Erin on her Previous Experience and Background

 

Erin: Um, so going back a little bit, my background was actually in physical movement. I was a professional dancer for years, that's my bachelors of fine arts and dance and also I have been a fitness professional for about 12 years, as a personal trainer. Because it took a really long time for me to learn how to reintroduce and reincorporate physical movement in a way that didn't fuel eating disordered behaviors. I had to be from being. Okay and for longevity and for sustainability and that was a hard transition. I bring that up because as much as I work with animals in the therapeutic setting with my clients, I work really through my experience as an artist, as a professional dancer and a fitness professional. They kind of come together into the therapeutic setting to provide background and context for what I know that clients struggling with eating disorders are going to face having some background knowledge of that some context of what the situation is going to look like.

 

Erin on Animal Assisted Interventions

 

Mike: I know the audience can't see it but we're feeding the animals during this interview.

Erin:  So this is actually something I do is feeding okay. But generally food and mealtimes create a lot of anxiety and tension for clients looking to recover from an eating disorder. Threatening to start with actual human food, Or sitting at a table and so we back up a bit and remove the human aspect of it and we look at how animals anticipate meal times. And what bodies need whether it's an animal body or human body is need a certain number of nutrients and supplements in order to be healthy and function at full capacity and whether you're you know, training to be an athlete or whether you know mom or whether you're I don't know a researcher at a desk, your body still has nutritional needs you and so it's modeling through. 

Erin: Misty she's coming in here too as we're talking about food, she's saying ‘yes, I need more food right here.’ So animals just beautifully model their emotions around food and it's a great way to get into discussions about food and nutrition in a much less threatening way.

Mike: That's what I was hearing from that too because it sounds to me as though ‘Hey I can look at an animal eat and we can talk about that a lot easier, than going okay, well tell me what's going on with you regarding food and your eating patterns? We can also explore what foods do the animals enjoy and what foods they don’t, right?’ 

 

Erin on the Role of Animals in Recovery

 

Erin: Here at the farm we have lots of animals. Animals for various reasons either go on a supplement, a vitamin, a medication, whether that's through a pill, through you know oral, through a syringe and oftentimes animals don't really always love that. So, that alone is a really good modeling opportunity for clients to work through some of those feelings with the animals because we as human beings experience the same thing.It is not fun to eat and feed our human body three times a day if not more and be hydrated and get enough rest.  It requires a lot of work and we don't always want to do it and yet to perform and go and do the things we want to do in the day, we got to go and eat and rest and that's part of it.

Mike: and it sounds as if spending some time with the animals and seeing how they eat even when they have things that are going on that's not their favorite sounds as though it's helpful because it normalizes that experience for clients. 

 

Erin on a Brief Background of Eating Disorders 

 

Mike: We're back after a little feeding break for our animals, Erin is back to talk to us more about some of her work.

Erin: Yeah, so I think we're gonna want to talk about next is a brief moment of psycho education on eating disorders in general. Now keep in mind that this will be an umbrella but I think hopefully people will do their own research on specific diagnoses within the eating disorder umbrella. What I want to talk about is the overall pervasiveness of eating disorders and how they affect people. 

Erin: Eating disorders do not discriminate! They affect people of all races, genders, religions, sizes, body sizes, I could go on, there are eating disorders represented in multiple cultures and multiple peoples. Now, where this becomes harmful, is that our culture, Western culture, has oftentimes defined eating disorders, according to the antiquated SWAG myth, which stands for Skinny White Affluent Girls and that this group are the ones who struggle with eating disorders. This causes a lot of problems for many, many reasons. The biggest problem being, that it stops people who don't match SWAG from seeking adequate health care that they may need because maybe they don't fit that stereotype and this can be incredibly, incredibly painful and confusing. It has led people to suffer unnecessarily long in their eating disorders, so they don't believe that they deserve help, they don't believe that they either haven't got an eating disorder, they don't believe that healthcare professionals will take them seriously and or believe them that they haven't eaten. 

Erin: So I think this is important to talk about because eating disorders are one of the most deadly and pervasive mental health disorders out there meaning that they are in the top five most likely to end in somebody dying either from health complications and or from taking their own life.

