“We don’t see things how they are, we see them how we are.” Anais Nin
What do you see when you look in the mirror? Very few people see what is actually there: we see a distorted version of ourselves, someone no one else can see. Many of us try to hide this person from the world, but there she is staring back at us.
People with eating disorders are drawn to mirrors, not because they like looking at their reflections, but because they are obsessed with them. They look to see if anything has changed, if they look as ugly as they feel. They look to torture themselves with the emotional wounds they feel, to reinforce the need they feel to eat less and less, exercise more and more, or purge the food they have just eaten. When they look in the mirror, they don’t see beautiful, worthwhile, whole, healthy people; they see someone who is not good enough and never will be.
To live with an eating disorder is to live in a very small world. When you’re plagued by an eating disorder, food rules you: you fear it, you hate it. Millions of Americans, mostly young and female, live in this world. Eating disorders revolve around food but are not really about food. They are about emotional pain and control. Paula Abdul, the “nice” judge of American Idol and spokesperson for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), says:
It is one of the toughest things to talk about, bar none, and it is one of the hardest disorders to deal with because it’s not black or white. Eating disorders really have nothing to do with food, it’s about feelings.
It seems so bleak, but there is a way out of the hell that defines an eating disorder. Jamie Lynn Sigler, well known for her role as Meadow on HBO’s Sopranos, went from a healthy 120 pounds to eighty in four months. She says:
Every week I would see my reflection of my back and see more bones coming out, more ribs and more hip bones. It was awful… I really wanted to just be comfortable and be happy, but I didn’t think it was possible ever again. And I just didn’t know how to get past it… I thought that that was my life. I was set. This was the way I was going to have to live my life. And knowing that I was able to overcome it and be healthy and happy again is amazing.
How do you become healthy and happy again? By transforming your belief that the world is unsafe into “the world is safe when I am present.”
Healing from Abuse and Eating Disorders
In Truth Heals Deborah King shares the following passage on the cause of eating disorders that will help you see that they are not just a bodily disease, but also one of the soul.
Most eating disorders are primarily a first chakra issue having to do with the basic need to be here and attend to the body’s need for nourishment. Individuals whose sense of safety is compromised or who frequently have their boundaries crossed by a powerful “other” may begin to feel they have no control over their destiny. They zero in on eating as the one aspect of life they can control.
For me, the powerful “other” was my father, who repeatedly sexually abused me when I was a young girl. The first – or root – chakra is a very primal energy center. We develop a strong root chakra when we feel secure, especially as children. We have a strong sense of identity and of being connected to the earth and to ourselves. When we don’t develop that feeling of safety, or when we have a “closed” or “stuck” first chakra, eating disorders may be one of the physical manifestations of our spiritual energy gone astray. The first chakra can become unbalanced when we experience trauma or abuse, especially when they occur at an early age. Children who have been abused, neglected, abandoned, or otherwise made to feel insecure often must deal with problems related to weight, anemia, lethargy, depression, and anxiety.
Not eating is a way of not feeling present, a physical expression of “I don’t want to be here.” Eating keeps us here, and here is where we must be in order to heal.
Experiences like surgery, parental separation or divorce, fire, flood or other natural disasters, almost anything that is disturbing can throw our root chakra off balance, and predispose us to an eating disorder later. on.
What is an Eating Disorder?
“I would eat 300 calories a day – a lot of Jell-O and no-sugar everything, of course. I was doing Pilates, weight-training, circuit training; over lunch I would run on a treadmill in my dressing room with a fan on my face so I wouldn’t sweat my makeup off.” Portia de Rossi
Eating disorders are all-consuming. Six months of the year, I subsisted on eggs and grapes; the other six months, I ate whatever I wanted in copious quantities. “An eating disorder is marked by extremes,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Extreme deprivation, extreme overeating, extreme anxiety about food and fat. They take extreme concentration and devotion. In her stunning autobiographical account of anorexia, Caroline Knapp writes of the obsession that is inherent in eating disorders:
[S]tarving is a painful, relentless experience, and also a throbbingly dull one, an entire life boiled down to a singular sensation (physical hunger) and a singular obsession (food). But when I think back on those years…that’s what I remember most pointedly – the calm, the relief from an anxiety that felt both oceanic and nameless. For years, I ate the same foods every day, in exactly the same manner, at exactly the same times. I devoted a monumental amount of energy to this endeavor – thinking about food, resisting food, observing other people’s relationships with food, anticipating my own paltry indulgences in food – and this narrowed, specific driven rigidity made me feel supremely safe: one concern, one feeling, everything else just background noise.
