By: Errin Withersppon
Those who know me and have valiantly supported me as I undergo treatment for binge eating disorder might tell you that learning to journal has had a very big impact on my journey.
When I decided to pursue recovery, almost a year ago, I expected that my therapist would give me a list of tasks that I would need to complete. I thought once I’d checked off all the things on this imaginary list, I’d be “cured” and I would be able to move forward through my life without all of the negative thoughts that came with my disorder.
That’s not how it went. At All.
Recovery from an eating disorder is hard work. It’s painful work. As I meandered through the first few weeks of treatment, I remember thinking that it just wasn’t working. I had no “proof” that I had achieved anything at all that would lead me to better mental health and free me from the clutches of my disordered mind. The thoughts weren’t going away.
Somehow, as I began to understand what was happening in my mind, and how my eating disorder manipulated my thoughts, the frequency and severity of the disordered thoughts seemed to heighten. The fact that I now knew what was happening made it more frustrating that I couldn’t stop it. There were many, many days that I wished I could go back in time and un-learn what I had come to understand about my illness. In those moments, going back to my life the way it had been when the eating disorder was in complete control seemed safe and familiar. It was as if by choosing recovery, I was being made to live in a strange, unknown place because my home had been condemned or erased.
Everyone’s recovery from an eating disorder is unique. Some of us find ourselves face to face with some very frightening ideas in the darkest times. And somehow, I was able to convince myself that so long as those thoughts were kept in my mind – never spoken or expressed in the real world – they didn’t count, or weren’t “real”.
Among my struggles, though, there emerged a new realization. The act of reflecting on events in my life shed a light on how my life plays out in every moment. In the midst of my panic over the uncertainty of recovery and therapy I began to see things more clearly, little by little. Even though I mostly felt like my life was completely out of my control, when I was able to get the scariest of my thoughts out of my mind and allow them to be “real”, I could take small steps to change them.
Naturally, when I was unable to verbalize some of my most troubling thoughts, my therapist suggested I try journaling to help me get these stubborn ideas out in the open. I didn’t actually think it would help at all. I had tried journaling many times over the years and it was something that I had never been able to keep up with on a regular basis.
But the stars seemed to align for me, and at that same point in my recovery journey, I was introduced to a group of women in recovery just like me. We had all enrolled in the same recovery focused program through True Warriors. One component of the program was getting in touch with creativity, and this proved to be huge for me.
As I worked through the exercises in the program, I began to recognize a passion for drawing. When I felt sad but couldn’t face the thoughts that were making me sad, I could draw. When I felt angry but didn’t feel I could express that anger to anyone, I could draw. When I felt frightened but it didn’t feel safe to verbalize my fears, I could draw.
Before long, I had started drawing in my journal and was able to sit down with it nearly every day. It felt freeing to approach my journaling habit with a more open mind. Once I opened up my mind and realized that a journal isn’t something that I had to write in, I began to look forward to spending time with it.
My therapist gave me a few exercises to do daily in my journal, and over time those activities revealed great value to me. They helped me to understand the importance of being mindful and of cultivating self-compassion.
The habit had begun to form and I started searching for a journal geared specifically towards people like me who practice gratitude, intention setting and accomplishment recognition every day. I wanted one that also had some journaling lines in it and some blank space to draw too.
It didn’t exist. Anywhere.
So now I’m proud to say that my recovery journey has led me not only to a new love for creativity, but also to a new passion for helping other people use creative journaling to help them heal. I believe there is a reason that the journal I searched for didn’t exist. I believe that I was always supposed to be the one to create it.
And now I want to share what I’ve created with you. The Reflections Journal is in the process of being published right now! But I want you to be able to benefit from it the way that I have, so I’ve put together a free one month creative journaling support program that is available right now. The Field Guide to Creative Journaling can be downloaded from my website.
The download contains a workbook with some of the original illustrations from my book The Reflections Journal, along with one month of journaling support to your inbox. You’ll get daily journaling and creativity prompts, and weekly encouragement and tips from me to help you develop your journaling practice into a habit.
I’d love for you to give it a try and let me know what you think of it.
I’m living proof that if you are willing to try, you can open up doors where there was never even a window before.
