Eating disorders (EDs) are about much more than food. They are the result of a complex mixture of genetic, biological and environmental factors. Often, they have deep emotional roots in things like trauma or other mental health issues. They can be deadly.
The myth surrounding EDs is that the “cure” is to “just eat.” This is as harmful as it is ubiquitous. As a community of those suffering, those in recovery, and those treating the illness, we must fight this oversimplification with everything we have. This fundamental misunderstanding only leads to more stigma, shame, and fewer people seeking the help they so desperately need and deserve, believing it is a phase they can get over if they just find the magic solution to “eating right” or “normal.”
There is one major “however” lurking behind this insistence that recovery is about more than food. And, that is even though EDs are about more than food, the recovery journey must pass through a healing journey with food, probably weight restoration, and acceptance of the new body that results. It is not the magic solution, or fix, to the disorder, but recovery means passing through these healing waters and coming out on the other side.
The primary reason for this is biological: the brain cannot respond to the necessary, transformative work of therapy if it is not nourished properly. The real, healing work takes place in the soul, in the heart, but that can only be accessed when the brain is able to function, properly fed.
We all have known a loved one (or maybe ourselves!) who committed to the healing work of recovery, but then only wanted to work with the therapist and not follow the meal plan – or meet with the dietitian at all. They (or we) cited the fact that the problem is really the emotional root, not the food. But, that is usually not the healthy-self speaking, rather it’s the illness fighting to hang onto the last bit of control it can exert, knowing it is in its death throes.
Weight must be restored and a balanced, moderate, non-abusive relationship with food must be established alongside work with other therapists. This must happen together. That is why communication within the treatment team is so important. Also, working through meal times with a therapist helps to heal so many of the emotional wounds that have been triggered by food–only at the table can they be truly healed. Shame, anger, fear, self-hatred, loneliness, guilt – these are all feelings that have often been pushed down or taken out on the individual’s plate or body. Therefore, that is the place they need to be met, confronted, heard, and distilled of their power.
With weight restoration comes the journey of learning to love and accept the new body you have discovered through recovery. That too, is an opportunity for work, growth, and healing. Your new body may not be one that you love right away. Cultivating respect and acceptance that this new body is right, lovely, and YOU takes time, but it is necessary to find peace. The body wars must stop in order to find full recovery.
In fact, if the “love your body” mantra is too lofty a goal during the early phases of the recovery process, feel free to toss it aside. The reality of life in a body that is not suffering from an ED is that it is still far from perfect. It gets sick, weak and sore. It gets bloated. It gets bruises, acne, cellulite and rashes. Sometimes, in reality, we don’t love our bodies, but we can practice appreciating them. Talk with a therapist about how much time and attention “body-checking” still takes up in your day or process of getting ready in the morning. Start telling yourself aloud or journaling about the gratitude you have for the things your body can DO rather than what it LOOKS like. These are all helpful tools in the process of re-discovering a reality-based acceptance of the body you were created with – flaws and all.
Learning how to restore a balanced relationship with food and the body can be the toughest part of the early recovery process, but it is the key to long-term success. EDs are not just about the food, but the relationship with food and the body must change radically in order to reach a place of healing.