Like many people who struggle with eating disorders, my eating disorder developed during a difficult time in my life. When I hear clients talk about their eating disorders, it’s never a surprise to hear them describe how their eating disorder helped them through a really hard time. One of the many functions of eating disorders is to help individuals numb out from their emotions, which is a welcome reprieve in a distressing experience. Another function is to feel a sense of control, which can feel particularly important if their life feels out of control. These are just two potent functions that help us understand why eating disorders “work” for people. (more…)
Growing up I absolutely detested hiking. It felt like a really nice way for me to feel foolish and gave ample opportunity to compare myself to my friends and family that accompanied me on the hike. Was I going too slow? Are they not going to want to hang out with me anymore because I’m not very “good” at hiking? Could they hear me breathing hard? Was my face getting red? Could they see the sweat through my shirt? Did they think I was “out of shape”? As you can probably tell, these thoughts are riddled with insecurities and laced with diet culture and body shaming ideology. (more…)
What is one of the most memorable meals you have ever experienced in your life? What made it so memorable? What was it about the food? The people who were with you? The ambiance? The event?
One of the most memorable meals for me wasn’t anything fancy. But it was very special. I remember my husband bringing a Café Rio sweet pork salad and mint limeade to me in the hospital, after I had given birth to our first child. I remember feeling famished (they don’t let you eat before or during labor-not that you want to eat during labor). But wow, my body had just done something incredible! I was exhausted, happy, and maybe a little overwhelmed with the new prospect of being a parent. That sweet pork salad felt like a celebration. A celebration of becoming a parent, and an act of gratitude for my body for what it had just accomplished. I loved that meal so much that Café Rio became a tradition after I gave birth to each of my children.
To quote Evlyn Tribole, “Eating can be one of the most emotionally laden experiences that we have in our lives” FOOD IS MORE THAN FUEL. Food is love; food is comfort. Food is reward. Food is celebration. Food is connection. Food is solace. Food can feel like a friend. A way to care for ourselves. I am not in the business of divorcing food from an emotional experience. Food enhances our lived emotional experience! It is part of valued memories. Eating can genuinely bring happiness to our lives and be a vital part of connection with ourselves and others.
Diet culture seeks to take away, or at best, minimize, our positive emotional experience with food. Diet culture creates strict rules and attitudes about how and when we can experience food. It labels food that is inherently delicious (aka enjoyable) as an indulgence that must be earned through deprivation and “good behavior.” If you haven’t earned said “treat” then you are doing something naughty, or bad. Many diets don’t even allow for enjoyment at all. If the food you desire doesn’t fit in the diet prescription, it is off limits, period.
As a result, diet culture creates morality in an experience that is amoral. NEWS FLASH: EATING IS NOT A MORAL BEHAVIOR PEOPLE! But diet culture makes us believe negative stories about ourselves if we “indulge” or even want to indulge in food rich in taste and pleasure. We feel like we are “undisciplined” or “failures” or “weak” or “bad.”
This morality around food then creates fear. Fear of forbidden foods. Fear of ourselves and whether we believe we can control ourselves around food. Fear of when we might “slip.” Fear of social situations where we can’t control what food is available.
Diet culture then robs our lives of the richness of experience with food. It creates a belief system that food is only for fuel, when as I described before, food is so much more than that.
Diet culture doesn’t deserve our time, energy, money, or emotions. It only serves to destroy trust in our bodies, ourselves, and food. It further deprives us from the beauty found in including food as a source of joy, pleasure, celebration, connection, and comfort in our lives.
I want you think about positive memories you have with food. Like staying up late at night, laughing, and eating homemade brownies with spoons, straight out the pan with my college roommates. Visiting Mexico on an exchange program and learning the right way to eat a mango. My mom teaching me how to make her famous orange rolls. Drinking my first Lava Flow (a Pina Colada with added strawberry sauce), the first time I visited Hawaii. My first introduction to Fry Sauce from Burger Supreme, in Provo, Utah and realizing that Utah might not be such a bad place to call home, after all. Let’s remember that food is a vital part of our lived experience as humans. Let’s actively invite it to accentuate our joy, connection, and memories.
Why is recovery so long and hard?
There’s a long stretch of land in treatment for eating disorders that I describe as a “wasteland.” It’s in this space where clients are most likely to relapse. Who wants to continue trekking through a wasteland without knowing when or how they will arrive in the elusive but apparently wonderous Promised Land of recovery? This Wasteland can feel like it stretches far and wide before you, indeterminately and maybe even permanently. And the trek is arduous in every way: physically, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually.
When someone first comes to treatment for an eating disorder, the changes can feel intense and difficult. But when people come to treatment they are coming with fresh awareness of the pain and misery of living a life with an eating disorder. Something brought them to treatment and that something gives them energy, willingness, and a hope for change.
You enter the Wasteland when you’ve mostly recovered behaviorally (stabilized eating patterns) but haven’t yet changed psychologically. This is when some really difficult work starts. You may be eating more normally but you still don’t quite feel comfortable with the food your dietitian continues to ask you to consume. Maybe you feel distressed as your body’s long silent hunger cues snap back into gear and start asking for more food. You feel uncomfortable in your body and probably feel that your body image has only gotten worse since beginning treatment.