Start the Field Guide to Creative Journaling Program for free here!
Errin Witherspoon refers to herself as an artist by accident. She fell into her love of art when she embarked on her journey of recovery from Binge Eating Disorder in 2018. She has been described as driven, passionate, creative and thoughtful and has learned in treatment, with the help of her recovery team, how to use those attributes to begin to heal. She has always been the kind of person who figures out how to get things done, even when it appears that her lack of experience may impede her. She enjoys the company of others like herself, with a passion for learning new skills. With her newly re-sparked passion for art and all things healing/self-love, she is focused on using her experiences to help others like herself who suffer from mental illness.
By: Elizabeth Friedman
Image by Texture Photo
“So how does sizing work since I plan on losing weight before the wedding?”
As a bridesmaids’ stylist, I get asked this question at least once a day. The question slowly kills me; not because it is asked so frequently, but because so many of the kind, generous bridesmaids I work with are affected by the dangerous and unnecessary pressure to lose weight for a wedding.
Through various media platforms, we have been taught that part of preparing for a wedding is changing the way our bodies look. How many articles do we see about starting an exercise or diet plan to prepare for your wedding, or tips on how to look your best on your big day? There are hashtags like #sheddingforthewedding or #sweatingforthewedding and the ever present reminder that, “you will look at these wedding photos for the rest of your life”. It’s. Everywhere.
We learn that we should lose weight or alter our body in some way before participating in a wedding because the way we look now is not good enough.
As a body positive and eating disorder awareness advocate, this part of my job as a stylist in the wedding industry scares me and hurts my heart. A wedding is a celebration of love, yet everyone involved is still getting hit with the message that if they are a smaller size, they will be more worthy of love! The connection between losing weight/thinness and being more worthy of love isn’t exactly spelled out, but I can spell it out for you. Think of a time where you or someone you know lost weight. They were probably met with a lot of praise, compliments, and positive attention. Praise, compliments, and positive attention directly correlate with the feelings of being loved and accepted. Lose weight, gain love.
I mean, it’s not true! Your friends don’t actually value you more if you are thinner. Your fiancé doesn’t love you more because you lost weight. But the subconscious association is there.
It explains why I am always asked about sizing and weight loss. It explains why people are not happy when the size chart puts them in a larger size than they are used to wearing (typical of formal wear). It explains why there have been too many bridesmaids crying in the dressing rooms because they don’t fit in the sample sizes.
It explains why a distraught, teary-eyed bridesmaid felt like she needed to thank me for being so nice to her. What she meant was, “Thank you for being so nice to me even though I’m fat.”
Enough is enough. The pressure to lose weight for a wedding (and just in general) is damaging and simply not needed.
Trying on dresses, having measurements taken, and talking directly about size is a sure way to bring up some uncomfortable feelings. I know I can’t throw out a few words of encouragement and change what we have been taught for years about how we should look, but here are some reminders I give bridesmaids during the process:
Elizabeth is an eating disorder survivor and body positive advocate. Her greatest passion is speaking out against diet culture and encouraging men and women to love the bodies they call home. She first participated as a SMASH Ambassador at UNC in 2017. Since then, she has attended multiple Southern Smash events, spoke on the SmashTALK panel at Meredith College, and took on the role of Program Coordinator for Southern Smash. She hopes to make advocacy her full time job so she can devote all her time and energy into smashing the stigma around eating disorders and weight bias.
By: Eliza Gray
I used to be ashamed of myself. Living with an unpleasant secret that felt like poison in my mouth. I’m sick, I would think judgingly to myself, but not flu-like sickness or anything a trip to the doctor would fix. There was no bandage to place over my wounds or medicine from the drug store that would make me feel whole again. I had a mental illness and a crippling eating disorder… and it felt like time stopped the first time I heard my diagnosis. I became suddenly aware of the fact that an eating disorder was serious, maybe even life-threatening, and I was overwhelmingly afraid of how little control I had over any of it.
