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What Happened Then…

By Judith Brisman, PhD | April 1, 2014

Thirty-three years ago, I sat with a psychologist friend, Ellen, at the edge of the water in the Hamptons and said, “I feel fat”.

We were in our twenties and this was (as it still is) the language of girls. We had just eaten a big lunch and were there in our bathing suits deciding whether we dared to go into the water.

“I used to throw up when I felt fat,” Ellen told me (Ellen in later years would be “out” about having been bulimic, so no secrets divulged here). I was stunned. Slowly over the afternoon, Ellen told me what it was like to binge and vomit. She told me that she had been to a therapist at Cornell University, Dr. Marlene Boskind-White, who had discovered that other girls were throwing up too. Ellen had found a way to deal with her eating and thought we should open a center to treat girls in Manhattan who were bingeing and vomiting. I was working at St. Vincents at the time as the head of the Group Therapy Program in the Alcoholism Outpatient Division. We decided that with Ellen’s understanding of this new disorder and my expertise in addictions, we could carry the work that Dr. Boskind-White was doing in Ithaca (with her permission) back to New York City.

My friends thought we were crazy. Surely there weren’t enough girls doing this to run a business. “Everyone sits by the side of the ocean and fantasizes about opening a business,” a friend told me, “but doing it is another thing”. Ellen and I decided to do “another thing”.

By word of mouth (Ellen was in EST at the time and this was a venue where word traveled fast), we were able to find 5 women who were tormented by the way they were eating. We started a group and then sent out a press release (remember, no internet in those days) letting the media know that two NYC psychologists were starting a treatment program for girls who binged and threw up.

We were picked up by a cable TV show in Long Island, aired—and then our visibility exploded. The media loved it—pretty girls who were vomiting. It was a sad statement of the publicity world. The media wanted to know if we could teach people how to throw up in order to lose weight. That clearly wasn’t the point. But the extraordinary exposure in the media (the Today show, 20/20, innumerable national media clips and news articles for years on end) broke the deadened denial of a disorder that was already becoming an underground epidemic. We got thousands of letters from people (many with recognizable names), and, rapid fire, Ellen and I put together the first center ever for the treatment of bulimia, the Bulimia Treatment Associates.

At that time in New York City, Dr. Bill Davis was running the Center for the Treatment of Anorexia. I met with Bill, picked his brain, and Ellen and I ran by the seat of our pants to set up an effective program to treat bulimia. We developed three-day weekend groups (we had a half year waiting list for participation in these Bulimia Workshops) and Ellen and I hired a group of therapists to jump in and learn from our patients what we could do to help.

The time was exciting, inspiring and incredibly frenetic. After about a year, Ellen and I decided to split our partnership. I moved on to work with a good friend and new partner, Dr. Michele Siegel. We relocated from 9th Street to University Place in Manhattan and the Eating Disorder Resource Center was born.

Over the next several years, Michele and I put a center in place that housed 6 offices; we worked with approximately 20 therapists. The field was flying. Centers were opening up throughout the country, the severe extent of eating disorders was revealed. EDRC rapidly grew in size, opening its doors not only to patients suffering from bulimia but to those challenged by anorexia and binge eating disorder as well. During this time, we spoke to so many families that we decided to write down what we were telling family and friends, and Surviving an Eating Disorder: Strategies for Family and Friends was first published. Michele and I wrote, trained and gave talks internationally. These were thrilling times.

Then in 1992, tragedy struck. Michele, mother of four year old Jesse, and pregnant with her second son, developed breast cancer. Months after Michele gave birth to Josh, she, my business partner and incredibly close friend, died. Everything stopped.

That next year, I condensed EDRC, narrowed the scope of what we were doing and stopped to catch my breath and mourn the loss of Michele. Later that year, I also met the man who would become the father of my children and within two years, I would be the mother of twin girls.

Life somehow carried on. But at that time, I redirected my focus, extended my private practice, took care of my children and kept EDRC as a quiet sidebar in my professional life. Thanks to the help of many extraordinary therapists who kept the center vibrant along the way (thanks most recently to Dede Kammerling, Jay Pott and Debra Farbman), for over twenty years EDRC stayed as an anchor in the city for the treatment of eating disorders. Through those years, we kept a steady but low profile as my mainstay attention remained focused on my daughters and my patients.

Recently however, much has changed. Eating disorders have become interwoven into our culture and the field in general has expanded exponentially. EDRC needs to attend to the fact that our patients, the community and families need more. Perhaps as important, I find that my daughters, now full into their teenage years, are as grateful for the time I spend at work as they are for the time I spend at home! For the first time in years, I am able to invest time and energy back into the Center. EDRC is ready to grow again and all of us at EDRC are excited for the expansion of a center that has quietly taken root over the years.

What’s Happening Now…

And so in that spirit, I write to tell you about EDRC. We are growing in size, in program development, and in capacity to handle the ever-expanding needs of the patients and families challenged by an eating disorder in the tri–state area.

Looking back, oddly the moment the center was born was the kind of moment we hope for all our patients. My saying “I feel fat” allowed for a swirl of inspiration that changed my life.

Our mission and goal at EDRC is to turn challenge and struggle, the “I feel fat” moments, into inspiration and opportunity. We thank those of you who have supported EDRC with these goals for the many years along the way. We look forward to continuing the growth of our patients, EDRC and our relationships with you in the years to come.