Tuesday, December 15, 2015

What is Recovery? Part 1

by Amy Grabowski, MA, LCPC

I am often asked by my clients, “Is an eating disorder a lifelong illness? Will I ever be better? Will I ever stop thinking about food, eating and weight?”

When I first started my recovery from eating disorders more than 30 years ago, I read everything I could get on the subject. Often, I came across the opinion that eating disorders were lifelong illnesses that could only be controlled and not cured. I went to a 12-step support group that preached that I was ill and would have this illness for the rest of my life; my only hope was lifelong abstinence. This made me feel hopeless and I would think, “Well why bother even trying to recover if I am going to have this for the rest of my life?”

(I have to admit that I didn’t meet another person who had recovered from an eating disorder for several years after I started my struggle to recover. The whole time there was a nagging feeling that I was trying to buck the odds.)

There are two halves to recovery: one half represents making peace with food, eating, weight and the body; the other half represents finding your Self and making peace with your Parts. Having completely recovered from my eating disorder, I can now say that it is possible to recover fully if (and this is a big “IF”) the underlying issues that caused the eating disorder to begin with are addressed and resolved through therapy.

Now there’s the hurdle! Some people get to the point where their food is under “control” and decide that they are recovered, even though they have to “control” it each and every day. They may or may not be aware of some vague feeling of not being at ease with themselves: inner emptiness; lack of sense of identity (“Who am I?”); a feeling of being directionless and lost in life; unresolved anger, anxiety, depression; or a deep unrelenting loneliness and despair that they cover up with their new “control” over food. If one considers this to be “recovered” then yes, eating disorders are lifelong illnesses.

If you fix only one half of your recovery--the eating, food, and weight half--then you will always be tense, on edge, rigid, strained, and uncomfortable. Eating will always be a struggle. To feel what I mean, put your hands together so that your fingertips are touching and your fingers are curved, like you are holding a large softball. (See Figure 1-1.) Pay attention to how this feels. How long could you hold your hands like this? Most people find it comfortable, fairly easy to do. Both hands can relax because they support each other.
Figure 1-1

Now, keeping your left hand in the same curved position, take the right hand away (Figure 1-2). Now what do you notice? Without the support of the right hand, your left hand must tense to keep its position. The fingers may start to shake. Are you feeling pressure in your hand or wrist? Tingling? It would be uncomfortable to hold your hand like this for too long.

Figure 1-2
Bring your hands back together again (Figure 1-3). Notice what happens. The left hand instantly relaxes. It becomes easy again because the two hands balance and support each other.

Figure 1-3
The same is true with the two halves of recovery. If you only fix the eating, food, and weight half, you will be tense and uncomfortable. When your Self and your Parts are at peace then eating, food, and weight can be easy and in balance as well. You need both halves of recovery to relax and feel complete.

“But what about relapsing? Don’t I have to be constantly on the lookout for relapsing? Aren’t I at risk for a relapse if something ‘bad’ happens to me?” Well, that’s a good question and one that again does not have a definite answer. Sometimes I compare having an eating disorder to having a broken leg. If I broke my leg I would have a cast put on it until it healed. At that point the cast would be taken off; the bone would be healed. However if the weather was bad, the bone may ache, but I certainly would not put another cast on it. I would probably just be gentle with it, and take care of it.

Because I have discovered my Self and my Parts are at peace, I consider myself totally recovered from my eating disorder. I do not have to think about my food or eating to maintain my weight. If I find myself thinking about these things, I consider it a red flag and I stop and think to myself, “What needs taking care of that I am not taking care of?”

These food thoughts are a friendly reminder that I am not tending to myself. But because I have learned healthy new ways to cope with life’s ups and downs, I care for myself on a regular basis and so food thoughts are rare. Just like my analogy of the broken leg, there are times when the “weather is bad,” and I have to be gentle with myself. I keep a lookout for what I need and find ways to take care of my needs. But I don’t put the “cast” back on and say I have an eating disorder!

“Have you ever been tempted to revert back to old behaviors?” Well to be perfectly honest yes. Since my recovery I have had fleeting thoughts, but I have not acted on them nor have I wanted to. Even when something terrible happened to me, it was not a struggle to maintain my recovery. Why? Because the underlying issues that caused my eating disorder have been resolved. Inside I no longer feel like the same person I was when I had the eating disorder.

In therapy, if you take a good hard look at what those underlying issues are all about and learn to endure the scariness, discomfort, and anguish of resolving these feelings, then you do not have to use food to cover up these issues. Food becomes, well, food, a non-issue. Food becomes something you eat to fuel your body, nothing more and nothing less. You can enjoy food and eating without being wracked with guilt and self-hatred afterwards. You can eat when you are hungry, eat what you are hungry for, and stop when you are no longer hungry. If one considers this to be recovered then no, eating disorders are not lifelong illnesses.

I will leave it up to you as to whether you consider this a lifelong illness or not. Because ultimately it is up to you as to how far you are willing to take your own recovery. Are you going to stop when your eating is under “control,” or are you going to find the courage to continue until you find your Self and all of the underlying issues are resolved? That will then give you the answer.

If you have comments or questions about this article I would love to hear from you--please make a comment below.

Next week, I’ll write more about the two halves of recovery.

*My thanks to Danielle Meyer, MA in Art Therapy, who posed for these pictures.

Amy Grabowski, MA, LCPC is the Founder and Director of The Awakening Center, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. She can be reached at (773) 929-6262 x11 or awakeningcenter@aol.com

No comments:

Post a Comment