing up years, remains a constant.

Life lessons

In parenting Elizabeth as an infant, my husband and I faced impenetrable odds, uninformed doctors who did not know what they did not know, who were incapable of recognizing anything other than pathology and limitation. I became a student of profound life lessons about the creative and proactive use of self in facing problems that demand resolution, in creating “possibility” in the face of “impossibility.”

What I have taken away from past life experiences; I now bring to my present ones in the form of undying optimism, the drive for innovation, and a bulldog tenacity and determination “never to say ‘never.’" I envision possibility in all the negative spaces of life, imaging and envisioning the wide berth and immense flexibility of potential. It is this potential which I bring to my eating disordered clients, refuting pessimism and countering typically intractable image of body, self and future.

An "opportunity junkie" by nature, I find myself incapable of saying "no" to options that could offer new growth and learning. I am clearly Machiavellian in doing whatever works…. in this, it helps that I was never awfully good at rule-following. In my mid-fifties I became a student and teacher of the Feldenkrais Method, the technique that brought Elizabeth out of the mire of disability to a life of normalcy. This mind/body method teaches options and alternative thinking, offering the opportunity to experience and envision the self as whole, integrated and self-regulated.  I believe that self-awareness (and particularly the sensibility of bodily awareness in the context of eating disorder recovery) is key to effective function, as a person needs to first know what he/she does, in order to do what he/she wants.

I have also come to believe that the most valuable learning in life can typically come disguised in the form of adversity. As human beings, having to confront and deal with problems large and small is a regular part of our daily “diet”...what separates the men from the boys is in how we use ourselves in discovering effective solutions. The more available and open we can be to recognizing problems as the invaluable opportunities for growth that they are, and to seeing mistakes as a source of variation to the learning brain, the better we will be at fixing what needs repair. And that's the bottom line.....not being "right." Mistakes are life's way of offering us the capacity to seek a better way. To quote Albus Dumbledore and J.K.Rowling, "It is not our abilities that show who we truly are….it is our choices."



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