The first time I ever heard “anorexia” and “disordered eating” was in my therapist’s office. My mother had found her practice and she was gentle and caring upon inviting me into her warmly lit office. If the disorder was the devil on my left shoulder, the weekly hour-long sessions were held in place by the angel on my right shoulder. At this time I was 16 and experiencing a year of so many “firsts”—first time driving by myself, first time scoring a goal in lacrosse, first high school boyfriend—and the first time hearing about a mental-meets-physical struggle that was wreaking havoc on my quality of life.
A lot of individuals battling with eating disorders will refer to their illness as if it’s another person entirely—the separation of self from struggle was key—and I was no different. My disorder was named Ed, sometimes The Monster, and untangling the life I had built for us proved the most challenging endeavor of my young-adult life. I had this notion that restriction and counting my calories gave me an unfathomable amount of control; however, the outcome was quite the opposite. The Monster controlled me and made me submissive to its malicious intentions. I know that reading those words may sound a bit silly but truly I was a different person when I let Ed drive: I was angry, defiant, and starving for support.
One day I called my grandmother after months of subsisting on a measly caloric intake and deceitful feelings of being in control. My mind won’t let my body eat, I told her, and I heard her struggle to stay composed. This was foreign to us, this invader who had taken over part of my livelihood and stolen every ounce of confidence from me. Our family had always been centered on food and coming together meant eating together. Every birthday, graduation, death of a loved one, and holiday you could find us standing around a grill or kitchen table. Our Southern roots meant food was at the center of all our traditions, trials, and triumphs.
In the clutches of my eating disorder I was reclusive and moody; pulling away from anyone who tried to get close like an animal that had been kicked one too many times. I lost friendships, I lost the ability to play sports, I lost countless hours of sleep and moments of laughter. I was slow to grasp that losing an unhealthy amount of weight—for all the wrong reasons—was not worth the countless losses that came along with the weight loss. During my first few months at Carolina House in Raleigh, I came to the realization that my eating disorder was a personal prison. Without the motivation or support from a group of extraordinary women, a team that had my best intentions at heart, and my incredible therapist who encouraged me to fully finish recovery and continues to keep me accountable, I would still be behind those bars.
Five years into my recovery, there are moments where I stumble and find myself craving old habits out of discomfort or lack of willingness. But my life is no longer about falling down and allowing negative thoughts to completely deteriorate me. Each day I choose to pick myself up and pursue a life that is more than just “control” or counting; this life worth living is one that has continuously taught me to be more flexible, more vulnerable, and more understanding of others. My family and friends who have grown closest to me know my triggers and are often ready to offer their hand before I even realize I’m slipping... an incredibly important part of recovery: allowing others in and accepting their support.
Tell your story, talk about your fears, re-tell your story, and celebrate your triumphs. Your life belongs to YOU, not Ed or The Monster, or anyone else! Life is way more than just a number on a scale, I promise.
Eliza Gray is a twenty-something living in Raleigh with her boyfriend and their two fur babies. She enjoys hiking in Umstead, curling up with a good book—currently A Game of Thrones—and time spent laughing with sweet friends. Eliza is a firm believer that your disorder does not define who you are or what you are capable of accomplishing. In spring of 2015, Eliza smashed her first scale on the Brickyard of North Carolina State University, now her alma mater.
By: Ari Snaevarsson
Men: When was the last time you asked a friend if he’s okay?
Why did it take me over four years to even admit what I was going through was an eating disorder? Why, when I confided in others about my dieting practices and intense binge-eating sessions, did I get only a concerned look with an empty platitude to the effect of “you’ll be fine”? Why do my male clients pick up their talking speed when we address how they view their body?
Unfortunately, the male eating disorder experience, which is only a microcosm of the broken male experience in general, has remained a mystifying concept accepted by many but believed by few. It’s apparent where the problem lies, but the trouble is that it’s such an ugly and uncomfortable topic to deal with, so the end result is total neglect.
Lets change that by starting a much-needed conversation. And what is that conversation? No matter how much I try to package it nicely and make it fun and interesting, it comes down to one undeniable facet of the male experience.
Men, when was the last time you asked a friend if he’s okay? When was the last time you pushed through that initial bout of discomfort when an emotional dialogue is coming, so that you could really reach your friend (or family member, peer, coworker, client, etc.)?
