The Recovery Journey

The Recovery Journey

By Dr. Teri McCann, PhD, CEDS

The recovery journey is not a war, nor is it a battle that’s waiting around the corner, wishing for the nuclear option (total annihilation of eating disorders, but never finding the proper bomb in the depleted arsenal). As I write this, images of women who have spent years trying to overcome ED in some way – divorcing him, battling him, screaming at him, ultimately giving in to him, but certainly hating him – come to mind.

On reflection, none of the women or young ladies I have ever met were born with an eating disorder. Instead, I hear the stories of women in great physical and psychological pain, who developed an eating disorder to numb the pain.

Malnutrition causes an inability to feel emotion, but there is no typical formula. For example: X amount of restriction = X amount of relief from shame, guilt and terror. That’s not how it works. When pain is severe enough, starvation becomes a tool of dealing with the emotional pain. Malnutrition and its physical consequences are the symptoms of restricting to ease intense emotional pain. An eating disorder is simply a diagnosis. You are not your eating disorder. Your eating disorder developed to protect you from severe emotional pain.

Above, I gave the example of restriction to ease emotional pain, but binging and the binge-purge cycle are equally futile strategies developed to stop the pain.

It’s important to know that the emotional pain, which initially caused disordered eating and subsequently the eating disorder, can be healed. Without insight into the underlying cause of why your behavior became so extreme to protect you from an unbearable environment, it may feel like you are in a perpetual relationship, always working toward emotional freedom. But it can be different. When the eating disorder is reidentified as a protector that was extreme, because it had to be to save the person from emotion they could not handle, you are free to reclaim the joy that is your birthright.

The belief that the eating disorder is a protector is one you will hear repeatedly throughout treatment at Fairhaven. With eating disorders, there is a significant amount of shame and guilt attached with receiving the diagnosis. Families, and even treatment professionals, often believe it is simply a matter of self-discipline to overcome the disorder. This seems to be particularly true in the care of binge eating disorder, where a multi-billion-dollar industry supports the practice of attacking weight with dieting. The cultural idea of what is desirable further compounds that shame.

A better way to address the protective nature of binge-eating is to get beyond the layers of shame and guilt that surround the binging. Time and again, I hear stories of children who had emotional needs that were unmet, and food was the secure attachment. In many situations, food binges created a dissociative episode after an event too horrific to feel, and that the client desperately hopes not to remember. The meaning behind a behavior that makes no rational sense in present day context becomes astutely clear with compassionate self-awareness.

Clients start to see their binging as self-protection, and in many cases, food is the secure attachment. Where self-loathing and disgust existed, there is a now window with a small opening looking out toward self-compassion. You have compassion for the child who developed the extreme behavior associated with the eating disorder. The client then works toward letting go of the attitudes, beliefs and emotions that kept her tied to the binging behavior. In letting go, there is no longer a need for binging. However, the “part” of her that binged still exists in its healed form. Having saved her life, now free from burdens, it has the energy and life for any adventures that await.

The binging is healed with no great battle, war or divorce. Gentle, self-led compassion for the pain and suffering, and the gratitude for strategies that made life bearable at the time, are recognized in the course of therapy. The journey of realizing that these extreme behaviors are no longer needed (in cases where they are not) and that the client can reclaim her joy is our goal at Fairhaven.

Dr. Teri McCann, PhD, CEDS is the Founder and Executive Clinical Director of Fairhaven Treatment Center near Memphis, TN. Dr. McCann has over 30 years of experience in working with women and adolescents with symptoms of eating disorders of all kinds. Dr. McCann specializes in the treatment of eating disorders that are related to trauma and attachment disorder.

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