Eating disorders are hard to understand. Mental illnesses are hard to understand, especially if you've never experienced them first-hand. This post is for all the family members, friends, and loved ones, who may be struggling to understand why and how an eating disorder develops, and why they're so hard to recover from.
My therapist gave me a really great metaphor in our session this week. It resonated with me, and I think it does a great job of explaining the complexity that is an eating disorder or any type of unhealthy coping mechanism. Let's call this the log metaphor.
Imagine that you are floating along in a river, and suddenly, the water gets extremely rough, dangerous and unpredictable. You begin to struggle to keep your head above water, you're afraid, and there's no way you can swim to safety on your own. Along comes a log, big and heavy, something for you to grab onto. It saves you as you cling to it. Eventually, the storm clears, and the waters become calm again. The log starts to feel increasingly heavy. Your friends and family are on the river bank, calling to you to swim to shore, to safety. To do so, you would have to leave the log behind. But, the log saved your life, there's no way you feel you can leave it behind. Besides, what if the water gets bad again and you don't have the log?
Recovery and treatment are the acts of learning to leave the log behind. In treatment, you learn the skills to make it through the bad water without needing the log again. You start to swim laps around the log, then come back to it, while you're just starting out. Eventually, you won't come back to the log at all. That's when you'll have the skills to successfully navigate the waters on your own. You'll finally be able to make it to shore. You'll be finally, truly, fully, recovered.
Can you see now why it's so hard for for those suffering from eating disorders? Here's the major takeaway if you're not one for metaphors:
Eating disorders serve a purpose.
They're maladaptive coping mechanisms, that are there for a number of reasons. They are biologically based and serve to help individuals cope with various experiences.
My experience, for example, was that my eating disorder served as a life-line. It helped me deal with my anxiety and depression, with my insecurities and negative self-talk, and to cope with toxic relationships and traumatic events. It gave me a sense of control, and that helped me to numb out the other, negative feelings that I didn't feel strong enough to face on my own. It was there for me when I really didn't know what else I was supposed to do.
It brought me a lot of comfort.
And that's part of the reason that recovery is so hard. You are being asked to deal with some of your hardest, most painful experiences and beliefs, while at the same time also not using the behaviors that have helped soothe and comfort you in the past.
This is why I'm such a big fan of the work I'm doing with DBT. In it, I have learned interpersonal skills, how to access my wise mind and be more mindful, and I am learning how to cope in more effective, healthy ways.
It's impossible to expect someone to stop their negative behaviors without giving them new skills to help them through tough times.
Hopefully, this helped shed some insight into why this recovery process is so challenging, but has the possibility to be so rewarding at the same time.
It's hard because the eating disorder served me in the past, but I know that the future is so much brighter without it.
Hi, I'm Charlotte! I'm a 24 year old navigating life in NYC and mental health recovery. I am passionate about public health and eliminating stigma.