This isn’t fun to think about, but it’s imperative. Within most “masculine” male circles, there’s a constant underlying fear that your insecurity will slip out. There’s a fear that you’ll say something about your girlfriend that sounds too “mushy,” or you’ll admit to an interest of yours that isn’t traditionally seen as masculine. Or, god forbid, you’ll talk about how you’re actually feeling.
I’ve lived with six different roommates in my life, and I can tell you firsthand this is not just a “me thing.” Masculinity is a confusing concept that, thanks to a plethora of complex social factors, is much more often feigned and forced than explored and embraced.
Sadly, eating disorders are just as widely misunderstood. We see the caricature representations of eating disorder victims in movies, shows, and nutrition textbooks, and we take this as fact. So it’s no wonder, when these two perplexing issues are combined, that we feel so lost and helpless.
But rather than purport to have a silver bullet solution in here for you, I will only leave you with the courageous and all-important task of carrying on this conversation. How? Here are five of the most important roles you can play:
Having suffered through years of ED-induced self-loathing and isolation, I can tell you firsthand the degree to which you can save lives by being an agent of change in this realm. Empowering men to open up about and seek help for their eating disorders benefits everyone. The atrocious acts of senseless violence and soaring male suicide rates are an extreme depiction of what can happen when the idea of opening up about our emotions becomes scarier than the idea of ceasing to exist.
Ari Snaevarsson is a nutrition coach who works primarily with clients who suffer from disordered eating patterns. He also works as a counselor, dietetic technician, and on-call facilities manager at a residential eating disorder treatment center. In both capacities, he helps clients develop positive relationships with food and their bodies. His book, 100 Days of Food Freedom: A Day-by-Day Journey to Self-Discover, Freedom from Dieting, and Recovery From Your Eating Disorder, outlines a simple, day-by-day process to recovery from one’s eating disorder.
Stepping out of your comfort zone is something I have struggled with for years. Before my eating disorder I was a social butterfly, fearless, loved being around new people and seeking adventure. Once ED took over, I stayed away from the social scene. I made up excuses constantly. I avoided my close friends and family. I missed out on memories I will never get back. My mother was the only person I would vent to. She took me to different doctors and they would hand me papers with the definition of anorexia on them and tell me to eat more. Like it was that easy. Just this past year I was thinking of every excuse I could think of to not go out to eat with my family. Something as simple as going to my parent's house for dinner would give me anxiety. People close to me assumed something was wrong but no one brought it up to me. I didn’t talk to anyone about what I was dealing with. Not because I thought they wouldn’t listen, but because I wasn’t ready to admit it to myself, let alone anyone else; that I did in fact have an eating disorder.
I wanted out. I wanted to stop living that way. My family needed me, and I needed them. A few months back I decided to start talking more. I moved to a new state, found new groups and organizations and realized I wasn’t as alone as I thought I was. So I started talking. I told my husband more, and he thanked me for it. He was finally able to talk to me about it without the fear of me getting upset. I told my close friends, and they said they knew. They just didn’t know how to bring it up to me. I then wrote my first blog. Which is something I never thought I would do, especially about my eating disorder.
Writing that blog was taking a step out of my comfort zone. Talking to people was taking a step out of my comfort zone.
One day as I was scrolling through Facebook and read information on a fundraiser being held close to me. I learned that the money being raised would help fund clinician led free group therapy for people struggling with an eating disorder. I wanted to go. I bought tickets. Then I talked myself out of going, then talked myself into going again. On the way there I even thought of an excuse not to go and tried asking my husband to turn around. I am so thankful he didn’t. As soon as I walked into the room I felt at ease. I felt comfortable. I went up and introduced myself to people, I listened to amazing, inspirational stories, and I talked. I watched other people talk. I realize how important it is to talk.
Recently my mom told me how much relief she felt when I told her I was ok with her talking about it as well. I was no longer afraid, I needed to talk to people and I wanted them to talk back.
If you take anything away from this blog, I hope you know that someone is waiting for you to talk to them. Tell them the good, the bad, and they ugly. Allow them to listen to you. No one should struggle alone. We are in this together.
