Stories I Tell My Patients

101 Myths, Metaphors, Fables & Tall Tales for Eating Disorders Recovery

by Arnold Andersen, MD and Leigh Cohn, M.A.T.


Leigh Cohn, MAT, CEDS
Eating Disorders: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention

“Stories I Tell My Patients” by Arnold Andersen, MD has been an intermittent feature in Eating Disorders: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention since our first issue in 1993. The complete set of 101 stories is collected here in one volume for the first time. Combining myth, metaphor, fable, tall tale, and inventive fantasy, they were originally intended for professionals treating eating disorders to read and share with their clients, though they can also be read and appreciated by individuals in recovery and their loved ones.

An eclectic mix, Arnold’s stories are both entertaining and insightful. Some are vaguely familiar—with his own offbeat interpretations—such as the retelling of “The Emperor Has No Clothes” or Faustian deals with the devil; and, Jack and Jill appear, but instead of rolling down a hill, they are canoeing down a rapid river. There are knights in shining armor, time machines, intergalactic travelers, stories derived from Greek mythology, anorexic saints of the 16th century, and current events (a few of which may seem dated, like Hurricane Floyd or top baseball salaries of five million dollars). Most of the stories sprang from Arnold’s imagination, and many were inspired by his direct interactions with patients. He introduces such characters as Tom, Dick, and Harry going camping, Muffy and Buffy sitting in judgment, and Clip and Clop plowing a field. Inanimate objects such as buoys and thermometers carry on conversations, and descriptions of Paris reflect the author’s love of that beautiful city.

In 1992, I knew Dr. Andersen’s reputation as a leading eating disorders researcher and author of the book Males and Eating Disorders, but we’d never met. I was in the process of founding the journal and had gotten some commitments for editorial board members, as well as lining up two senior editors, Margo Maine and John Foreyt, but I needed one more. Craig Johnson gave me Dr. Andersen’s number and I called him—perhaps a quaint notion in this day and age. I introduced myself and told him about this new kind of peer review journal in eating disorders that would be more clinically oriented. It would also include rotating features such as book reviews, editorials, and “How I Practice” articles. I explained that I needed a senior editor with a strong academic background, who could help me with decisions about complex research.

He immediately accepted my invitation, and then he said he had some suggestions and ideas. He created the template for our evaluation form, recruited other esteemed reviewers, and asked me if I’d be interested in printing stories therapists could tell their patients. We brainstormed the nuts and bolts: the articles would be clever and short, and each one would be followed with a “Comment” reminiscent of some Zen stories I was reading at the time. The journal’s readers—primarily therapists—could use the stories in their everyday practices. I loved the concept and that it was so non-traditional for an academic journal, and thus began our collaboration.

Through the years, Arnold and I have developed a productive and enduring friendship. In addition to these stories and our journal work together, we coauthored, along with Tom Holbrook, the book Making Weight, have given memorable workshops together at professional conferences, and have enjoyed fascinating discussions about a wide range of subjects, from testosterone supplementation with male anorexic patients to Impressionist painting. I have tremendous respect for his intellect, creativity, and compassion, and, like each of his stories, he is absolutely one of a kind.

Typically, Arnold sends me a first draft, which needs editing. The plot is usually strong, the message solid, and the writing a bit stream of consciousness and free form. I am like the varnisher of a master’s oil painting. My job is to make it shine. A few of the stories are, indeed, masterpieces, and others may leave you scratching your head. However, oftentimes the “ah-ha moment” may hit you a little later, upon further consideration. For this book, we have also done some slight tweaking of the language for the sake of continuity. We’ve also edited potentially disturbing content that was originally written for therapists to read but now is intended for a mixed audience of professionals, families, and individuals in recovery.

Not every story is for every reader. Therefore, for this book, we’ve added keywords with each piece. We’ve also included an index of these topics with the corresponding stories. They are arranged chronologically in order of publication, because, there was no other logical structure. Readers can read through the book from beginning to end, choose stories at random, or select specific ones with keywords of interest. For example, for individuals in recovery from anorexia nervosa, that term is in the index, as well as related topics like thinness, perfectionism, family dynamics, and anxiety. Nonetheless, even if a story is unrelated to the issue at hand, it may still be entertaining and enlightening. One of my favorites is the final entry, a 2015 release titled, “Jeanette’s Feast” (#101), which is a wonderful tale about full recovery and family gratitude.

Whether the person in recovery reading these stories is a Toggler or a Dimmer (#100), there are nuggets of gold here to aid them in their journey. Pick the weeds and grow flowers.