Real Eating Disorder Recovery = Complete Freedom

I’m going out on a limb here and embracing my snarkiness. I really do try to be a nice, kind, loving person – but every now and again a girl needs to let loose with the attitude. And it seems to suit me. Some of my best material comes from it.

Case in point: many years ago, a Pilates client was rehashing (once again) her drama with chocolate. I finally burst out (hopefully somewhat nicely), “Look – it’s not about the chocolate. It’s about your relationship with the chocolate. Happy Calories Don’t Count!”

These days my interactions are mostly digital. And the situation is a little more delicate. One cannot hear vocal inflections, see the twinkle of an eye or behold the power of someone standing in her truth when reading a blog post. And I’m treading on hallowed ground…

I recently saw a graphical meme on social media that read, “Yes, I have an eating disorder. No, I can’t just ‘get over it’.”

This meme may have been created and shared as a way to educate and break the stigma surrounding eating disorders (which is a good thing) – but I still call B.S.

Now before you get your panties in a bunch, let me explain. First off, I am a Queen of Eating Disorders. I get it. I wrote about some of my experiences in Happy Calories Don’t Count (neither does unhappy exercise). But the purpose of sharing that information in the book was to provide a context for the journey of healing, hope and transformation – not to be a memoir detailing the pain, drama and horror of 20 years of my life. I know what the creator of that meme was referring to.

Second, the thing the creator of that meme was referring to is the very thing that is keeping her stuck! (At least I’m assuming it’s a her.)

Time for some caveats… I don’t know anything about the creator of that meme or anyone who has shared it. I don’t know if they have been in eating disorder treatment programs or not. I don’t know what type of support systems they have. And most importantly, I do not know the current state of the eating disorder industry – the efficacy of their treatment programs or the resources they provide. My perspectives come from the experiences of treatment programs of years past – when they were still new – when most people didn’t even know what an eating disorder was. My perspectives come from my own painful journey to hell and back. My perspectives come from my unwillingness to live a “life in recovery” or a live a life “managing” my eating disorder. I wanted to be FREE. I wanted to be free – and happy – AND look good! I was unwilling to “give up and get fat.” I was going to find peace around food and exercise – AND the freedom to do what I wanted, when I wanted – AND still look good too!

But… aren’t eating disorders a disease? Yes – and no. What you have to remember is that there are two distinct parts of an eating disorder. One part is made up of all of the mental, emotional, family of origin crap that gives you low self-esteem and encourages maladaptive, self-abusive behavior in the first place. (This frequently needs professional support to work through.) This part is the same whether you are dealing with alcohol, drugs, or food. What makes life a bit “easier” for alcoholics and drug addicts is that alcohol and drugs can be cut out of the equation. Once all of the mental, emotional, family of origin crap that gives you low self-esteem and encourages maladaptive, self-abusive behavior is dealt with, it is humanly possible to continue to live a full, productive, meaningful, enjoyable life without ever touching another drug or drop of alcohol. (To be fair, alcoholics and drug addicts have it a lot tougher in other ways… the stigma, the liver and brain damage, etc.)

But people dealing with food drama (whether specifically diagnosed with an eating disorder or not) can’t just cut food out of their lives. It is humanly impossible – we must eat. And this is where it all breaks down. This is where people spend their lives “in recovery, managing their eating disorder.” This is the other meaning of that social media post. This “breakdown” is what I’m referring to when I call B.S.

Before I get into that, I need to address the second distinct part of an eating disorder. The food – exercise – body piece. And this piece everyone has. Everyone has it because our society and culture teach us to have eating disorders! And by that I don’t mean the fashion, beauty and media industries with their overly Photoshopped cover models. I am referring to the cultural diet and exercise model. We are taught that our weight is simply a matter of what we eat and what we do for exercise. And this belief, we can “just get over.”

In the spirit of “eating disorder black humor,” I often share with my clients that “our culture teaches everyone to have an eating disorder. But only some of us get an A in that class.” Our only “disorder” is that we really took that cultural lesson to heart. And because we were so good at mastering that lesson, we developed all sorts of perverse attitudes and behaviors and quirks to be “successful.” Most “ordinary” people wouldn’t be able to stand the pain (and danger) that we put ourselves through – the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual pain it takes to 1) override your body’s natural impulses to eat and move and, 2) construct a lifestyle that would support “success” in this endeavor. (Now you have to remember that we were already primed to do well in this class because we already had the mental, emotional, family of origin crap going on in the first place – that stuff that causes low self-esteem and encourages maladaptive, self-abusive behavior. And it was just by some quirk of culture or fate that our dysfunction manifested itself as an eating disorder instead of drug, alcohol or some other addiction.)

Since this cultural diet and exercise mindset is propagated everywhere – from media outlets to medical establishments – people dealing with food drama are caught in a Catch 22. Based on the cultural diet and exercise model, there is no path for real recovery. That’s the hook – that’s the real rub. Based on the cultural diet and exercise model, there is no way to eat anything without incurring some sort of “cost.” Based on this model, food comes at a “price” – exercise or weight gain.

At best, eating disorder treatment programs help patients become medically stable (which is essential as anorexia has one of the highest death rates of all mental illnesses). But far too often treatment programs and emotional eating counselors/coaches only serve to perpetuate the problem. They perpetuate it by keeping you stuck in the diet and exercise model – by helping you “manage” your emotions and impulses and “be ok” with the idea that you and your body are enslaved to a caloric balance sheet. From that perspective, that meme is absolutely correct. No – you can’t “just get over it” – you’re always “in recovery.”

But here’s the deal: it doesn’t matter how much treatment, therapy, coaching, support groups, 12-step programs, personal growth, spiritual development, you-name-it you’ve had – you will never be completely free from your food and weight issues as long as you subscribe to the underlying, core premise that your body is a result of what and how much you eat (or don’t) and how much you exercise (or don’t).

If you have done the mental, emotional, and spiritual work to heal that first part of an eating disorder – that part that creates low self-esteem and encourages maladaptive, self-abusive behavior – then you can “just get over it.” You can let the cultural diet and exercise model go. You can exorcise it from your mind. It’s a very simple thing to do. Let it go. (Simple, yes. Given our culture, driven by mass media marketing – not quite so easy…)

But you can. You can “just get over it.” You can let that diet and exercise mindset – and all the drama that goes with it – go. And with that gone, you have the space and the grace to cultivate a real relationship with your body. With that underlying diet and exercise mindset gone, you can learn to trust your body, trust its impulses and follow them. When you do this, you can be free, be happy, feel great – AND look great too! You can have full and complete freedom from your eating disorder. You can have real recovery.