Brittany wants to live in a world where people help to inspire and lift each other up. She’s been married for 7 years to her best friend, and together they have two amazing, wild, and loving kids. Her mom, dad, brothers, and grandparents are some of her biggest supporters. When she’s not working as a skill coach to young adults with autism, she enjoys running 5ks, reading, and hanging out at home with her family. She also love strolling the aisles of Target with a Starbucks drink in hand. She has spent the last 11 years enduring, recovering, and relapsing from her eating disorder. She now wants to help raise awareness, and advocate for those who may need it.
By: Vanna Winters
How do you merge the selfishness that recovery requires with the selflessness that motherhood demands? I wish I had a clear, concise list to present to you, but the truth is, I'm forging my way through this path on my own for the first time. It isn't easy but I’m learning as I go. Trying to rediscover who you are while raising children can feel overwhelming on your easiest day. You can't predict how long this journey will take or what you'll stumble across along the way, but it will be worth all the painstaking effort.
Throughout it all, your children are watching you. They’re watching you grow. They’re watching you challenge yourself. They’re watching you struggle. But most of all, they're watching you overcome and never give up. Recovery is thought of as so many things, but how often do you think of it as an opportunity to teach your children that it’s okay to struggle deeply in life? How frequently do you stop to realize your effort will be their guidepost to picking themselves back up in life whenever they may stumble and that shame doesn’t have to be part of it?
Even when it may feel as though you're being selfish for spending so much time on your own recovery, the actuality is that you haven't stopped being a parent. You're giving them an amazing glimpse into what it's like to hunt down your own authenticity and to own it with everything you have. Some of these life lessons will stick with them forever and resurface in their minds when they're in some of their darkest times as an adult. Those memories will arise and they will think of you. They will think of your work. They will think of your effort. They will think of your pain. They will remember you never gave up, that you fought with everything you had for as long as it took.
We try to separate recovery from motherhood in our minds because these are two incongruent things, as we cannot be selfish and selfless at the same time. But in reality, recovery from an eating disorder is one of the most selfless things you can do for your children. Staying in the sheltering canopies of the eating disorder and living a life half-present is nothing short of selfish. This is merely a romanticized dystopia that your eating disorder uses, holding onto you tightly with guilt. It thrives by making you believe that forsaking your own needs is the only way we can truly care for other people. The message that recovery is something you are not worthy of because you're not deserving of your own focus gets perpetuated in the mind. The con that focusing on yourself to recover takes away from your children is just that: a lie.
Your healing is their healing. On the days you feel you do not deserve to recover: remember that you’re recovering for them. When you feel like you are not strong enough to fight for yourself: remember you’re fighting for them. You are all connected in this battle, there is no way to separate out who is affected and who is not. Win or lose, illness or recovery, your choice is reaching beyond just your own life. The ripple of each wave is felt by everything in the ocean. So when you hear the words encircling your mind that you cannot recover because you're a mom, pause. Your new mantra; your new battle cry from here on out, is that you must recover because you are a mom.
Vanna Winters: Writer. Advocate. Survivor. My profound desire to bring awareness to the public and a sense of unwavering support to those forging their way through recovery from mental illness continues to push me through recovery. I've spent twenty years living both in the dark corners of mental illness and in recovery, as a child and as an adult and mother. These experiences have cultivated a strong insight into eating disorders and their manifestation that propels me forward to be a voice in the mental health community.
By: Danielle Sherman-Lazar
Wouldn’t it be easier if we could all remain truth tellers? If words could easily spew from our lips. If we could all be completely transparent.
We wouldn’t lie …
If people’s words back to us didn’t cut us sharply like swords. And it always shocks me how easily those words are said—without a second thought of how much hurt they can cause.
If we didn’t feel the glaring eyes of others constantly hovering over our backs like a hovercraft.
Those words, those looks, that judgment—gives us shame.
Yet, we sit there and judge each other in whispers and sometimes in screams.
But what if…
If we weren’t afraid. If we didn’t have shame.
If we didn’t have to hide any part of ourselves.
If we didn’t have to get to the age and maturity where we don’t care anymore.
