Eating Disorder Recovery Challenge: anesthesia or genuine human experience?
- Category: Psychotherapy and Recovery Work
If you want to start, improve or speed up your eating disorder recovery you may ask, "I know what I'm supposed to do and what I want to do. Why can't I do it?"
This is a reasonable question. The answer is not because you are weak or not trying enough. Your solution is not about bearing down harder on the methods you are using, particularly will power and self criticism.
Understanding what's really going on will help you get on and stay on your recovery path.
When you set recovery goals for yourself without a real appreciation of the structural dynamics of your eating disorder you can set yourself up for frustration and what you consider to be failure. Your goals are based on wishful thinking about the strength of your will power.
Your emotions have a powerful influence on whether your binge or starve. You may not be able to resist an urge to binge, You may be too terrified to eat at all. This is not weakness. This is finding yourself in a stressful situation that has gone too far.
Whether your binge or starve you can believe that controlling, minimizing or eliminating your normal human emotions will free you from your eating disorder behaviors.
Some people think or wish that success in giving up eating disorder behaviors is equal to becoming automatons with no feelings and a surface facade of agreeable charm.
If this is you, your goal is to create yourself as an anesthetized presence with a pleasant smile and perfect body. Human feelings of fear, stress, pain, greed, rage, love, need, shame, vulnerability, separation and rushes of grandiosity or inferiority would then pose no difficulty. None of the emotional triggers for your eating disorder behaviors could exist in your anesthetized state.
If you could make this condition your daily normal experience you believe you would not need your eating disorder and you would, at last, be free of your self-criticism and growing despair.
However, this dream is a paradox, a tricky twist based on the actual structure of your eating disorder.
Your eating disorder contributes to creating your anesthesia and functions to block you from your feelings. Your actual question is: "How can I be numb without using the eating disorder as an anesthetic?" In other words, you are asking for a substitute anesthetic.
This is not only frustrating but dangerous since, in early recovery stages, people caught in looking for a substitute anesthetic, may experiment with substituting eating disorder behaviors with sex, drugs and alcohol behaviors.
So what is the answer and how do you meet your recovery challenges?
Before you can know and recognize your feelings, especially your trigger feelings, you need to be open to accepting yourself as a human being. You don't have to understand what that means right away. You just have to accept the fact that you are human and are about to learn what being human really means.
Putting yourself, not only at the beginning of recovery, but at the beginning of understanding the nature of being human, gives you a solid place to stand in your learning and healing. You can relieve yourself of impossible expectation burdens you've been carrying about yourself and start at your realistic beginning.
False assumptions can go.
About Being Human
Healthy humans feel the full range of what humans are capable of feeling.
To be healthy and live a full life you need to be able to access your feelings, tolerate them and be able to think, make choices and function at the same time. Otherwise, the automaton is in charge. Choices that lead to painful or destructive consequences are made through oblivion since automatons don't feel anything and so don't consider painful results a consideration. If the automaton is you, trying to pass as an unfeeling creation, you will find yourself dealing with bewildering and painful situations.
Your recovery work in your psychotherapy is about understanding and learning to live and function with feelings you can't yet bear. Sometimes, to avoid those feelings because they are uncomfortable or painful or set off an anxiety or a panic attack, you will seek a rush. You will put yourself in a high stress or high drama situation full of illogic, unpredictability and high risk.
In such a situation you will be aware of powerful sensations that convince you that you are not numb and that you are feeling emotions. But the extreme sensations that flood your system are a device to block or numb your authentic human emotions. If you find yourself in highly dramatic, dangerous, exciting, frightening or exhilarating situations you may well be flooding yourself to avoid experiencing your unbearable emotions. You may be avoiding even the knowledge that those emotions exist.
Eating disorder behavior may be an attempt to avoid feelings and risks, but the eating disorder thinking and behavior creates risk to life, health and happiness.
The Only Option
Living a satisfying life, free to pursue your deeply valued desires, requires a real presence in life. Becoming a nonhuman is not an option. The only option for healing and life is to become a more evolved human.
When you reach the point in your recovery work that you acknowledge to yourself that personal evolution is your goal, recovery speed picks up.
As you embrace your humanity you learn to recognize feelings and bear them in genuine life situations. When you can feel and think at the same time you can rally your courage to make choices that permit you to strive for your true heart's desire.
As a clinician, I have learned that once my client's goal is to outgrow the limitations that make her eating disorder necessary, we can cooperate with the power of evolution. We can reach for a more solid and clear presence in her relationship not only with food but with a full range of people, experiences and surprises life presents to all of us.
Once you are on this path, teachers, helpers, benefactors, and opportunities for right action, invisible to controlling perceptions, seem to synchronistically appear as you awaken to your true nature, speak your truth and honor yourself.
This is not magic.
This occurs because perception based on authentic feeling is more clear than perception based on an anesthetized condition. You are now attracted to and attract people and situations that are healthy and that encourage even more health in you.
From this evolving place former eating disorder habits fall away. A more realistic and healthy life begins. At this point you appreciate your humanity, use all your feelings as information, make decisions based on thought and feeling, and live a more satisfying, and genuine life. The eating disorder is gone. You've evolved beyond it.
Joanna Poppink, MFT, Los Angeles eating disorder recovery psychotherapist
Pencil mixed with natural photo-textures and digital color. Also features original writings by Charles Darwin from 'The Origin of Species'. by Ade McO-Campbell, 1 January 2010
licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.