There is no room for anything else – hurt, trauma, and emotional pain are all successfully numbed.
The main categories of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. There are also other disorders that are considered eating disorders not otherwise specified (EDNOS). This means that the person may exhibit some of the symptoms of anorexia or bulimia but not all. Let’s briefly discuss the major eating disorders to get a better understanding of the subject.
Anorexia. From the Greek meaning “nervous lack of appetite,” anorexia is characterized by an extreme aversion to gaining weight. Anorectics fear gaining weight, and by extension, fear food. They see their bodies through a distorted lens, and it’s one built from their emotional pain. Their bodies appear to be larger than they actually are. When they lose weight, they view it as an accomplishment for a while. Then they need to lose yet more. Model and actress Carre Otis suffered from anorexia for years before she recovered. “I had been on this insane diet for almost 17 years to maintain the weight that was demanded of me when I was modeling. My diet was really starvation. I am not naturally that thin.” Despite the original Greek meaning, anorectics do not lack appetite: in fact, they battle hunger all day, every day, and it can create both physical and emotional pain.
Bulimia. In contrast to anorexia, bulimia is “ox hunger.” Someone with bulimia binges, eating an abnormally large amount of food in a very short period of time. The food is then purged through vomiting, the use of laxatives and/or diuretics, enemas, or intense exercise. People with bulimia often restrict food intake and a binge is triggered by emotional stress or a traumatic event. The food offers temporary comfort. Both binging and purging is often uncontrollable. Unlike anorectics, bulimics often maintain their body weight, making it more difficult to recognize the disorder. Elton John suffered from bulimia for years. He describes his uncontrollable urge:
I would gorge myself, then deliberately make myself sick. For breakfast I’d have an enormous fry-up, followed by 20 pots of cockles (shellfish) and then a tub of Haagen-Dazs vanilla….If I was eating a curry, I couldn’t wait to throw it up so that I could have the next one.
Binge Eating Disorder. This is similar to bulimia in that people binge uncontrollably. They do not eat in response to physical hunger but out of depression, emotional pain, or a stressful triggering event. Unlike bulimics, however, they do not purge after they binge. A study from Harvard University and McLean Hospital found that 3.5% of women and 2% of men suffer from binge eating disorder for an average of eight years. This is more than those affected by anorexia and bulimia combined. Oprah Winfrey suffered from binge eating disorder after a traumatic childhood that included sexual assault and the death of her infant son. She said being heavy protected her.
Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified. This includes repeatedly chewing and spitting out food. Elton John reportedly also suffered from this form of eating disorder. EDNOS encompasses disorders that meet all but one criterion for anorexia or bulimia, as, for example, when someone meets all the criteria for anorexia except they maintain regular menstrual cycles. Edward J. Cumella, executive director of performance management at Remuda Ranch, a renowned treatment center, estimates that between one-third and one-half of those diagnosed with eating disorders have EDNOS.
Toxic Emotions for Many
Millions are affected by eating disorders directly, and nearly half of Americans personally know someone with an eating disorder. Here are some stark numbers to give you a better idea of the scope of these illnesses:
- Eight million people have eating disorders; one million are men and boys. Boys account for 10 – 15 percent of anorexia or bulimia cases in the US.
- One in every 200 American women has anorexia; two to three of every 100 women have bulimia. Fifteen percent of young women have some sort of disordered eating pattern.
- Of those with anorexia, 10 – 25 percent will die as a direct result.
- Ten percent of college women have an eating disorder.
- Among adolescents, anorexia is the third most common chronic illness.
- Most people with eating disorders are between twelve and twenty-five.
Your Body’s Physical and Emotional Pain
One more statistic: only ten percent of people with eating disorders get treatment. There are various reasons for this. Treatment for eating disorders is often not covered by health insurance, but perhaps the biggest reason why people go untreated is that they do not recognize or accept that they have a problem. Many people, particularly anorectics, are proud of their eating disorder, spawning numerous ‘pro ana’ and ‘pro-mia’ websites. This is extremely dangerous.