Why is it that we are so hard on each other? We know how hard this life is. We have each driven on the bumpy, winding roads of life—different highways and intersections but they all have challenges. We have learned how to drive on these roads, from years of practice. But of course, there are accidents, traffic, and roadblocks along the way. The potholes can be deep– sometimes you can get stuck– get a flat tire, the engine blew— and while you are waiting for help you can find yourself waiting for hours, days, maybe even years thinking about your next move. Sometimes it’s hard to make that call to ask for help.
To the person that is stuck deep in the pothole trying to claw her/his way out, I see you.
I see you trying to get through the day.
I see you going through the motions.
I see you functioning on auto-pilot.
I’ve been there.
To that person, please speak your truth. I hope courage finds its way into your tank. You can make any car model stronger. It starts by making the call to get repairs.
Then you must take action—make sure you know how to deal with future potholes. This is the hard part. This is the dirty work. You have to work to make a change. Change doesn’t miraculously happen—this life isn’t that easy. There is no magic fix, no abracadabra and you get a sweet bunny out of a top hat.
And after some time, your car will be back on the road–running smoothly, oil changed, gassed-up and ready to cruise again. Yes, there will be bad days once again, but you can deal with roadblocks better when you know how to be your own mechanic.
You will accept the judgment because it’s inevitable and you will be more understanding of other car model’s track marks—a small dent in the hood, a nail in the tire, and a crack in the windshield. You have been there.
And like me, you will see others and understand. You will give them a nod instead of a whispering hover.
You will wear these dents with pride–they made you, YOU.
Dani Sherman-Lazar is an eating disorder advocate, Vice President of a transportation company, and a mother to two daughters. Follow her on her blog: Living a Full Life After ED
By: Amanda Bacon
I’ve been struggling with an eating disorder for 23 years and not once have I felt “sick enough”.
As I’ve gotten to know others with eating disorders, I have found that I am not alone in my thinking. Over the years, I have experienced major issues with my health, my relationships, my independence and my well-being, but it never felt like I was “doing my eating disorder correctly”. Others seemed to have it figured out and I felt jealous. “Why can’t I get to that weight?” “How can they engage in their behaviors and still function?” I must be doing something wrong. I didn’t even know I had an eating disorder until three years ago because I have always minimized my struggle and compared myself to others.
This thought process has kept me stuck and away from receiving help because I have felt I didn’t deserve it or need it. Even at my lowest weight, I felt I could have done better, I could have gotten lower. The truth is that I would have likely died trying to reach a lower weight.
About a month ago I entered inpatient treatment as recommended by my therapist and dietitian. I was very angry and hesitant to go because I was at a healthy weight according to the BMI chart. I felt humiliated to walk through those doors knowing I’d likely feel out of place there. The truth was that my eating disorder behaviors were keeping me very sick and causing medical issues even at a healthy weight. While there, I was encouraged by my therapist to read Sick Enough by Dr. Gaudiani. I felt I didn’t deserve to be there because I wasn’t underweight and that I was taking up a spot for someone who was way sicker than me and needed the help more than I did.
Even though I qualified for inpatient treatment, I still didn’t believe I needed to be there. I have always based my illness on how I physically look or how much I weigh. After reading this book I realized that I was sick enough to be there and deserved the help.
Sick enough is not a size, a weight or a medical condition. Every body handles an eating disorder differently and there isn’t one way to measure the level of someone’s illness.
If you have an eating disorder, you’re sick enough. Don’t hesitate to get help--your life depends on it.
We are so excited to be partnering with The Gaudiani Clinic to host a giveaway of Dr. Gaudiani's newest book, Sick Enough: A Guide to the Medical Complications of Eating Disorders. Head over to our Instagram to enter and check out what Dr. Gaudiani has to say about the medical complications of eating disorders and read an excerpt from her new book below.
Why Medical Complications Matter in Eating Disorders
Despite jaw-dropping statistics, the tragic and nearly universal reality for those with eating disorders is that they often believe they aren’t sick enough to warrant changing their behaviors or seeking help. This is true for patients who come to my outpatient clinic, and it was true for the patients I saw at ACUTE. Denial of disease severity is one of the hallmarks of these mental illnesses. Patients may think their bloodwork isn’t “that bad,” or their weight isn’t “that low,” or they may point to the fact that they are still high achievers in school or at work.
