Psychologist, Dr Anita Johnson discusses why ‘eating disorders have nothing and everything to do with food and the body’ in lectures, interviews and her book, Eating in the Light of the Moon: How Women Can Transform Their Relationship with Food Through Myths, Metaphors, and Storytelling (2000).
Since the early 1980’s, she has worked predominately with women suffering from eating disorders and is the director and co-founder of the Anorexia and Bulimia Center of Hawaii; Clinical Director and Founder of ‘Al Pono Intensive Out-Patient Eating Disorders programs and Senior Clinical Consultant to EATFED, an intensive outpatient program in Sydney Australia.
Johnston advocates understanding the metaphorical meaning and significance underlying the compulsive acts and behaviour of disordered eating such as binge eating, starvation and purging. This approach employs a symbolic or ‘picturing out’ method of inquiry through myths, archetypes and storytelling, where nothing is solely what it seems to be or mean.
Johnston addresses the slippery, evasive and deceitful mask of eating disorders that serve as misdirection or distraction from the actual problem. In other words, an eating disorder is a symptom, effect or secondary problem rather than the cause or root problem. Without recognising and working through the cause or root problem the eating disorder as a symptom, result and the secondary problem can only continue to return during challenging periods of one’s life. Johnston posits metaphor, myth and storytelling as an effective means through which to identify and address the meaning and significance of an individual’s eating disorder. This is how she approaches the deactivation of the initially well-meaning but inherently dangerous and potentially life-threatening psychic mechanisms at play for those suffering from the disordered addiction eating is (Johnston, 2000, 31-34).
Common stigma, assumptions and connotations towards anorexia and bulimia tend to be that it’s a consequence of fad diets and vanity taken too far and binge eating a result of gluttony, lack of self-discipline and laziness. This is reductive and misleading and can result in displays of insensitivity, judgment, shaming and criticism and have potentially dangerous effects, as people with disordered eating are known to be susceptible to suicide.
They are also worn down from their impossible standards, relentless scrutiny, cruel criticism and brutal self-treatment that come with disordered eating. Hate, judgment and criticism from others are unnecessary as these individuals already give it to themselves in abundance. It is, however, possible that compassion, unconditional acceptance, help and support from others could contribute to saving a life or giving one hope. For positive regard can only give light to another’s dark and self-hating state of being. What they do with that is up to them.
Like all addictions, eating disorders isolate and alienate the individual until the eating disorder is all they have. The fear of being left with nothing other than all that it numbs-out and the emptiness they have become makes a person with disordered eating desperate to hold on tighter and protect further any potential threat to it.
For this reason, it is most counter-productive to react to a person’s disordered eating habits, fears and rituals with anger, ridicule or in any way that could be perceived as threatening its existence. I say this because anyone who did this to me soon found themselves cut out of my life. I’d just make it so that I no longer existed to them. They and not my eating disorder appeared to be the enemy, and I would do anything, anything at all to protect the one thing that seemed to be making it possible for me to get through the day. The last thing I needed was to be criticised or told what to do with and how to feed my body. Mainly since my disordered eating was a way of dealing with what was done to, said about, forced upon and into my body as a child. I just didn’t have the words, understanding or confidence to explain the truth of exactly what I was experiencing and going through. I just believed I absolutely needed to do what I was doing to bare being alive, get out of bed and feel some sort of control in the bewilderment caving in on me. I didn’t have the capacity at that point to know, consider or trust that there could be another way.
Criticism, blame and frustration at those with an eating disorder are of no constructive value. If one wishes to offer assistance to someone they know it’s best to work through negative emotions until calm and able to approach the person struggling with compassionate concern, respect and sensitivity to how vulnerable they are. Educating oneself on the particular disorder is very useful, constructive and empowering for developing the resources, manner and practical approach towards a sufferer.
To offer love, acceptance, safety, understanding and support at a pace that the adult with disordered eating is capable of maintaining is all that one can really do. Unless the sufferer is at a point where they are ready to acknowledge and accept that they have a problem that is out of their control; that they need help and are prepared to take action in their recovery very little can actually be done. When a person with disordered eating wants to be helped it is useful to offer assistance in finding the most suitable professional help for their specific problem and situation.