For emotional renewal to take place, to feel good about your body and spiritual health, you need to listen to what your body is telling you. Eating disorders can cause serious damage to your body; in fact, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. I struggled with an eating disorder for years before realizing that I was slowly killing myself. I was killing my body, but more importantly, I was destroying any trace of identity I had because of my emotional pain. I became a shell; I hate for this to happen to anyone else. Perhaps by understanding the dangers, more people will seek physical treatment and emotional healing.
Terri Schiavo’s war with an eating disorder came to a very public end in 2005, when her feeding tube was removed and she died. Terri had struggled with her weight until her late teens when she lost sixty-five pounds. As the weight came off, she began to get more attention. (This is part of the allure of eating disorders: as you lose more weight, people tell you how good you look. It reinforces the dangerous behaviors that you are engaging in.) As with any weight that is lost in unhealthy ways, it threatened to come back on. Terri resorted to restricting her diet to only liquids. Reportedly, she consumed only iced tea. If she did eat, she immediately purged. She stopped menstruating eventually. Terri did see a doctor, who failed to diagnose an eating disorder and was later sued for malpractice. Attorney Gary Fox represented Terri and her husband, Michael, and said:
She didn’t want to go back to where she was from. This [purging] was the only way she could do this in her mind and be able to eat as much as she did.
In 1990, Terri collapsed. Her heart stopped and her brain was deprived of oxygen long enough to cause irreversible and massive brain damage. She was in a persistent vegetative state – in which she was awake but lacked any awareness – for fifteen years. Ironically, this woman who had starved herself for years died when her feeding tube was removed.
Terri Schiavo is an extreme example of what can happen when eating disorders go untreated. There are several side effects that are devastating to your body’s wellbeing:
- Kidney failure
- Cardiac arrest, heart failure
- Osteoporosis, loss of bone mass in women, decrease in testosterone in men
- Low blood potassium (this was thought to have caused Terri Schiavo to collapse)
- Irregular bowel movements
- Cessation of menses (amenorrhea)
- Stomach rupture
- Lung problems
- Disordered thinking (fifty percent of anorectics have abnormal brain scans due to caloric deficit)
- Multi-organ failure
- Hormone changes, including decrease in reproductive hormones like estrogen and dehydroepiandrosterone. Thyroid and growth hormones are lower, and stress hormones increase.
- Dental deterioration
- Lanugo – a fine layer of downy hair covering the body. It does this because it needs to maintain proper body temperature.
- Hair loss
- Increased risk of suicide
Binge eating disorder causes a host of serious physical problems as well, including:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Gall bladder disease
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
Eating disorders are tricky beasts: we often think that we’ll be able to tell if someone close to us is expressing emotional pain in this form. We’ll see the gaunt, skeletal figure and urge them to seek help. In reality, however, we often do not see the effects until a person has become seriously ill. President of the National Eating Disorders Association Doug Bunnell says:
Paint me a picture of an eating disorder – it’s an emaciated woman. But that’s not the reality. They don’t get down that low. The face of eating disorders is your next-door neighbor’s daughter or maybe your own.
Your Emotional Pain
“i…rocked thanksgiving, let me just say. i barely ate anything. i spent the day hungry and went to bed starving and was sooo proud of myself.” Comment on a pro-anorexic website forum.
The storm that your body is weathering is just part of the damage that eating disorders inflict. The emotional pain felt by your mind and soul is just as great, and in fact, it goes much deeper. A study led by Dr. Loa Clausen of the University of Aarhus in Denmark found that psychological symptoms were much harder to treat and were the last to go into remission. Dr. Clausen studied 65 patients who underwent treatment for anorexia or bulimia; among those, the fear of gaining weight, the fear of fat, and a distorted self image persisted long after the patients had regained weight and resolved other physical problems. The study found that:
- It took the patients an average of 11 months to regain weight they had lost in the course of their eating disorders.
- Normal menstruation resumed after about eight months.
- Behaviors associated with the eating disorders, such as binging and purging, are resolved months sooner than psychological symptoms.
- Those who suffered from bulimia tended to regain a better sense of body image more quickly than those with anorexia. (Anorectics are much more fearful of gaining fat.)