In writing this book, I hope to establish that anyone with an eating disorder is sick enough to seek help. If you have even one of the medical issues detailed in the book, you are sick enough. If you have never had an eating disorder, but you have a disordered relationship with food and your body, you are at risk for the medical problems I describe. Sometimes it takes medical truths, challenging the false narrative of “I’m just being healthy,” to make patients realize they are engaging in behaviors that are anything but healthy. Everyone has the potential for full recovery, and most medical problems will resolve with recovery.
Using metaphor and patient-centered language, Dr. Gaudiani aims to improve medical diagnosis and treatment, motivate recovery, and validate the lived experiences of individuals of all body shapes and sizes, while firmly rejecting dieting culture. One of Dr. Gaudiani’s most helpful metaphors is “The House on Fire.”
The House on Fire, a.k.a. Combatting “I’m Fine”
Very often, patients will try and convince me that they are actually fine. (I view the word “fine” as the four-letter f-word of our field.) They feel they are not sick enough for a higher level of care, to eat the full meal plan their dietitian has prescribed them, to warrant my concern, or to change anything they are doing in their disorder, etc. They say, “But Dr. G, I get a 4.0/I’m a star employee/I can still run every day/I’m a good mom/my potassium is normal/my weight is normal. I’m fine!” This line of reasoning can sound convincing.
An eating disorder will passionately defend itself. Like an abusive partner, it can push all other close connections away. When anything threatens it, it will lash out and become remarkably cruel to the person threatening it (the therapist, the parent, the partner) and even meaner to the patient. Eating disorders scathingly whisper that patients are nothing without their eating disorder.
What’s so hard about eating disorders is that patients retain their intellectual capacity and many aspects of their emotional capacity. We would never urge someone with schizophrenia, in the midst of a psychotic episode, “Use your inner wisdom here. Are there really little green men in the room?” The psychotic person can’t access the real world. The little green men are their reality.
We all have to keep in mind that for someone with anorexia nervosa, the beliefs that food and rest will cause devastating harm to their bodies, and their perception that their bodies are wretchedly inadequate and revolting, are their reality as well. And yet reminding patients to access their inner wisdom is a key element nearly every practitioner uses in their treatment of anorexia nervosa. Where the person with schizophrenia is fully incapacitated during a psychotic episode, the patient with anorexia nervosa can competently navigate the rest of the world, at least initially. This bizarre fact easily leads family members and friends to misjudge the severity and cruelty of this mental illness.
To combat the delusion that a patient is fine, I use a metaphorical story called “The House on Fire.” Imagine that a young woman is standing outside her burning house, and the fire department rushes up. The firefighter jumps out and says, “We’re here to put out your fire!” She says, “What fire?” He looks concerned and says, “Well, your fire. I smell the smoke. I feel the heat. I see the flames.” She smiles and says, “Oh no. If my house were on fire, it would be so hot that my sidewalk would be bubbling. And because my sidewalk isn’t bubbling, I couldn’t possibly have a house fire.” The firefighters understand her to be mentally ill, and they go put out her fire.
I go on to remind my patients that there is no single marker of illness that I look at to determine whether they are sick enough to proceed with recovery efforts. Saying, “My blood work is fine” is like saying, “My sidewalk’s not bubbling.” This is an extremely important point because someone who is fine can comfortably reject what all these people are telling them about how concerned they are and can proceed with restricting and exercising. The concept of “fine” stalls recoveries.
I try to introduce these concepts the first time I hear my patient trying to convince me how fine they are, so that the next time it happens, I can simply say in shorthand and with kindness, “House on fire.” I remind them of all the objective evidence of hibernation physiology they possess, medical signs that they aren’t fine at all.
Today is my precious momma’s birthday. During my six year struggle with an eating disorder, my relationship with my mom was so strained, she had to go through things no parent should have to go through. I am beyond thankful that my mom is now my biggest cheerleader and best friend. In honor of her birthday, I wanted to write a letter to all of the mothers who have children struggling with an eating disorder.
Dear warrior moms,
I see you. I see that you are hurting, broken and tired. I see that you are trying anything and everything you can right now to save your child. Keep fighting. Your child may not be able to fight for themselves right now, so fight for them.