Marya Hornbacher, the author of the bestselling eating disorder memoir Wasted (1998), says the most critical part of an adult’s recovery is their reason or motivation for wanting to fight and put in all the work necessary to overcome their eating disorder. Healing can’t be lasting without an individual truly wanting it, freedom and life because this process involves unpacking the metaphor or symptom the eating disorder is and both addressing and reworking the meaning and significance of the story it is telling. The person with disordered eating will have to feel the emotions their eating disorder is anaesthetising and discover what life is like without them and the associated negative core beliefs incarcerating their experience of living with pain.
The question is not whether recovery is possible or how. There is sufficient research, literature and case studies published to be confident that it is an option just like there is an abundance of books, therapists who specialise in the area, online treatment, support groups, blogs and information sites as well as in and outpatient services that make it possible to figure out how regardless of budget and resources.
The only real pending question for each individual to answer do they want to live. Those who have disordered eating and are surviving under its hellish constraints as well as having suicidal tendencies don’t necessarily react with an automatic yes, of course, I want to live. I certainly didn’t. Eating disorders are exhausting, self-abusive, self-hating and relentless in what they put a sufferer through.
It’s not uncommon that someone in the throes of the addiction eating disorders soon become feels as though they don’t have the energy to want to live. They may not necessarily want to die, but they may neither jump at the thought of returning to the business and intensity of the living either. Again, I didn’t. The energy I didn’t have made life as everyone else seemed to be enjoying it seem like it wasn’t an option for me. From this perspective, it’s easy to lose sight of the beauty, wonder and possibility our incredible world always has to offer. So is not considering oneself to be worthy or good enough to live in a way that feels good. Furthermore, a person with disordered eating may not know how to live in such a way.
He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.
As the quote above from Nietzche suggests, without a reason to live, and therefore desire to recover, it is unlikely a person with disordered eating will choose all it requires from them to overcome their disordered eating addiction. This need for a reason had me stumped at the ugly mercy of my eating disorder for a long time. I couldn’t find a way that I could genuinely invest in and be motivated by. I’d had enough. I’d tried, I’d failed, I’d tried again and failed further and found myself utterly beyond giving a f*** anymore. Nor could I feign caring. Sure I wanted to want to live and stop being so limited by the increasingly oppressive rules of my eating disorder, but nothing I came up with felt like a real reason I could commit to for doing so. And so I let my eating disorder play its hate and perversions out with full acceptance of whatever consequences came of it and just observed what was going on without further hating myself or feeling guilty and shame for what I was doing. I accepted it and stopped being afraid of this dark, abject, relentless, powerful and self-destructive side of myself.
During this time I was aware of being very sick, in more trouble than I knew how to get out of and figured there had to be a lesson I was failing to learn. The eating disorder was beyond me and was definitely going to kill me, but I didn’t know why. Why this of all things? And this why was my hook. I needed to understand why which meant I had a lot of learning to do and I LOVE the adventure learning is. For the first time not only was I admitted to myself that I had a severe problem with disordered eating, but I was driven by a curiosity to understand it. The desire for it to make sense gave me a reason to live and a sense of excitement at the thought of discovering what I didn’t know. I found myself committing passionately and wholeheartedly to the investigation.
Learning everything about disordered eating about others and myself was my reason. I knew I could recover, that I always knew because I had kicked addictions to alcohol, cigarettes, pharmaceuticals and much else. It would be hard, no doubt about it and I couldn’t have been less interested in going through real discomfort and such an excruciating fight without a reason that inspired and excited me. Being the detective and storyteller on it did so very much.
Over a series of posts devoted to this topic, I will share how and why this slavery to disordered eating became my reality and how I used what I learned from research, mental health professionals and fiction writing to arrive at the other side of it. Learning and creative expression are as essential to me as food is and I needed the energy food gives to undertake this investigation. I was lucky this took place when I had a PhD and novel in progress for I always had my reason staring back at me, only I didn’t initially recognise it.
There wasn’t enough room in my thesis to cover eating disorders, and many other aspects of the effects of complex childhood trauma have on adult life. So I’m using multiple blog series to write through and share all I’ve researched and experienced alongside writing my current novel, Hope, about a dancer who blames herself for her twin sister dying on their seventh birthday. The story observes her fight to overcome disordered eating and let the death of her twin go so she can live now.
Please feel welcome to interact and share in this journey with me by leaving comments, recommendations of experts and literature on the subject and questions over the upcoming series.
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