Dr. Clausen hopes that the study will help improve treatment techniques.
If we know behavioral symptoms are more likely to change first, we need to focus here in the beginning of therapy and accept that the psychological symptoms persist…[I]t is important to focus on the small steps and changes in the process, both in treatment and in research on treatment.
This knowledge can help focus treatment. Those with eating disorders should be encouraged to take little steps and understand that emotional healing is a multipart process. Curing the body is the first step in healing the mind.
Eating disorders often cause the following in those who suffer from them:
- Feelings of helplessness and lack of control
- Alienation and loneliness
- Obsessive thoughts and compulsions, ritualistic behavior
- Fear of being discovered, intense secrecy and hypervigilance
What many people without eating disorders do not understand is the total concentration they demand. Those with EDs become immersed in their own worlds, consumed by distorted images of their bodies and isolated from their friends and family, truly unable to seek emotional help. It becomes so intense that they lose sight of every other thing in their lives. Jamie Lynn Sigler recalls, “Going out with my girlfriends to go to the mall was out. They might decide to go to the food court and order pizza.” This, for someone with an ED, can induce panic. Going out to eat – something that most of us do without thinking – can be a terrifying event filled with toxic emotions, one that they will avoid at all costs.
I think it is important to hear about eating disorders from the experts: those who live with them. That is why I have included quotes from pro-ana sites – most definitely not because I in any way endorse or condone such sites. We can get a unique and clear look inside eating disorders that is invaluable in understanding the psychology involved. The following excerpts are from a popular message board:
Oh my god – i am so ridiculously happy right now…i just found out i am getting out of eating dinner tonight [followed by several smiling emoticons]. i was supposed to be going out with my friends, but it got cancelled. anyway long story short going back is back on, and i can pretend i have already eaten dinner at home to my friends, and that i am eating dinner out to my family…ohh this day is perfect.
This person is not excited to be going out with friends – in fact, she would avoid that if it meant eating. She is instead happy that she does not have to eat. The fear of going out is eliminated. Another poster writes:
It’s Saturday evening. I should be out. I’m never out. I’m too fat to have fun. I’m always worried what I look like.
In both cases, these young women give up living their lives, instead focusing on their bodies and calorie intake. Maintaining a fast is more important than being with friends or family, having time alone to binge and purge is more important than studying, attending classes, or any of the myriad other things that “normal” people do everyday. Kari Anderson, program director at Remuda Ranch, says:
Eating disorders become the person’s primary focus, and interest in real relationships fades into the background. The main reason for the isolation is to practice the eating disorder without interruption…Isolation intensifies the eating disorder. Alone in the world of her eating disorder, a woman can become consumed with her obsessive thoughts about food, calories, weight, fat grams, and self-hatred.
This fosters a sense of secrecy and shame. People with eating disorders need to carry out their food-related rituals in private and fear being caught. In an article on emotional health and eating disorders entitled “Fear of Being Fat,” which appeared in the Washington Post, Amrit Dhillon writes of her struggle with bulimia and trying to hide it from her family.
I couldn’t eat fast enough, my heart pounding. It beat with the same intensity as I attempted to rid my system of everything I’d just consumed.
Sometimes it would be late at night and my parents would be sleeping. I’d gorge myself with chips, leftover pizza, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It was like I couldn’t chew fast enough. Then I’d go into the garage and line a paper grocery bag with a plastic one and use that as my toilet. I’d hide the bag until I could dispose of it.
Eating disorders distort our view of the world, until everything – absolutely everything – is about food, fasting, exercising, binging, and purging. Simple trips to the store become obstacle courses that those with EDs navigate with anxiety and fear.
When I struggled with an eating disorder, everyday was simple: a handful of grapes and a couple of hard boiled eggs. Lunch with a client? “Oh, I’ve eaten,” I would tell them. “I’ll just have a drink.” I loved the feeling of power it gave me; the rest of my life was in shambles, but at least I had power over my own appetite! Well, half of the year I did.
How does this happen? How do we grow from children who enjoy their bodies because they work, because they can run and jump and play, to adults in constant emotional pain who loathe everything about ourselves?
