Therapy helps BYU alum overcome eating disorder

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Spencer Hansen and his wife and daughter. Hansen has battled an eating disorder for years and said therapy has given him his life back. 

The smell of hot dogs fresh off the grill causes mouths to water. Homemade potato salad is at arm’s reach, and the smell of just-grilled burgers fills the air, making everyone’s stomachs grumble in anticipation. Almost everyone.

“First of all, I am not happy to be there,” Spencer Hansen said. “I’m not really partaking in the conversation, and if I am, it is at a superficial level. I am thinking about the calories and the fat in the food. How am I going to burn off these calories after dinner, or how am I going to throw it up?”

Hansen grew up in Mesa, Arizona. He served a full-time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Rio de Janeiro North mission and met his wife at BYU. He completed his undergraduate work at BYU in history and attended medical school at the University of Arizona.

On paper, he may seem like a standard LDS man. But Hansen has been battling an eating disorder for 15 years.

“With my eating disorder, the simple pleasure of going on a walk, playing in the park with friends and family didn’t exist,” Hansen said. “I didn’t understand how people could enjoy anything other than abusing food.”

He said his eating disorder began in high school, when he ran cross country, hung out with friends and generally seemed like a healthy, normal kid. His father, Kimball Hansen, said there was nothing about the young man’s habits that were concerning. It was on his mission in Brazil that Spencer’s eating disorder became serious, as it was the first time he didn’t receive much outward approval from others.

“I felt worthless, and I knew that I could control food,” Spencer Hansen said. “My thoughts wouldn’t be about being depressed; it was about, ‘What am I going to eat for dinner?’ It became a full-time diversion for me — a distraction from homesickness and from being worthless.”

Kimball Hansen said his son became sick on his mission and wrote home complaining of stomach pains while he was serving. “He stepped off the plane, and he was really thin, and that was probably the first time that we were concerned about his health,” Kimball Hansen said. “We didn’t really connect it to an eating disorder though.”

Spencer Hansen, left, on his high school track. Hansen’s eating disorder began in high school and escalated after his mission to Brazil. 

Spencer Hansen continued his education at BYU and met his wife, Anna Hansen. She was unaware of his eating disorder when they got married, but after a few years of marriage she noticed a problem.

“She would ask me in subtle ways if I had a problem with eating,” Spencer Hansen said. “She asked me to take my keys out of my pocket, and it was covered in the chocolate that she had given me earlier that day. I had pretended to eat it and then just stuffed it into my pocket.”

Anna Hansen said the hardest part of her husband’s eating disorder has come from trust issues. “I think the biggest effect on my life is the dishonesty that is involved,” Anna Hansen said. “Finding out when we first got married, I couldn’t trust him and now that he is in recovery, learning to trust him again.”

A few years into their marriage, their daughter Beth was born. This raised some concerns for Anna Hansen.

“It got really scary when we had our daughter,” she said. “I started to see the future and that she would grow up and see those behaviors and that she might try and model those behaviors.”

Eventually Anna Hansen said she had had enough and gave her husband an ultimatum: either he sought help, or she would leave with their daughter. The ultimatum was successful, and Spencer Hansen checked into the Rosewood Center for Eating Disorders, an inpatient facility that treats eating disorders, located in Wickenburg, Arizona.

He checked in for three months and, while there, learned tools to help him recover, including the reasons behind his eating disorder. Family members reached out to support him in any way they could. Their attempts at support were not always successful.

“My first reaction was to tell him to just eat. Put some good food in front of you and just eat,” Kimball Hansen said. “That advice is just useless. That isn’t how it works. Saying that doesn’t help.”

As Kimball Hansen spent time at Rosewood with his son, he came to understand the disorder better and changed his approach to how he communicated with his son. Jan Hansen, Spencer’s mother, said that the week at Rosewood helped her reevaluate the way she speaks with others.

“As a mother you want the best for your children,” Jan Hansen said. “Looking back, I felt a lot of guilt. What did we do that could trigger that? I think it has made me more aware how we communicate with each other, not just with Spencer but with all my children.”

Jan Hansen is not the only one who felt guilt during this time. Anna Hansen also felt the pang of guilt that can arise when a loved one struggles with an eating disorder.

“I struggled with thinking that it was my fault, if only I was a better wife or worked harder,” Anna Hansen said. “Being able to talk to my parents or therapist and have them say, ‘No, that is bogus. This is his problem,’ helped me not fall into the lies.”

Spencer Hansen worked with both a therapist and a dietician and said he was able to establish balance back into his life again.

“I lived to please people in my disease,” he said. “Everything I did was to please people. I even went to medical school because of what people feel about it. Now in recovery, I know I can say what I believe and even if you don’t like me after, I still have my value and integrity.”

Spencer Hansen said he went to medical school just to please others but said it has worked out for him, as he has now chosen to pursue psychiatry.

“Spencer has a lot of empathy. When he first chose to do radiology I was very confused, because that doesn’t interact with people,” Jan Hansen said. “I was glad to see that change. Now he will be able to work with patients and really know what they are going through. He will have that empathy for them.”

According to the National Eating Disorder Association’s website, NEDA.org, the rate of eating disorders among college-aged men is between 4 and 10 percent. Registered dietician Kristen Schweers, who works at Rosewood Ranch, said the facility holds up to 28 patients at any given time, and usually four or five of those patients are men. When it comes to treatment of men and women, Schweers said, the approach can be different.

“There is a big stigma with it; a lot of men are ashamed of their disorder,” Schweers said. “We also see less drive for thinness and more for a body ideal.”

As a registered dietician, Schweers said, her job is to help patients learn about food, dispel food myths and teach patients how to eat again.

“We all do it; we all do it emotionally. It is really natural,” Schweers said. “The eating disorder takes it to the extreme, though. We help them recognize why they are eating and what they can do differently.”

Schweers helps develop a meal plan that patients can follow and that keeps them away from counting calories.

“We have them eat six times a day: three meals and three snacks, with slightly more protein and slightly more carbohydrates,” she said. “We don’t want to be focused on counting calories; we want them focusing on hunger cues that the body gives. We want them to trust their body and eat when they need to eat.”

Schweers said it can take years for those with an eating disorder to recover and get to the point where they can trust their bodies again. Anna Hansen said she feels that people don’t always take eating disorders seriously, especially among men.

“I think eating disorders have been seen as not-a-serious addiction,” Anna Hansen said. “But it really is serious, just like any other addiction. It comes with the lies and the damage to their health.”

Now, a barbecue is a pleasant experience for Spencer Hansen – giggles fill the air as children swing from bar to bar at the playground. Little Beth slides down the slide, and Spencer Hansen is there to catch her. He swings her around and lies down with her in the grass. Thoughts of his beautiful family flood his mind.

“I have the ability to go on a walk with my wife and daughter, to go to a football game, eat a hotdog in the stand and not worry about it,” Spencer Hansen said. “Therapy has given me my life back.”

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