This week is Eating Disorders Awareness Week and I wanted to share my ideas about how we can help people to recover from eating disorders and why our unique approach is so successful.
At The Recover Clinic we offer what we call a Whole Body Approach that basically means that when we start people on their recovery journey we address the body, soul and mind. We recognise the importance of establishing nurturing food routines and stabilising any medical complications but for me the emphasis is always about healing internal wounds and teaching someone how to have a compassionate and loving relationship with themselves. Once someone is able to do this, the eating disorder becomes redundant.
Eating disorders are destructive coping strategies that have either been learnt or have developed over time by someone who was unable to deal with their emotions in any other way. It is not about vanity, it is not about food, and it is not about weight. Thoughts, feelings and behaviours related to food, appearance and weight are simply the symptoms of the illness....not the cause. If we recognise that these are just symptoms then it makes little sense to just focus our attention on changing these. We need to turn into the core of the issue and when we begin to heal the cause we see that thoughts, feelings and behaviours start to get better organically.
The media and much medical research will talk often about the commonalities between sufferers: perfectionist, high achievers, middle class, bright, etc. What they don't highlight is another trend that we see with every person that we have ever treated....they all believe that they are unlovable. Their belief in their unlovability has meant that they have often isolated from friends and family or at best maintained surface level relationships with people, terrified that they would at some point be seen for who they really are. One woman that I worked with described how she feared that if she put a knife in her side that black poison would come out of her because this is what she thought her core self was made of.
In my early work I felt confident that eating disorders would not survive in a person who had love and compassion for themselves but then wondered how I could facilitate this process when my clients were so consumed with self-loathing. I began to explore what allows us to feel compassion and love and I realised that it was other people. Connection with others changes everything. Many of the people that we were treating were not only environmentally isolated they were also very hard to access even when you were in the same room as them. I figured that myself and my team needed to fuse a connection with the person beneath the illness, that together, we could use that connection to begin to put down roots of love and compassion. I remembered reading about a clinician called Carl Rogers who did some experiments with little potato plants which he kept in a darkened room with only a small ray of light....no matter where he moved the plants, they would continue to lean and bend toward the light. As human beings, no matter how scared or damaged we are, we are conditioned to lean toward light because it's how we're wired...we want love.
We live in a world that embraces shame and fear and teaches us that these are the ways we should cope with the human experience. Our clients have all experienced different traumas that lead them to believe that they were unlovable and their shame of their own vulnerability and longing for comfort and love fuels their sense that they are not worthy.
So many of us are terrified of being vulnerable but it's in that space that the magic happens. When we take risks, love rushes in. We must ask ourselves what is the cost of not daring or not trying to embrace a different perspective? Shame and fear fuel disconnection and it's that connection with others that we all need to experience what's wonderful about life. What we do today is to try to convince our clients to let go and to invest in love and not in fear. There may well be prices to pay for taking risks but they are more than worth it because when we numb ourselves to sadness, grief or loneliness, we also numb ourselves to joy, happiness, laughter and love. Vulnerability, allowing ourselves to be seen, is the birthplace of love, tenderness and compassion.
The voice of an eating disorder constantly reinforces a belief that you will never truly be content until you reach a certain weight or look a certain way but the truth is that happiness only comes from a self-love that grows from a certain acceptance of who you really are. Today we teach sufferers that they are worthy and from our community they gain a sense of love and belonging that they retain in their hearts long after they've graduated from their program. This isn't about a BMI or a food plan it's about being taught how not to be afraid and how to love with your whole heart.