Discord and Disorder
“I often went entire days without speaking – unable to get a word in over my inner taskmaster, who never shut up: “You fat, disgusting slob, you’ll never be thin enough, good enough, smart enough, tough or talented enough.” Aimee Liu in Gaining: The Truth About Life After Eating Disorders
It can be tempting to blame the media for our obsession with thinness and the proliferation of eating disorders. To do so, though, is to minimize the scope of these diseases and to miss crucial causes that could inform treatment and a return to emotional health. In reality, eating disorders are complex; the causes can be as unique as the individuals who suffer.
Society is but one of the factors which contribute to eating disorders, but it is by far the most visible and far-reaching. In our society, we get mixed messages regarding weight. You have to be thin to be sexy. You have to diet and exercise…but not too much. Many celebrities claim that eat what they want and do not exercise – this is probably very false, but it creates a feeling like we are not good enough and have to work three times as hard and eat three times less in order to stack up. Jackie Conn is the general manager of Weight Watchers of Maine, Inc. She says:
Some celebs admit to dieting but not exercising while others say they eat what they want, but maintain their shapes with workouts. PUH-lease!!!!! This is sheer nonsense. The waifs we see on TV and in the movies do both; they diet and exercise and a lot of both. Unfortunately too many women believe these lies that the celebrities feed us and the effect on the believers can be devastating. It can lead to self-loathing and despair. Some women feel they were cheated when it came to being blessed with the good genes. If they can’t achieve the desired results using the celebrity secrets, then the problem is with their bodies – not the stupid secrets. This is a devastating way to think. It can cause one to not value the gift a healthy body truly is. By not recognizing the value, the body isn’t cared for as though it’s valuable and sooner or later it will reflect that lack of care.
We want to look like celebrities and dissect every change in their bodies. They are vilified in the tabloids if they look like they’ve gained weight. They are criticized in the same tabloids for looking too skinny. The overall message is, “You are not good enough how you are. You need to change.”
An interesting study done by Harvard researcher Anne Becker shows us the link between media and the emotional pain behind eating disorders. To those on the Pacific island of Fuji, an ideal body type was round and robust – equated with having sufficient resources. Then, in 1995, the island was introduced to widespread television reception for the first time. Islanders could watch shows like ER, Melrose Place, and Xena: Warrior Princess. Becker found that eating disorder symptoms increased five times after the introduction to television. She says, “While it’s an everyday concept to Americans, reshaping the body is a new concept to Fijians.” One teenager involved in the study said that she and her peers admired the “slim and very tall” physique of the American actresses. “We want our bodies to become like that… so we try to lose a lot of weight.”
Study after study shows us that we are inundated with images of physical perfection that make us feel emotional pain. A study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that after watching commercials with ultra-thin, underweight models, teenagers felt angry, more dissatisfied with their bodies, and less confident than did a group who watched a documentary that didn’t feature these types of images. And again, a group of ten year old boys and girls watched a Britney Spears video and clips from the popular television show, Friends. Afterward, they reported being unhappy with their bodies.
According to NEDA:
Media messages screaming “thin is in” may not directly cause eating disorders, but they help to create the context within which people learn to place a value on the size and shape of their body. To the extent that media messages like advertising and celebrity spotlights help our culture define what is beautiful and what is “good,” the media’s power over our development of self-esteem and body image can be incredibly strong.
It is important to note that it is not just the watchers of television who suffer from this obsession. The participants themselves are caught up in the emotional wounds that make people believe that you can’t be too thin. Carre Otis, who modeled for Guess and Calvin Klein, and appeared in Sport Illustrated, suffered from anorexia. She says, “The pressure was if I didn’t get into that dress size someone else would – someone else would get the job.”
But, as we have said, eating disorders are multidimensional and society is not totally to blame. Carre Otis goes on to say:
I can’t blame it all on modeling. Anorexia was there for me before I got into modeling, but because of the arena and the demands, the disease really got out of control for me. It’s like being an alcoholic and going and being a bartender.
Douglas Bunnell, who is on the Founders Council of NEDA says that eating disorders are “a complex interaction between some sort of inherited vulnerability and an environment that pushes people toward body loathing.”
