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Setting the Stage for Eating Disorders Recovery

Posted Feb 22 2011 1:07pm

Last week was National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.  If you missed it, take heart.  It's never too late to learn the truth about eating disorders, or to play an important role in fighting them.

Here is one major truth about these pervasive illnesses: Eating disorders lie. They deceive us into believing that whatever and however much we eat is wrong. They insist that whatever we weigh is shameful, and that whatever size or shape we may be is never good enough. When it comes to recovery, however, the most pernicious lie in ED’s arsenal has nothing directly to do with eating. Rather, it’s the notion that we “need” to be left alone.

A second critical truth: it’s not the person but the disorder that depends on isolation. Starving, bingeing, and purging are secretive and solitary behaviors that feed on shame. And shame itself is alienating. Shame tells us that no one else could possibly understand, care for, or help us. Shame insists that we don’t deserve friends or loved ones, especially not those who attempt to nourish us. Shame makes sure that we feel alone in the world, and stranded. As a result, isolation becomes the hollow core around which an eating disorder spirals.

Setting the stage for recovery means confronting the eating disorder's lie of isolation. In truth, no one on earth is alone. There are billions of us here! And we’re all, to greater and lesser degrees, related by our mutual flaws and yearnings, our weaknesses and frustrations—and by our essential human appetites. Those appetites—for nourishment, love, pleasure, and meaning—deserve to be shared and celebrated, not hidden behind closed doors. When you’re trapped in the lie of "necessary" isolation, however, it may seem as if everyone else is celebrating and you’re not invited to the party. To free yourself, you need to reach out to a few trusted individuals who are willing and able to reintroduce you to your own appetite for life.

You may feel as if you’re alone on your recovery stage—alone but for the domineering voice of the eating disorder, of course. But actually, crowding in the wings is a large cast of friends, family, teachers, pets, classmates and colleagues, doctors and therapists. Some have known you your whole life; others may have just met you. Some are worried for you, but don’t know what to do. Others have the tools to help but need your permission to approach. Many are as baffled and frustrated by your illness as you are, and will gladly support you in your battle—if only you’ll let them.

You have the power and the right to choose who will join you in the fight for your health, and who won’t. Staying out there alone with an eating disorder, however, is not a viable option. The end goal of the eating disorder is to empty that stage of everyone—including you. In other words, its target finale is death.

Recovery means opting for life. And life demands relationship. To reclaim your health, you need to exercise your power to connect with others. If that sounds daunting, it’s probably because the eating disorder has convinced you of yet another lie—that you’re powerless to make your own choices, especially when it comes to love and trust. Instead of allowing you to relate normally to other people, the eating disorder insists that you fixate on your body. The longer you’ve been ill, the more difficult it may be to accurately see or hear the people around you. But try to pay closer attention to the individuals who share your daily life. Consider how you’re connected and how each one of them makes you feel. How has your illness affected them? How much do they want to help you? What could they contribute to your recovery? What would you need to do to help them help you?

Think of yourself as a casting director. Before a play is cast, actors must audition. The casting director pays close attention to each person’s voice, expression, and body language. He considers which of these individuals will be best for the production—who’ll bring the most genuine energy, useful skills, and honest commitment to the common effort?

The people you choose to help you set your stage for recovery should meet the same criteria. They’ll support you without judging you or tearing you down. They’ll make a genuine effort to understand what’s wrong, and do their utmost to help you figure out how best to make it right. They’ll admit they don’t have all the answers, and they’ll doubtless have a few flaws of their own. (Not even the healthiest, sanest, most loving people on earth are perfect!) But they are wholeheartedly there for you, for your health, for your well-being. You need them, and they need you.

This blog is adapted from my forthcoming book: RESTORING OUR BODIES, RECLAIMING OUR LIVES, to be published next month by Shambhala Press.

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