You’ve also experienced some benefits to stabilizing your food intake and re-nourishing your body. You notice you can focus better in school or at work. You notice you can track conversations more effectively and are more present with friends and family than you have been in a long while. You are sleeping better and feel more energy. And yet, the novelty and enjoyment of those improvements are decreasing as you face the onslaught of a renewed range of emotional experiences.
One of the main functions of an eating disorder for many clients is how successfully eating disorders numb painful emotions. In a physically malnourished state, one can’t feel much happiness, but there can be relief in not feeling intense negative emotions either. When a body is re-nourished, it once again has the capacity to feel and process the full range of emotions and negative emotions may show up with vengeance.
This can feel like a double-whammy in treatment because you are not only facing anxiety and distress around negative body image and resulting struggling self-esteem, but also negative emotions that haven’t been processed or treated (like anxiety, depression, or trauma).
This may bring up concerns and fears about trusting your treatment team. You may wonder if this process will really lead you toward healing and toward a better version of yourself or if your therapist and dietitian are just blowing smoke in your face? Because it doesn’t feel like healing…yet. It feels psychologically and physically uncomfortable and painful.
And then there’s the question of identity. Depending on how long you’ve had an eating disorder before getting treatment, you may feel confused about who you are. You may have forgotten who you were before your eating disorder started. You may feel fear as you wonder, “Who will I be, if I don’t have an eating disorder?” You may worry about your ability to succeed in life, in relationships, and indeed, even wonder if you will like yourself, without your eating disorder. You feel overwhelmed with the prospect of creating a new version of yourself: a healthy version of you that shows up more completely in the world. You may not realize that you can take time in discovering yourself and developing yourself when you get distracted by the fear that you believe you need to somehow transition into someone “new” in recovery.
The Wasteland can be a difficult place for relationships too. Perhaps in the beginning of treatment there was a lot of empathy and support from family and friends for all the work you were doing. There was acknowledgement and celebration for the concrete behavioral changes you made and now you’ve been eating normally for awhile so it should be easy …right? 😉 As you continue to struggle, you may feel more lonely because you may have used your eating disorder as a way to be seen, to speak your pain and be noticed. Now this far into recovery, people may assume you are doing well because they can’t witness the invisible, emotional pain you are trudging through and you haven’t yet learned how to open up and be vulnerable with your words. Because family and friends can’t witness the emotional turmoil, they may feel frustrated or confused when they realize you still struggle. They may wonder why you aren’t better yet? They may be angry and proclaim that you are just continuing to hold onto your eating disorder and refuse to fully lean into recovery.
Maybe there’s some truth to that. Maybe there is resistance. But it’s not the whole picture. This Wasteland is complex, fraught with twists and turns, new mountains to climb, unexpected snares and cliffs, and you likely find yourself exhausted from the effort.
In this place you hear the siren call of your eating disorder. It sings its sweet promises of relief, control, predictability. It soothes concerns about the misery you experienced with it before, telling you, “This time will be different. You’ll see.” As you listen to the alluring call, you convince yourself that you can control your eating disorder instead of it controlling you. You remember all the ways in which your eating disorder “helped” you. You believe you’ve learned a lot about yourself, and it, in this process, and somehow compromise with yourself that you won’t get as sick as before. You tell yourself that you will only have your eating disorder, just enough, to escape this insufferable Wasteland desert.
But what you don’t realize at this point, is that the oasis, off in the distance, is NOT a mirage, but is REAL. It’s not yet the Promised Land of Recovery, but it is sustaining relief, healthy nourishment, and deep love and support, that you need to keep moving on. Those Oases can be found along your route if you look for them in the form of turning to others for support, trust in your treatment team, seeking meaning, and continuing to believe in hope for yourself and a better future.
And it DOES get better. I PROMISE, it DOES. As you continue your trek and refuse to turn back to the eating disorder, you will continue to build new “muscles” (skills and experiences) that help decrease the exhaustion and build your momentum. You will begin to feel stronger, more confident, and even more hopeful. And eventually, the Wasteland, slowly and almost imperceptibly, will start turning lush, verdant, and full of life. Recovery is possible. The trek will be hard, and it can be long, but it WILL be worth it!
I find that clients with eating disorders are expert at NOT talking about food or their eating disorder behaviors. They are SO expert at this, many have even developed the skill of SEEMING like they are talking about it…but they are so vague and slippery in the details, I can’t gather any real clinical information. As treatment progresses and clients enter the realm of recovery, talking about behaviors is easier and more natural, especially as clients share new insights and victories along their journey. But in the beginning of treatment, it often feels like pulling teeth to get clients to be specific about their behaviors. (more…)
I vaguely wondered why the morphine wasn’t working? The pain was so intense. I couldn’t remember ever feeling pain like this. I remember as the night progressed in the ER, the on-call OBGYN informed me that while she didn’t know, for sure, what was going on, she was going to take me into surgery as the ultrasound revealed a lot of fluid in my abdomen and almost no blood flow to my left ovary. I remember asking her if my 7-week-old embryo could survive surgery and she told me she didn’t know. I felt scared and sad but mostly desperate for the pain to end. While I waited for an OR room to open up, I remember suddenly becoming very dizzy and sweat breaking out all over my body. I remember shouts and rushing feet and a pronouncement that I was going into shock.