And there is research being done to support the claim that there is indeed an “inherited vulnerability” associated with eating disorders. A study authored by Dr. Dorothy Grice of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Psychiatry and Center for Neurobiology and Behavior found that anorexia nervosa is, in part, genetic. Researchers looked at families in which one member had anorexia and one had some form of disordered eating. Comparing the genetic makeup of these families, researchers did not find strong genetic similarities. However, they then tested the 37 families in which both members had anorexia nervosa. Here, they found similarities on chromosome 1. (Chromosomes 10 and 14 also appear to be associated with bulimia.)
The study emphasized that it had not found a gene that causes anorexia, but that it is likely a combination of genes that may predispose someone to this particular eating disorder. These genes may also include ones that account for personality traits, such as perfectionism and anxiety, which contribute to the emotional pain behind eating disorders.
Dr. Cynthia Bulik, director of the UNC Eating Disorders Program, led a study that looked at 31,000 twins in Sweden. She found that genetics accounted for 56 percent of the anorexia cases in those twins. Dr. Bulik said:
We were able to show for the first time that there is a substantial genetic component to anorexia nervosa…For a long time, people have viewed anorexia nervosa as a disorder of choice. People thought that these were people choosing to lose a lot of weight and diet down to some thin ideal.
Dr. Bulik explains that tendencies towards emotional stress problems like depression and anxiety – which can be genetic – are “the core that predicts the later onset of anorexia nervosa.” It is the personality type that contributes to eating disorders:
What that means is things that might be like water off a duck’s back for someone who is low on neuroticism, [for] someone who’s high on neuroticism they’re like emotional Velcro. So things just stick to them and impact them more, emotionally, than for other people for whom they can just brush it off and move on.
This would explain why two people may have identical sets of circumstances, and one will develop an eating disorder while the other does not: it’s not so much what you have to deal with as howyou cope with it.
Dr. Bulik also worked on a study that looked at 300 overweight or obese people. Half of the group had binge-eating disorder. Those with family members who had binge eating disorder were much more likely to have the same problem. This could be genetic or it could be learned behavior. On the same note, researchers found that children who have mothers who are overly critical of their weight have an increased risk of developing eating disorders. Other studies have noted that girls with eating disorders very often have fathers or brothers who are critical of their bodies. One young woman who suffers from anorexia writes:
I was a huge kid and got made fun of. My dad is insane about food and won’t let himself above 140 pounds or else he’ll starve (he insists he doesn’t have an ED though) and he forced me to start running and exercising because he couldn’t stand having such a fat kid. So I did lose, I developed an ED and everyone got worried about me. But not him, he would tell me how happy he was I finally got skinny. Over summer I gained 10 pounds and am now at a normal weight and he’s back to telling me I need to go to the gym more.
Research has also demonstrated a connection between eating disorders and the toxic emotions that cause depression. Those with eating disorders often have elevated levels of serotonin and cortisol, as do those with depression. These last pieces of evidence do much to show us the mind body connection of eating disorders.
Many times, conventional science does not recognize that illnesses of the body are directly related to ailments of the soul. There is no denying, however, that eating disorders have a very clear, very real, and very dangerous connection. A study done by researchers from Toronto General Hospital, the University of Toronto, and York University found that almost half of patients with anorexia nervosa suffered childhood sexual abuse (CSA). They studied 77 patients at an in-patient treatment facility. Their findings:
- Forty-eight percent of the patients reported that they had been victims of CSA.
- Those with a history of CSA had increased levels of depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. They also tended to have lower self-esteem.
- Sixty-five percent of the patients with anorexia who also binged and purged (AN-BP), as opposed to restricting, were victims of CSA.
- Those with AN-BP were far more likely to end their treatment prematurely.
Another study, this conducted by a University of Bristol team, found that girls who were abused before age sixteen were twice as likely to develop eating disorders than those who were not. And lest we forget that eating disorders affect boys and men, a study conducted by Drs. Matthew B. Feldman and Ilan H. Meyer found that men with a history of CSA were “significantly more likely to have subclinical bulimia or any current full-syndrome or subclinical eating disorder compared to men who do not have a history of childhood sexual abuse.”
