Eating Disorders Are Not Like Other Addictions
Here is the thing, and you have probably thought of this before:
Unlike alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, and other addictions, you can’t just give up food!
These substances can all be used to make painful emotions go away. Food is cheap, accessible, legal, delicious, soothing, and it can easily become your “drug of choice.” When you begin to suffer the side effects of overeating, you may wish you could just abstain from food forever!
But that is not possible. Somehow, the solution to eating disorders must involve getting control over food. This means you have to face food all day every day, as you are trying to recover. No wonder eating disorders are so frustrating and difficult to overcome!
Eating Disorders Serve a Purpose
Something that people don’t generally realize is this:
An eating disorder serves an important psychological function in a person’s life.
How could that possibly be true? Eating disorders hurt and sometimes kill people. So what good are they?
An eating disorder is always a person’s attempt to solve a problem. It may not work very well, and it may backfire, but it is better than nothing. Some examples:
- A latchkey child, home alone after school, binges on snacks to help with anxiety and loneliness.
- A teenager whose parents are getting a divorce, starves herself to feel a sense of control over her life and ensure that her body is acceptable to her peers.
- A mother who is depressed after childbirth and feeling bad about her weight, diets to the point of extreme thinness to try to feel a sense of normalcy.
- A man who is under a great deal of pressure at work, binges on snacks while watching TV after dinner, as a way to relieve stress.
- A college student who is trying to meet deadlines, binges to get some energy and relieve pressure, then purges as a way to regain a sense of control.
See how in all these situations, the person needs his or her eating disorder to get through the day?
Eating Disorders Can Be Overcome
The good news is, people can recover from eating disorders. I’m not saying it is easy or fast or that there are any magic answers. But recovery is possible. It is hard to predict how long treatment will take, but when you are on the road to recovery, you can see your progress along the way. Sometimes it means facing some very difficult feelings, experiences, and situations in your life. But these won’t go away by themselves. When you address them directly, your eating disorder is no longer such a necessary part of your life.
What does that look like? Eating disorder treatment is like solving a mystery. First you need to discover what purpose your eating disorder serves. That can take a while. Sometimes it is hard to face the problems that are behind eating disorders symptoms. You are not alone with this task. A therapist is trained to help you throughout the process.
Once you have a theory of why your eating disorder has gotten the best of you, your therapist helps you figure out what can be done. Sometimes you need to change your coping behaviors, improve your relationships, re-evaluate your life goals. Other times you need to accept situations an feelings that are difficult, such as sadness, grief, loss, anger, danger, disappointment. Again, a therapist is trained to help you identify and work with your feelings in a productive manner. This is a skill that is often missing when it comes to eating disorders.
That is one part of the solution—solving the underlying problems. The other part is finding a way to eat that is natural, enjoyable, uses your body’s system of self-regulation, and lasts the rest of your life. This method of tuning into your body rather than abusing it has many names: mindful eating, intuitive eating, and attuned eating. Whatever you call it, once you have the skill, it becomes a new habit and one that can be maintained. Learning this skill is also part of your therapy.
What is most important to remember is this:
Eating disorder recovery takes time, but it is possible.