Listen to me say this: This is not your fault. This. Is. Not. Your. Fault. You did not cause your child’s eating disorder. In my case, it was just the perfect storm, but not a storm that my mom created, nor one my dad created. It just happened.
Your momma’s intuition is almost always spot on. Every time I would approach my mom to tell her I was struggling yet again, fearful of her reaction, she almost always responded with, “I know.” She sometimes could tell I was struggling even before I could. Listen to your intuition, you know your child better than anyone.
The best thing you can do for your child is love them unconditionally. I know I took my anger out on my mom. I yelled, I screamed, I said hateful things, I lied, I cussed her out, because end of day, I knew she wouldn’t leave me, and she didn’t. Instead of leaving, she loved me.
Being a mother of a child with an eating disorder is a club that no one wants to be a part of. Be sure to set time aside to take care of yourself and your needs. You can’t pour from an empty cup.
You can’t “fix” your child, but you can love them. You can be their shoulder to cry on. You can be their cheerleader. You can sit with them in the pain. If I can tell you one thing it would be this, don’t ever give up, recovery is possible. I never thought it was, and I know my parents never thought recovery was possible either, but two and half years later and my purpose in life is now spreading the hope that recovery is possible. Hold onto that hope forever.
A daughter of the best mom in the world
Amy Sullivan is the Program Director for Southern Smash, but more importantly is proudly in recovery from an eating disorder. She is currently in grad school to become a counselor. Amy is a dog mom to the worst behaved dog in the world, and an aunt to the most adorable little girl.
By: Mariah Harris
During the beginning of eating disorder treatment, I kept hearing eating disorders being referred to as ED. I thought this was just an acronym but realized it was more of a nickname for the inner voice/personality that is our eating disorder. After feeling like I needed to find a name better-suited to where I was in life, I named my eating disorder EDNA. This was a better name for my eating disorder than boring old ED which sounded like an old man to me. I also felt my eating disorder was feminine for whatever reason, so I chose a feminine name.
During treatment, we were asked so many different things about ED/EDNA regarding what it looks like, how it acts, and how much of a hold it has on us right now. Realizing how much EDNA had a personality and identity of her own was scary. During a group session one day, the leader went around the room and asked us about our personal identities. I froze and had no idea what to say. Before treatment, all of my energy had gone to graduating from nursing school and becoming an intensive care nurse, so I talked about how being a nurse was my identity. I was quickly told that’s not my identity--it’s my career. So I pondered this question. I couldn’t help but think, who am I? This was very discouraging to me! How did I forget who I was? After a while, I realized that my eating disorder had taken so much time, effort, and energy away from me. It had become its own identity. My personal being was so exhausted, and every ounce that EDNA could take from me, she would. HOW SELFISH?! After many long conversations, journal entries, and prayers, I finally started figuring out who I was once again, slowly but surely. After all of this soul-searching, I realized that yes, I have an eating disorder that I named EDNA, but she doesn’t have a hold on me. My life hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows, but I do have a few qualities I have started to cherish about myself. Learning who I really am has been a process and a challenge, and has come with some harsh reality checks.
After I left treatment and went back to work as an intensive care nurse, reality hit me. I wasn’t in the “bubble” of treatment anymore. Nurses around me were talking about the latest diets, shakes, and exercise programs. My mind was in a healthier, different place, but I felt so alone. My eating disorder prior to treatment had consumed so much of my time and energy that I didn’t know where to begin finding myself. All I knew is I didn’t want EDNA to be an identity thief again. As I struggled as an ICU nurse, feeling like no one understood what I’d been through, I slowly started blogging. I blogged for myself. Being asked if you're pregnant by co-workers because you have some extra weight from re-feeding is embarrassing and I needed an outlet! During my blogging journey, I have come across some amazing people and know that my journey through recovery will continue as long as I live, so I hope to learn more about myself each day.
Mariah Harris is a wife, dog momma, nurse, and mental health advocate from Oklahoma. She has struggled with mental health issues including an eating disorder since a young age. She understands the struggle and thinks it's time for her voice be heard! Learn and grow with her at www.mariahharris.org.