Noted American poet Anne Sexton personified the distorted root chakra. As a child, she was sexually abused by her father and treated with hostility by her mother; her story is similar to mine . Her poem, “Sleeping Beauty (Briar Rose)” gives us a glimpse inside her world. Here is an excerpt:
There was a theft…/Each night I am nailed into place/and forget who I am./Daddy?/That’s another kind of prison./It’s not the prince at all,/but my father/drunkeningly bends over my bed,/circling the abyss like a shark,/my father thick upon me/like some sleeping jellyfish.
Unsurprisingly, Anne suffered with toxic emotions that included depression, anxiety, and anorexia. Throughout her life, she was institutionalized for these, as well as wild mood swings. Ultimately, she ended up committing suicide, having never healed from her emotional wounds.
Not every story ends so tragically, thankfully. Wynonna Judd shows us that recovery is possible with acknowledgement of the problem and hard work. Wynonna was one half of the successful Judds, but her life was far from perfect. Her mother was an impoverished teenager when she gave birth to Wynonna, and the family lived on welfare. Her parents divorced, and Wynonna and her sister, Ashley, bonded through these hard times. Wynonna says, “We were in a place where we had nothing but each other.” Ashley suffered from depression, even as a young child. She says,
I had a very unsafe and unstable childhood about 10 months out of the year. I didn’t have my normal, natural little-girl needs met…I had my first childhood depression at eight – severe, intense, hole-in-the-soul loneliness. No one noticed.
Life wasn’t easier for her sister. Wynonna describes being lonely on the road, especially when she was left to tour on her own when her mother was ill and had to stop. “I’d be in a fetal position in that bed…out of fear, what if I can’t sing that well enough?” These doubts plagued her, and she constantly experienced emotional pain.
I would end up in a hotel by myself 300 days out of the year, and it was real safe and real wonderful to sit in a room, turn on a movie and order room service, and that became my best friend. Thank God it wasn’t drugs or alcohol, but yet it was…devastating on the body.
Wynonna turned to food for comfort, watching as her weight crept up and up. Eventually, she had enough. She checked herself into rehab for her food addiction.
[Going into rehab] was like going to college and learning why it is such an addiction. I learned about myself…why I do the things I do. We are so distracted by so much in life. I slowed down to a pace where I could think thoughts, feel things.
Too many people do not acknowledge that food addiction or binge eating disorder are “real” illnesses. They think that all they need is willpower or to go to a gym and work out. This is unfortunate because those who suffer do not get the emotional pain relief they need and deserve. Part of Wynonna’s continuous journey of her emotional and spiritual healing is sharing her story, which hopefully will give others with these serious disorders courage.
What did Wynonna learn from rehab?
I spent so many years not loving myself. The world did, I was number one, but I would go to bed at night and say, “I don’t feel loved, I don’t feel worthy because of myself.” I do now, and it’s not because I’m number one. I’m glad I figured it out at 39.
Abuse of any kind is damaging because it shatters our basic sense of place and safety in the world. Healing from abuse is always a process. To balance the mind body connection, we have to pay attention to our body’s messages. It is never too late – or too early – to learn to love yourself, both body and soul.
“Go within everyday and find the inner strength so that the world will not blow your candle out.” Katherine Dunham
Recovery is difficult. Recovery is hell. But it is about you: your emotional renewal, your happiness, your life, and your soul. Only ten percent of people with eating disorders receive treatment – of those, 80 percent do not get the intensity of treatment they need to affect a recovery. These are startling numbers. So are these:
- Five to ten percent of those with anorexia die within ten years; 18-20 percent die after 20 years.
- Twenty percent of anorectics will die from complications associated with anorexia. This includes heart problems and suicide. Up to 20 percent of people with serious eating disorders die as a result.
- Anorexia kills 12 times more people than all the causes of death for females age 15-24 combined.
- Sixty percent of those with eating disorders recover with treatment. Twenty percent recover partially, and 20 percent never recover (according the National Institute of Mental Health, National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders).
Treatment is absolutely essential. Not only that, but a commitment to treatment is also necessary. You cannot “cure” someone who does not want to be cured. This is so hard for parents and friends to cope with as they watch their loved ones struggle with eating disorders. Forcing people to eat, watching them like hawks to make sure they don’t go to the bathroom after meals, locking up food: all of these are steps that well-intentioned friends and family members take to try to “fix” the victim. Unfortunately, that can make the behavior worse, and more covert.
What can you do? How do you start on the journey to physical and emotional health?
