Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Both Halves of Recovery

"Both Halves of Recovery"
Amy Grabowski, MA, LCPC

…."How did you do it? How long did it take? How is your approach any different from the hundreds of books already written about recovery?" In a nutshell, I'll tell you that I couldn't recover until I had all the parts of recovery in place. As long as I continued to work on only half of recovery, it all kept tumbling down.

Let me explain by giving you a visual example. Right now stop reading and put your hands together so that your fingertips are touching and your fingers are curved, like you are holding a large softball. How long could you hold your hands like this? Like most people, you'll find it comfortable, fairly easy to do. 

Now, move your hands apart but keep them in the same position, with your fingertips curved towards one another. How long you can hold them like this? Your hands may start to shake. Are you feeling tension in your hands? Tingling? You probably couldn't hold them like this for very long. It would be too uncomfortable, a struggle.

When you put your hands back together, what happens? Relief! Phew! The hands instantly relax. It becomes easy again. The hands balance each other. Each hand represents the two halves of recovery. One half alone causes tension and discomfort, a struggle. You need both halves of recovery, and then it is easy.

So, you might be thinking, what are the two halves of recovery? One hand represents food, eating, weight and the body.

This is the half that people want to fix, why they seek out therapy. When I ask a new client for her goals for therapy, inevitably she says, "I want to stop bingeing and purging. I don't want to eat this way." She will also go on to tell me all the ways that she has tried to "fix" her eating.

You know what I'm talking about, don't you? You probably already have vast knowledge about food and nutrition; know all about food groups, portion sizes, and servings. Without a doubt, you could rattle off from memory the fat grams and calorie counts of various foods. Like most women with eating disorders, you are certainly very intelligent, you know this information and have made numerous attempts to use this information to recover.
Have you been drawn to certain food combinations looking for "the answer" to fix your eating disorder? "Maybe if I eat more carbohydrates and less protein..." "Maybe less carbs and more protein is the way to go." "If I eliminate all fat and sugar, then I'll be able to eat normally." "This book says that with my blood type I shouldn't eat fruit in the morning." "I must be addicted to sugar. If I avoid all sweets, then that will make me OK." But even as you search for the answer among the many different foods out there, you know that food is not the real issue. And since food is not the issue, it is not the answer.

So if food is not the answer, then maybe the answer is…. Exercise! Maybe, like "Libby", you need to run or workout everyday, no matter what! During one of our sessions together, Libby admitted to running when the wind-chill was sixty degrees below zero! What!? Is she crazy?! Why would she put herself in a potentially harmful situation like that! Her answer, "I had to! I would have felt fat if I hadn't." Ironically, Libby felt fat even when she did.
Many women look to weight as "the answer". You may think that if you only could reach a certain number on the scale, then all would be well with the world, you would never make mistakes, everyone would like you, in other words you would be perfect. As you know, that number never appears! No matter what the scale reads, you never feel OK inside. That little voice inside your head continues to say, "Maybe if you lose five more pounds…" Even if you appear emaciated to others, you still feel "fat", not good enough, defective and empty, inside and out.

Even the labels Anorexia Nervosa (which means "nervous loss of appetite"), Bulimia ("ox-hunger") and Binge Eating Disorder emphasize the disordered eating half of the eating disorder. Outside people, those "normal eaters" out there, also don't get it. They think, "You have an eating disorder. So fix the eating and you'll be Okay." Voila! The solution is simple. Very well meaning friends and family members say, "All you have to do is eat three meals a day." "Just eat when you're hungry and stop when you're full." And my personal favorite, "Just stop, don't do it anymore!" At this point, as the recipient of this helpful advice, you are supposed to hit your forehead with insight and gratefully exclaim, "Wow! I never thought of that before! Thanks so much for that advice. I'm all better now! Let's go have lunch!"

If only it was that simple!

I, myself, also fell for these common fallacies. During my first attempt at recovery, a lot of my time and energy was spent "controlling my food" and stopping any food related symptom: I ate well-balanced, pre-planned, "normal" meals and I weighed a pre-determined, "normal" weight. Even though I received some praise from others because "I had recovered!" inside I still felt hollow and empty, not good enough. Every day was a struggle, but that's how I assumed all "normal" people felt. Now that I had "recovered", I thought that life was going to be "perfect". The first time Life threw a "zinger" my way, I freaked out! I didn't know what to do and not knowing how to handle it made me feel out of control again! But this made no sense to me! I had fixed my eating disorder, right? I ate "normal" and looked "normal", right? So why was Life throwing zingers at me? What was wrong with me? After a few more weeks of struggling to be "normal", of trying to control life by controlling my "normal" eating and by looking "normal", the eating disorder symptoms came back. And I must admit I welcomed them like old friends!

So if you only fix half of the problem, just the food, eating, weight and the body, you have the constant tension, struggle, and discomfort. Hold up only one hand with curved tense fingers again. Feel it again? It's like the phrase that some groups use, "You're always one bite away from your next binge." That way of thinking says you can never recover, you can only be abstinent. I found this to be very depressing. If I was going to have to fight with myself everyday for the rest of my life, then why bother?! Why not just stay sick!?
So you need both halves, the balance of two halves supporting each other, for total recovery. Go ahead and put your two hands together again. Feel the relief, the ease. By now, you're wondering what the other hand is. The other hand represents your sense of Self. Total recovery is achieving peace with your food, your body, and your Self.

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