Mike: Oh wow, those are pretty high numbers!

 

Erin on Incorporating Animals into Her Work with Eating Disorders

 

Erin: It's very shocking and it goes back to people feeling that they can't reach out for healthcare because they don't look a certain way. 

Erin: So knowing that eating disorders affect all people, knowing... (Erin is being nibbled on by a goat here) Ouch! Oh no, we're talking about food and she's trying to eat one of the therapists over here. 

Erin: Shows that they have been severely suffering from many many years prior. That means that we have neural pathways in our brains that are very set in stone and therefore very hard to treat. Then you add on top of it a culture who still values these ideals and we still live in a diet culture and this is where animals and animal psychotherapy really come into play and why animal assisted therapy is so beneficial in the treatment of eating disorders. Animals provide a consistent and non-judgmental relationship and oftentimes people in recovery or who are starting to recover need a relationship as such in order to hold any sort of hope for the future because at times the recovery process feels very dark and bleak and it often times gets worse before it gets better. right nature of the recovery. 

Erin: They are an injection of happiness and lightness into something very painful. Part of our culture and painful part of a lot of people who come here, they're daily experiences and something and you know, some non judgmental as well.

Mike: Yes, right because it especially sounds as if the process is a long one to work through and then having some non-judgmental faces in the mix like Wally here (pets goat) , sounds to me that's really helpful too, you know in this process.

Erin:  Yeah and that's why I don't say it lightly and why I brought him up at the beginning, Mr. Kitty. Not only does the research show that animal psychotherapy is effective in the treatment of eating disorders. I have 100% felt from the clients perspective how an animal can help save your life and I hold that to be very powerful and healing and a beautiful truth and animals are a true gift in the therapeutic setting and honestly if no matter what you're struggling with or what your mental health challenge it may be at this point animals are going to bring something. 

Erin: Unparalleled to what you can find than a more traditional talk modality type of therapy. I think that's another thing especially being here at animal assisted where we have you know, what is it now? 35 animals?

Mike:  I think so yeah around that.

Erin: Yeah of all different species and breeds and shapes and sizes and colors. Seeing our pack here of therapy animals, it's a beautiful way to explore your own body image, you know, there are so many types and sizes and shapes represented here and that's that's reflective of how many types and shapes and sizes of human beings there are and it's a really beautiful reminder that even though our culture pushes on us that you know, we have this beauty standard or beauty ideal. 

Erin: Animals in the real world show us that that's human made that that is not the reality and animals remind us, oh, we're all different and that's what makes us beautiful and that's what makes us unique and there is something here for everyone and there's an animal here for everyone to be able to connect with.

Mike: So true everyone's going to find some animal here and maybe an animal they weren't expecting to connect.

Erin: I have a few clients who are very drawn to Miss Rosie the guinea pig. Rosie is our albino one-eyed skinny pig and I've had clients break down in tears after coming in and seeing her and having that discussion about body image and Rosie's image compared to the standard haired guinea pig.

Erin: Oftentimes leads to some pretty impactful conversations that lead to some real healing. 

Mike: Rosie I think is a very special one too. Just because it's a chance for a lot of our clients who've not been exposed to a skinny pig before to go ahead and you know, see what a skinny pig is like. 

 

Wrapping it up

 

Mike: Well, Erin do you have anything else at this point you wanted to share with the audience? 

Erin: (Shakes her head no).

Mike: I want to thank you for spending some time today talking about your experience, your work and how you can combine your specialty with animal assisted therapy. You're doing great work with your clients and people are really noticing it as well.

Erin:  I am passionate about helping clients in their recovery journeys, and about bringing more awareness to eating disorders in general as well as the cultural implications that we all face. Whether you meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder, I can guarantee that every single human who lives in our world has experienced some sort of body image discomfort or confusion around food and nutrition or just had an off day where you just don't feel comfortable in your own skin. That's a normal part of our existence and being able to talk about and have these types of discussions are super important to me and so I'm really grateful that Mike you've reached out and thank you for facilitating this. 

Mike: Thanks for spending some time and helping other people hopefully see that ‘Hey, you're not alone in this. There's other people going through similar things right now and let's figure out ways to help you through this.’