No two eating disorders will ever be the same, and so, the road to recovery cannot be more individualized. There is no one size fits all, and generalizing on the steps towards freedom, or worse yet, referring to the “right” way for things to go, can be deceptive, perhaps even discouraging.
But since common patterns do emerge, hearing others’ stories can extend the hopeful direction showing that after all, we are not so alone in this lonely illness.
While I cannot predict the turn of your personal journey, what I can do is share aspects of my own experience and, with a bit of empathy, offer the guidance we long for in the unknown.
I first tried to do this in my lengthy “Healing comes in waves” post, where I detailed my stages of change in the process. Here, in “Healing comes from within”, I will expose how standard medical, nutritional and therapeutic treatment fit into my recovery, ultimately suggesting that the end result may lie in a higher purpose. The aim is to open discussion and provide tools that encourage exploring spirituality - in whichever tailored version agrees you.
Depending on how severe your state, medical observation may be necessary as you jump on the re-feeding craze. Indeed, over fueling a body depleted of electrolytes presents multiple dangers, among which cardiac arrest. I will not expand on this, but if you are re-feeding outside a treatment facility, make sure a primary care doctor, well versed in eating disorders, is monitoring you. It’s also primordial that you report skipping heartbeats, or strong palpitations, as well as any sense of daze, or breathlessness you may experience. It can be very scary, but as long as your metabolic panel and vitals are closely monitored you should be safe.
While eating disorders are not really about the food, years of malnutrition will wreck havoc the most primal cue of eating.
In the depths of anorexia I didn’t think much of food. My body adapted to famine, with appetite regulating hormones carrying out survival functions and neurotransmitters turning dysfunctional. On my end, I was simply acting in tune with the biological cue of not feeding. Most of the time not hungry, most of the time full after two bites of salad, most of the day functioning on empty. I was very much listening to my body.
For majority of people, the idea of loosing the ability to eat is absurd. But for those suffering from anorexia, it is real. Relearning to feed ourselves is an essential part of the healing process. To recover, unless hungry, you can’t listen to your body. Recovery entails going against what feels natural.
Enters the nutritionist, with her bullshit lists, charts, and grids, serving as crutches in the process of recouping natural hunger and fullness cues.
For normal people, eating doesn't involve a conscious need to be in tune with their bodies. They pay little attention to the act and spend minimal time assessing their "level" of hunger. They eat or they don't. They eat now or later, who cares. It's automatic, like drinking water. They don't wonder how thirsty they are. They don't think if they’d rather have still or sparkling. They just drink. Sometimes they choose still, other times sparkling. Maybe there is no choice to have.
For people with eating disorders, this innate ability to feed is eventually wiped out, and so, the list of what to eat, the framework on when to do so, the guidelines on appropriate meals and portions, they constitute an essential tool for recovery.
The attention and awareness we must devote to abiding by these new parameters, when our natural cues are sending signals that exacerbate the unease of going against our brain and body, is painstaking. No wonder so many give up.
Enters additional support.
He is there along the ride. He is there to show empathy and compassion, but he is also there to nudge you and challenge you. He is there to talk about your past, more importantly, he is there to help construct the "bright" future you deserve.
In the earliest sessions, my therapist was educating me. As time progressed, he was there while I cried, while I felt sorry for loosing my life to anorexia, while I felt sad for not feeling “normal”.
In such moments, the value of a therapist’s support takes preponderance over all other forms of care. Indeed, without hearing over and again his promise that, as long as I carried on with the hard work, I could recover, I wouldn’t have been able to reap the benefits of treatment.
What I mean to say is that hope presented the number one tool for my recovery.
Enters exposure to recovered individuals, coupled with a shift in perspective.
All the hope I can get
With time off work, I took up reading, and what other books to devour than the very ones pertaining to my present. Recovery memoires served to relay the hope that full recovery is possible. On top of that, my suffering spurred an interest for more spiritual books, and those armed me with the sense of being heard, ultimately feeling less alone in the process.
But feeding my mind and soul with hope and acceptance also lead me to develop a strong pull towards purposeful endeavors as well as to cultivate what I call soul moments.
The ongoing nurturing of a deeper and more meaningful relationship with one’s self and the world calls for a post on its own. Indeed, the path and detours we take along this journey are not only endless in number; they are also ever-growing in the sense that, as long as we live and breathe, the opportunities for self growth and soulful development carry on.
But for the purpose of describing how the deeper, more spiritual view of a higher self has contributed to helping me recover, I invite you to consider the following interpretation of the differences between the ego-mind and the soul.
In thinking about who we are, we often jump to statements describing our profession, our achievements, possessions, character traits, and so on. We bring forward personal characteristics that form our identity. The ego is the part of us concerned with all those things. The ego is also our thinking mind, and hence responsible for judgment, critique, comparison, etc.
In turn, when you strip the individual of all those things that define him, the individual still exists – that life force within our bodies is the soul-self. The soul-self has no thoughts and feelings; it is our energy, and stays connected to the energies that surround us - the people and the world.
The ego is where thoughts and feelings of our experiences steam from, and the soul-self is simply present through the experiences. The soul-self pays attention, has no judgment and isn’t attached to the results. The soul-self just is.
Distinguishing between the ego-mind and soul-self truly serves the recovery process. On top of being a useful concept to draw on for challenging thoughts and behaviors, it connects the sufferer to deeper values that create a life’s purpose and meaning, essential for reaching happiness within.
Recognizing the existence of an ego-mind helps us assume an observer stance and challenge the distorted thoughts. Learning to pay attention from the soul-self teaches us not to be hard on and have compassion for ourselves. Telling the truth without judgment teaches us to respond, rather than react to urges – which can address the eating disorder behavior. Encouraging non-attachment to results enables us to accept, and continue through the hardship of recovery. Rather than elicit a desire to give up, it invites us to feel empowered by the journey.
Exposure to the soul-self, experiences of soulful moments, the ability to see past the ego and into the spiritual, empower one to live life from a deeper place of awareness. From that seat, the empty focuses of our culture look worthless, and one’s existence takes on a much more powerful role.
Bringing in soul in recovery will spur sufferers to find purpose; it will inspire them to cultivate meaning in their lives; ultimately, they feel whole and connected to themselves and the universe.
Finding purpose, meaning and spirituality might sound unrelated in the grand scheme of curing an eating disorder, but it is such an important consideration in the process of healing. While difficult to articulate, those who have known suffering and other life obstacles generally get it.