They rushed me into the OR. I remember signing some consent forms and then it was “lights out.”
When I woke from surgery, I learned that I had been pregnant with twins: a heterotopic pregnancy where I had one embryo in my uterus and one embryo in my Fallopian tube. Such a pregnancy occurs in 1 in 30,000, so my doctors weren’t even looking for it.
The embryo in my Fallopian tube had grown to a point where it caused my tube to burst and I was bleeding out when I went into shock. In that crisis, my body lost almost half of my total blood supply and I required four blood transfusions to save my life. When my doctor visited me in the hospital the next day, he told me, “You should be dead.”
But I had survived. Miraculously, the baby in my uterus survived that trauma too and I was able to recover and move on with a healthy pregnancy.
This was the first time, in my life, that I became fully aware of my body as something separate from “me.” That my body is a being truly operating almost completely outside my conscious awareness and control, entirely on my behalf. “I” (the conscious, thinking version of who I am), had NOTHING to do with saving my life that day. My BODY did that. Yes, skilled doctors, blood donors, and, I believe, Divine Intervention, also saved my life. But despite dire odds, MY BODY PERSEVERED.
When I fully absorbed this reality, I stepped into a more expansive and loving relationship with my body. I stepped into LOVING HER. I owe my very existence to her. Everything I get to do and experience here on earth, is BECAUSE of her. I never felt this awareness so acutely until I almost lost my life.
Before this trauma, I had spent years on a journey with my body. A journey that began with loathing, repulsion, and rejection and progressed, slowly, toward one of acceptance, respect, gratitude, and appreciation. Over time, I had landed in a very solid, positive relationship with my body. I considered us friends who took care of one another.
I was perfectly content and didn’t know another level of relationship was available to me: a level of LOVE.
While I don’t think it requires a near death experience to learn to love your body, for me it did.
Before this experience, as I just shared above, my body and I had a great relationship. A hard-fought, deliberate one I had fostered for well over a decade. I think this is important to realize because LOVE doesn’t have to be the end point for our experience in our bodies. We can have a meaningful relationship with our bodies, or with our lives, without having to love our bodies.
Jessica Knoll wrote in her “Smash the wellness industry”article posted in the New York Times last week, “Most days, I feel good in my skin. That said, I am probably never going to love my body, and that’s O.K. I think loving our bodies is not only an unrealistic goal in our appearance-obsessed society but also a limiting one. No one is telling men that they need to love their bodies to live full and meaningful lives. We don’t need to love our bodies to respect them.”
The question one has to ask themselves is “What kind of relationship do I want with my body?” and “Am I willing to put in the work required to get there?”
We can live happy, fulfilled lives without loving our bodies. But we can’t live to the fullest if we are trapped in relationship with our bodies based on criticism, repulsion, fear and control, chronic dieting, chronic change-seeking, comparison, and negative body evaluation.
Are you happy in your relationship with your body? Does how you feel about your body take up a lot of mental and emotional energy?
The more you step into body acceptance, appreciation, and love, the LESS mental and emotional energy you will spend on your body. This is freedom. This is peace. This is the opening for investing your physical and emotional energy in ways that truly matter to you. This is the way we can live present, engaged, and with meaning and purpose.
Again, body-love is not required for this kind of life.
It is POSSIBLE
But I disagree with Jessica Knoll that body love is an unrealistic goal. I believe body-love is possible if you truly want it. And if you truly want it, you will be willing to work for it.
I know a near-death experience fast-tracked me into loving my body, but I honestly believe I would have gotten there anyway. I was on track to that same destination as I continued to actively respect, appreciate, take care of, and offer compassion to my body. I also continued to use the tools I honed over the years to refrain from listening to those old, negative voices that beckoned me back into self-criticism, comparison, and disdain. This process was, and is, continually active. But as you build progress and momentum, it becomes easier and increasingly more rewarding. I believe as we treat our bodies WITH love, this will turn into FEELING love.
So whether loving your body is your desire, or if you just want more psychological peace and freedom, the place to start is to treat your body as if she deserves care, respect, compassion, and love. Because she DOES. AND SO DO YOU.
Body image: notoriously the last thing to change in the course of recovery from an eating disorder. But it’s not just individuals with eating disorders who struggle with negative body image. It’s a recurring theme that comes up in sessions with clients, including clients who aren’t struggling with eating concerns. It’s an epidemic in our country. It is acceptable, reinforced, and even valued to critique, criticize, and hate our bodies. (more…)
I believe that so much of our suffering and maladaptive behavior is rooted in a subconscious need to belong, to be accepted, to be loved. I say subconscious because while many of us “know” we want friends and need the love of others in our lives, we don’t have awareness of how deep this need penetrates our everyday life and psyche. (more…)