A Journey Within and Beyond Eating Disorders
Disordered eating belongs in the “addiction family,” meaning that it has a lot in common with substance abuse as a pattern of behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. The key features of addiction also show up in disordered eating, including (but not limited to):
- Needing more and more to get the same effect.
- Patterns of escalating obsessive thoughts and worsening compulsive behaviors.
- Pain, shame, guilt, fear, isolation, and the loss of personal willpower.
- Secretive behaviors, hiding the truth about one’s problem from loved ones.
- Denial, low self-esteem, demoralization, and alternating self-indulgences.
All these signs, symptoms, and patterns go beyond and spotlight throughout disordered eating. Like any addiction, eating disorder recovery is entirely achievable through the 12 Steps program, with a blend of:
- Working the 12 Steps of recovery.
- Developing a spiritual lifestyle.
- Staying in daily contact with a supportive eating disorder recovery community.
Simultaneously, some aspects of disordered eating make it a little different from drug and alcohol addiction. As many women with substance abuse also struggle with food-related compulsions and body image issues, it is essential to understand the typical “disordered eating” profile. Given its sensitive and diverse nature, eating disorder recovery may require an integrative approach to treatment. On the one hand, eating disorders reflect a food addiction. The foods we consume (or deprive ourselves of), and how, affects our physiological, emotional, and even mental state. For these reasons, eating has the potential to be addictive. Those of us with disordered eating patterns discovered how to use food to alter our life experiences and become dependent on it for coping.
Many people who have food issues started early in childhood, being the most and likely only available “substance” to help regulate the nervous system. Some foods (and behaviors) have sedative effects, some are stimulating, and for a person in pain, food can be used as a coping mechanism – to soften its edges, to maybe even make it go away (at least in the short term). For women who were in the business of “stuffing emotions” or making sure that their emotional realities and subjective experiences were well-hidden from those around them, food is a key ally, as it is excellent at numbing and “disappearing” unwanted qualities, anger, and fear. In this aspect, food addiction is the same as substance abuse addiction – food is the drug (it does not have to be, but it can be abused).
The 12 Steps program Overeaters Anonymous (OA) is an eating disorder recovery community that deals directly with compulsive overeating patterns, such as the willpower loss of overeating, binging on sugar and carbs, always having something in our mouths, etc. On another level, eating disorder recovery usually involves some element of control, not infrequently, punishment. So, on the one hand, we have the driving desire to abuse food as a way to gain its benefits for coping (its sedative effects, for example); the punishing, controlling, regulating side trying to keep this check pattern. This side holds the reality that, especially for women, when we overeat, we put ourselves in the terrible danger of losing love and belonging through becoming “fat,” which many women correlate with being unattractive, inadequate, or unlovable.
Consciously or unconsciously, many women believe that if we “allow ourselves to become fat,” we break the lovability rules and must be punished through loss of love. Since we do not know ourselves as a source of self-love and therefore feel dependent upon those around us for the love we need, this is a significant risk factor. This inner war and battle – the expectation to be socially acceptable (which for women, means “attractive” or “slim”), and the regulation and suppression of emotions through food – creates the perfect storm for disordered eating. This double-bind sets women up for eating disorders of the bulimic variety. A pattern of overeating for its mood effects, on the one hand, alternates with “getting rid of it” somehow, through over-exercise, laxative abuse, periods of restriction, or vomiting.
The “getting rid of it” factor also has an emotional payoff – it can feel like punishment or relief from the potential negative consequences of having overeaten and therefore risked lovability. Many of us, secretly and in the back of our minds, believe that if we punish ourselves enough first, maybe the others will not need to, will not leave us, will forgive us. Problems created for the body from overheating (usually to greater degrees, like any addiction) and then “purging” is quite dangerous and can lead a woman to the point of needing to be hospitalized. As with all addictive patterns, this binge-and-purge cycle may get to the point where it is being done several times a day to cope and feel “normal,” with devastating effects on her being.
The 12 Steps program Eating Disorders Anonymous (EDA) is an eating disorder recovery community that believes that eating addiction is behavioral and not related to a substance (food). Another variant of the eating disorders is anorexia, where a woman may get addicted and obsessed with under-consuming or restricting her intake. Starvation and withholding can create a body high as well as an emotional payoff of feeling in control. The addiction to control is incredibly challenging as there is so much social reward heaped upon those who have discipline and control. Women with anorexia often receive compliments for their ability to suppress appetite and “not indulge.” However, for the woman who is genuinely addicted to control, she needs to have that feeling so much that she takes it too far, destroying herself through starvation as the pattern escalates.
In all these cases, what is characteristic is some form of “body dysmorphia,” or losing touch with what a loving person, even of the worst body critics out there, might say about her body. Many women are convinced that they are “disgustingly fat” when they are average. The frightening effect of anorexia and bulimia is to have a self-image so distorted and skewed as to put the person’s life in danger. One key aspect of successful eating disorder recovery is overcoming the poisonous need for perfection. Women with eating disorders are usually micro-attuned to their flaws and imperfections because of their profound risk of losing control and lovability. Thus, she must achieve and sustain perfection as a minimum standard of acceptability for such a woman. For many women, embodiment must be shown in the body – without a physically perfect body, she deserves no love.
As with all addictions, “rock bottom” often precipitates a woman seeking eating disorder recovery. For some, the hitting bottom will come in the form of intervention from well-meaning friends, through hospitalization, or by just passing the point of misery into being willing to correct the pattern that ruins her life finally. For a woman who recognizes herself to be in the grips of an eating disorder, it is recommended that she hold this fact in the most nonjudgmental, accepting way available to her. Because of the intense perfectionism that affects women, a vast, fundamental piece of her eating disorder recovery will just be learning how to say: “There it is, it’s that eating disorder pattern, this isn’t me, this is an illness. I am not that illness; that illness is just taking place in me.”
In the eating disorder recovery community of EDA, women learn to call out their eating disorder, referred to as “Ed,” in all his forms: “Today, I noticed Ed told me that I am disgusting and need to lose 30 pounds, or my husband will leave me.” Women with eating disorders struggle with the question of whether they deserve the love they need. When a woman believes she cannot be loved and is not worthy of it, she is starved of love. When she eats to fill the love-hungry woman inside, then judges herself for having an eating compulsion, she withholds love again. She then engages in self-abusive behaviors to punish or correct the compulsion – the opposite of love. Therefore, achieving self-love is vital to the long-term success of eating disorder recovery. Women who abuse food to regulate and meet their emotional needs must replace the role that food plays.
At Villa Kali Ma, we believe the most effective antidote for food addiction is self-love. We help and teach women how to self-love – not to starve themselves from (their own) love. When women become full inside, satiated with the real nourishment of genuine love that no one can take from them, they do not perpetuate the cycle of abuse with their bodies. If you’re seeking long-term eating disorder recovery and ready to embark on your healing journey, please know that your eating disorder, whatever it is like, will be understood, accepted, and gently transformed in an environment of empathy, compassion, and unconditional self-love at Villa Kali Ma. We welcome and invite you to join us in the pursuit of proper nourishment!