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The Thought That Changed My Whole Approach to Eating Disorder Recovery

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Over the last four years, I have talked about personifying eating disorders (ED) as a way to separate the person from the illness. I have talked about ED as this mean, manipulative, lying jerk. I have used phrases like “kick ED’s ass,” “break up with ED,” “ED is a toxic best friend or a toxic partner.”

I have been looking at recovery through the lens of ED being an equal; someone you can fight against and win. Recovery is a battle and you are the warrior.

This is a narrative I have heard so often when it comes to recovery and relapse.

And it occurred to me, if I am questioning the narratives around who struggles with ED, what makes a person sick enough for treatment and how weight stigma erases lived experience, then I can question the eating disorder warrior narrative.

What if I have it all backwards? What if fighting against the eating disorder only makes things worse?

I recently asked a friend what she was most afraid of as she was heading into treatment. She said:

“Finally giving up ED and not knowing what it is that replaces that. It’s ED that’s terrified.”

My immediate instinct was to wish her well and remind her that she could totally kick ED’s ass. I wanted to give some encouragement about ED not being needed. Screw ED. ED is an asshole.

That’s when a light switch went on.

My reply to her was as follows:

“Maybe we’ve been going about it all wrong. Maybe that’s not the right approach. This whole idea that ED is mean and sneaky and lies and is manipulative makes it feel like ED is this grown-up monster we can break up from. But maybe it’s not like that — maybe ED is the small child inside of us who didn’t get what she needed; who didn’t know how to cope, so she developed these maladaptive behaviors. Maybe ED isn’t a separate part of us. Maybe ED is our inner child who continues to perpetuate thoughts and behaviors because that child didn’t learn healthy ways to deal or cope with emotions or challenging situations, or thoughts.”

Mind. Currently. Blown.

That thought changed the whole way I want to approach recovery.

A great deal of time is spent talking about practicing self-compassion, being kind to your inner child, healing your inner child, listening to your inner child. Well, what if ED is that inner child. If so, then ED needs compassion and kindness in order to heal, not a battle at all. That makes us nurturers — not warriors.

This idea can open up new ways to engage with the eating disorder.

I wouldn’t refuse to feed a child breakfast. I wouldn’t force a child to over-exercise because she had a slice of cake on her birthday. I wouldn’t punish a child for eating until she was so full that she was sick. I wouldn’t allow a child to only live on very little food. I wouldn’t allow a child to eat desert as breakfast every day for a month. And if she did, I wouldn’t tell her that she ruined her entire life because of those deserts.

When a child messes up, we call it a mistake. When it’s an adult, we often call it failure.

What if there is no failure in recovery? What if there are only opportunities for learning and growing? What if the process of recovery is a process of raising your inner child the way you wish you had been raised? Or the way you needed to be raised?

ED, the child, needs to be held closely during the recovery process.

Here’s how I see it: 

At some point in your life, any rules around food were probably thrown out the window. Now you’re an adult and you are living like a child without any guidelines around food and eating. 

Think of a child, or your own child: imagine them in your mind, imagine them being allowed to go into the kitchen and to eat whatever they want. No limits. They are allowed to eat and eat until it hurts. If the foods they want aren’t there, they are allowed to go to the store to buy the foods they want so that they can binge on them. Then they are allowed to go to the bathroom and forcibly purge out the food they just stuffed into themselves. Imagine the shame they would be feeling. Imagine the judgment and self-hatred. Imagine allowing them to punish themselves by restricting their food intake. Or punishing themselves by binging, punish themselves by purging. Imagine the damage to their body — to their mind and soul. Imagine how much they would struggle. Imagine how much that would break your heart. 

Now I want you to put yourself back in your body. Inside of you is all of your experiences from all of your life time. Your “inner child” isn’t a separate part of you. It is you. We are all products of all the different experiences we have lived. 

Inside your mind is you at an age when food no longer has limits. When food became a way to control your emotions, to control your world, or whatever purpose ED has been serving you. 

And now you’re an adult. And now you need to parent yourself. 

When you are feeling symptomatic, ask what you would say or do with your child. Would you let them eat a bag of cookies? Would you give them a limit of the number of cookies they could have in a day or in a week or whatever your rules are. 

I think we (myself included!) need to treat ourselves as children learning about food. Learning how to cope with the world and with our emotions without using foods or without harming our bodies. 

Children need gentle and firm encouragement to do hard and scary things. They need high fives, genuine praise, the right to make mistakes, gentle redirection and a lot of hugs. ED, “the child,” can learn to have a different relationship with food and eating, because she is just a child and the things she does are just the things she learned.

I believe it’s time for ED “the child” to be nurtured by you so that she can grow up and learn the healthful skills she needs to move out on her own, separate from us. Or to integrate that child self into the adult self.

Maybe recovery isn’t a battle. Maybe we are not warriors at all. Maybe recovery is the process of teaching ED “the child” that she is loved, worthy, deserving and capable of nourishment in every capacity possible.

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Getty image via Victor_Tongdee

Originally published: June 6, 2018
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