VH1 Star Dr. Jenn Berman Talks Overcoming Her Eating Disorder

By McCarton Ackerman 01/24/14

Before she was lead therapist on Couples Therapy, she battled her own addiction—an eating disorder that left her extremely underweight.

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Dr. Jenn Berman is perhaps most recognized these days as the lead therapist on VH1 reality show Couples Therapy, but her work extends well beyond counseling reality stars and quasi-celebs through their relationship struggles. She’s also an LA Times best-selling author of books on childhood development, hosts a daily radio show on Sirius called “The Dr. Jenn Show,” and even has her own line of eco-friendly clothing called Retail Therapy.

But it’s her work helping people overcome eating disorders that holds a particularly strong meaning for Dr. Berman. A champion rhythmic gymnast in her youth, she struggled with an eating disorder that continued for nearly a decade after her retirement from the sport. It was only when she adopted a no-diet philosophy that she was able to finally win the battle over her addiction. 

Dr. Berman, now fully recovered for 23 years, has created an eight-week “intuitive eating” treatment program for women suffering from eating disorders as part of her doctoral dissertation, which is also the basis for her No More Diets App. In her exclusive interview with The Fix, she talks about overcoming her issues with food, what it means to be fully recovered and how she has addressed the addiction issues of some of the cast members on Couples Therapy.

You’ve talked about being a competitive gymnast growing up and how that helped shape your former eating disorder. Was it the pressure to succeed in that sport that fueled the addiction or were there other underlying circumstances?

Statistically speaking, what we know is that when people enter something like gymnastics or modeling or figure skating, where it’s based on looking a certain way or having a certain physique, the percentage of people who have eating disorders tends to skyrocket. There was a tremendous pressure to be super skinny. My coach put a lot of pressure on me to look a certain way and I put it on myself as well. Once you start that cycle of restrictive eating, it becomes so ingrained in your daily routine that it’s hard to stop. But I always knew that those patterns were a problem and that’s what first got me into therapy as a client. 

Was there a moment when you knew something had to change?

I wouldn’t say there was one particular moment. There was a moment for my family when I was competing in the 1984 Junior National Championships. I had won five gold medals out of five, but was extremely underweight at that event. My mom finally took me aside and said, “let’s get you some help.” I was actually pretty open to it at that point because I knew something needed to change.

We saw you counseling Abbey Wilson through her eating disorder last season on Couples Therapy. Is it difficult for you as a therapist to watch people struggle to have a healthy relationship with food in the same way you once might have?

It’s not difficult for me because I completely get it. I’m so far into my recovery and so far removed from my eating disorder that it’s not triggering or upsetting for me. And as a therapist, I have a clear vision of the path that I need to take my clients down. I was just thrilled that she was so open to trying to make some changes. Abbey made a tremendous amount of progress that season.

You’ve talked about being fully recovered from your eating disorder, but there are some people who approach their addiction as a daily battle. How does one get to the point where it’s no longer a struggle?

At this point, I’ve been recovered from my eating disorder for about 23 years. I have a great relationship with food, I love my body and it’s no longer something that I think about. What helped me get to that point is that I come from a no-diet philosophy. The idea of no longer dieting was terrifying at first, but I didn’t know what else to do. But having been free from that obsession since 1991, I’m convinced that this approach is what leads to real recovery. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on this and it’s also the basis for my No More Diets App. 

It was decided on previous seasons of Couples Therapy that alcohol wouldn’t be allowed in the house, but that was lifted this season. Farrah Abraham had a DUI last year and went into rehab, while Taylor Armstrong has admitted to using alcohol in the past as a way of self-medicating. How do the producers decide which seasons will and will not allow drinking in the house?

When the show was originally created, the goal was to have retreat style intensive therapy. It wasn’t supposed to be a prison. There would be therapy during the day and a couple could have a romantic getaway at night, have some wine, or go bowling and have a couple of beers. People on the show go through evaluations that are completely separate from me and in the first two seasons, it was determined that it wasn’t safe to have access to alcohol in the house because of issues that some of the cast members had. Because Farrah had a DUI, it was decided that she wouldn’t be allowed to drink in the house, but the other cast members could. She respected that completely and was fantastic throughout the process. It was absolutely a non-issue. 

Based on your own work both on the show and your private practice, what role can substance abuse play in a relationship? 

Where addiction exists, intimacy cannot. Someone who is going through a substance abuse problem can’t be fully present or emotionally available in a relationship. There are certainly people who can go out and have a drink with their friends and it isn’t a problem, but for someone struggling with substance abuse, the addiction and the relationship are not two separate things.

What advice would you give to people who are looking to overcome an eating disorder or move forward in their recovery?

Replace your obsession with food with an obsession with recovery. If food is an issue and you’re engaging in the same obsessive or unhealthy patterns over and over again, it’s time to do something different. People in the throes of an eating disorder or addiction don’t realize how pervasive or harmful it is in their lives. I would strongly encourage them to not be afraid to seek out help. After beating an eating disorder myself, I can truly say that there is so much freedom on the other side of recovery.

McCarton Ackerman is a regular contributor to The Fix. He last wrote about 10 (more) great recovery songs.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.