For friends and family members, the most important thing to remember is to avoid accusations. People with eating disorders tend to feel intense shame and are very defensive of their disorders. Confronting them with a combative attitude is counterproductive. Instead, voice your concerns in a nonthreatening way (“I am worried that you don’t seem to be eating” or “I feel scared when you purge after meals.”) Open yourself to listening in a supportive manner. Encourage emotional help and treatment. Healing emotional wounds goes hand in hand with healing the physical symptoms. The person who suffers from the eating disorder probably will not be receptive to your overtures, but be patient. They need to know that someone cares, is nonjudgmental, and will love them unconditionally. Ninety percent of girls with eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25; so parents should be especially aware of eating disorder warning signs and be prepared to seek help from their family doctor if necessary. There are numerous spiritual healing resources available through your doctor and online. Remember, blame does no good. It is detrimental to blame either your loved one or yourself.
When you are the one battling an eating disorder, it can feel like you are alone in the world. Again, this is why pro-ana websites have proliferated recently. It gives people a forum in which to discuss their disorders with a receptive and friendly audience. These sites may be very damaging, but it is understandable why they are so popular. You have to want to heal – no one can make you. Learning about the damage eating disorders can do to your body makes no difference; feeling the devastating emotional pain does not stop you; losing friends and family as you isolate yourself into your disorder makes you miserable, and yet you cannot stop.
Dr. Ira Sacker, founder and director of Helping to End Eating Disorders (HEED) at Brookdale University and Hospital Medical Center and author of Dying to Be Thin: Understanding and Defeating Eating Disorders, says:
Often eating disorders act as a protection from the underlying feelings of being overwhelmed. With anorexia and bulimia, the behaviors of restriction as well as binging and vomiting causes a release of endorphins which give the individual a false “high.” To treat these disorders one needs to have a treatment team composed of a physician, nutritionist and therapist all well versed in eating disorders.
In healing the emotional wounds of an eating disorder, a variety of therapies are employed – or should be – in order to facilitate the most complete recovery: psychodynamic (to determine the underlying causes and work through them), cognitive (to change negative thought patterns), group, family, and nutritional therapies. Some people also find relief with SSRIs (select serotonin reuptake inhibitors), including fluoxetine (Prozac) and sertraline (Zoloft), which are used to treat the depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive behavior that are closely related to eating disorders. If you’re interested in adding energy healing, come to one of my self help workshops.
Eating disorder treatment has traditionally involved a forced hospital stay – such as in the case of anorectics to make them gain weight – which was sometimes followed by psychotherapy. This was an ineffective and incomplete method of treatment, and researchers in England are having more success with a new treatment model.
Family therapy is being used to involve the parents in the journey of recovery, as well as to offer the patient more independence (which is crucial for those with eating disorders. They must feel like they have control of something, especially their recovery). This makes eminent sense to me since what those of afflicted with eating disorders are seeking is personal control in a chaotic world. This form of treatment is revolutionary because it is relatively short-term and is out-patient. Dr. James Lock, a psychiatrist at Stanford University, is studying this method in the States. He says:
Overall, patients appear to do remarkably well on this treatment. I’m amazed at its ability to help patients overcome the acute symptoms of anorexia nervosa.
In England, studies have found that the treatment helped 66 percent of anorectics regain weight without being hospitalized. Most importantly, they greatly improved their psychological functioning. Further, it helped the parents cope with the disorder in a less judgmental and blame-oriented way. They were more accepting of their children, which is also crucial for the self empowerment needed for long-lasting recovery.
Studies have also shown that those with bulimia nervosa are best served when engaged in cognitive therapy and psychotherapy. Those who underwent cognitive therapy showed marked improvement: they tended to discontinue binging and purging practices, and their toxic emotions behind depression, anxiety, and obsession with weight waned. Those who underwent psychotherapy did not improve as quickly, but after a year, showed similar improvements, according to studies done by researchers at Stanford, Columbia, and Oxford. For those who were unresponsive to either therapy, drugs like fluoxetine and sertraline were shown to be effective.
Without your willing and active participation, recovery will fail, no matter the treatment method. But if you remain committed and strong, you can achieve remarkable emotional healing. If you choose to be truthful to yourself, your body will heal.