Interview of Adrienne Ressler, LMSW, CEDS, Vice President, Professional Development, The Renfrew Center Foundation
1. What drew you to the field of eating disorder treatment? Why?
My pathway to working in the field was definitely not in a straight line or planned out in any way. I was in a combined program of Education and Psychology at the University of Michigan and received my MA in education for emotionally disturbed children. My first job out of college was as a teacher with adolescent patients at the U of Michigan Children’s Psychiatric Hospital where I attended rounds daily and participated in the training of psychiatric residents.
I sat in on numerous therapy sessions during the four years I was employed there, became fascinated by the work and, upon leaving, decided to pursue some independent training opportunities.
I spent two years traveling across the country, immersing myself in studying what, at the time, was considered to be very non-traditional work.
In my naivete’, I made choices based on whatever modality piqued my interest and each step seemed to unfold and lead to another discovery. I first signed up for a training program in gestalt therapy and Alexander Technique with Ilana Rubenfeld (a brilliant protégé of Fritz Perls) and quickly expanded my pursuits to studying other methods which I had never heard of previously – psychodrama, bioenergetic analysis and the family sculpting work of Virginia Satir.
As I began utilizing the philosophy of these more holistic “body centered” approaches, my pursuits coalesced into a specific direction when a colleague asked me if I would help her run a therapy group for women with eating disorders. She felt that the “body stuff” I practiced might be helpful working with her ED clients’ resistance and their body image issues. I loved the work from that first session and never turned back. I began specializing in body image treatment and have now been in the field for almost 30 years.
2. What keeps you in this work, day after day?
Because I travel for The Renfrew Center so frequently, I keep only a very small private practice as an LMSW. As a result, I am not subject to the burnout factor that clinicians on the “front lines” face every day with this very difficult population.
My passion really is training – speaking about eating disorders and body image at seminars and conferences as well as writing about these topics. Although I was sure at one time that the only things I learned in college had to do with my classes in history of art and English, I now believe that my initial training as an educator provided me with the underpinnings of my career.
Surprisingly, the last job I would ever have expected to have would be as a speaker/presenter, since in college I dreaded the required speech classes and would go to any lengths to avoid showing up.
3. What is your philosophy on eating disorder treatment?
My philosophy of treatment is inclusive, rather than exclusive. My belief is that for healing to take place, mind and body must be integrated and treated as one under a holistic frame. I believe in taking from the best of all worlds and recommend that clinicians should get as much training as possible from a variety of sources.
I believe it is essential that one’s ability to master methodology not be confused with one’s capacity for the attunement and attachment essential for healing. I believe that clinicians should stay current with research but not be afraid to seek out the giant thinkers of the past.
I believe that there is artistry in being a great clinician. As a result of my training, I view clients and the process of treatment through a different lens – one whose perspective is based on awareness of, and attention to, the client’s breathing, body, posture, energy, use of space, non-verbal communication, voice range and timbre, speech patterns, language and the many nuances that may not be readily observable.
Finally, I believe that healing interventions must include a reclaiming of the body and the emotions and experiences it holds, in order for full integration and transformation to take place.
4. What tools would you like your participants to gain while working with you?
Tools are only as good as the person using them. If you use the wrong tool, the intervention goes awry. On the other hand, it may go in an unexpected direction that may prove to be even better than you originally intended.
This is where the clinician’s creativity, agility, spontaneity and clinical wisdom come into play. There are many good methods available to clinicians; the key is to know which one to use with which client, when to introduce it and to recognize that astute listening, as well as silence and observation, are also powerful tools. In addition to tools, the clinician’s own experience in the moment provides a “knowing” that informs the process.
I always stress with my clients and in my trainings that tools are not “bags of tricks” to try out but, rather, they fit into the therapeutic frame as catalysts for change and transformation, often producing “Ah, ha” moments or neutralizing resistance.
Clinicians can sustain energy and meaning in their work by integrating creativity into the traditional way they practice and, thus, often tapping into the natural spontaneity of their clients – use of music, poetry, literature, metaphor, art, movement, and imagery often are forms for expression when words are not enough.
5. What do you envision the future of eating disorder treatment to be like?
I don’t know that anyone can make a prediction like that but I certainly hold out the hope there will be integration in the field, with the proponents of various therapeutic approaches having respect and appreciation for the value of one another’s contributions.
Because we are making great strides in developing the technology to understand the workings of the brain, more information will continue to be available to us about the importance of psychoneurology and how it can inform our work. I am very pleased that non-traditional therapies are being taken more seriously by practitioners and researchers alike – the right hemisphere of the brain brings love and beauty and connection into the world and where would we be without that?
About Adrienne Ressler
Adrienne Ressler, LMSW, CEDS is Vice President, Professional Development, for The Renfrew Center Foundation and has served as senior staff for 24 years.
She attended the University of Michigan where she served as faculty in the School of Education.
A body image specialist, Adrienne is a member of the Academy of Eating Disorders as well as a Fellow and past president of the Board of Directors of the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals (iaedp). She serves as the co-chairperson of the Somatic Therapies Special Interest Group of AED.
Her trainings reflect her background in body-focused methods to treat eating disorders and body image. She is published in the International Journal of Fertility and Women’s Medicine, Social Work Today and Pulse, the journal of the International Spa Association.
Author of chapters on the use of experiential and creative therapies for eating disorders in two textbooks, Effective Clinical Practice in the Treatment of Eating Disorders: The Heart of the Matter and Treatment of Eating of Eating Disorders: Bridging the Research-Practice Gap, her work has also been included in the first Encyclopedia of Body Image and Human Appearance. A frequent contributor to the popular media, she has appeared on the Today Show and Good Morning America Sunday.
Adrienne lives in Fort Lauderdale, FL, and is an avid baseball and hockey fan.