by June Alexander
“FOOD. I HATE IT.
I would like to start being kind to myself. And not punish myself with food anymore.
To me food is like a cancer, its tentacles reaching into and clawing at my emotions, my feelings, my thoughts, never giving a moment’s respite.
I HATE IT.
Every decision I make in my personal life is affected by FOOD.
Can I live any other way?
What do I have to do?”
[Author’s diary 1991]
Eating disorder recovery involves eating food. Food is essential. It is the main medicine. Importantly, generous doses of authentic feelings, faith, family, and friends, can help make this food more palatable, and help you to reconnect with that precious stranger (you) within.
Recovery from an eating disorder (ED) involves clearing our inner self of a minefield of secrets. Fighting ED, an invisible enemy in our brain that keeps our focus “out there,” (on food, temptations, diet, exercise), is scary. Such fear has a playmate: chaos. The eating disorder is a tough commander. It thrives on torment, using food, too much or too little, as its truncheon. No wonder recovery is hard.
Making the U-turn
Today, I LOVE FOOD. Eating is a pleasure. My body communicates what nourishment it desires for its next meal or snack. My body and self are one. The anticipation, preparation, and eating of every meal and snack is a delight. I love wandering around my garden, harvesting seasonal fruit and vegetables in season and pinching a sprig of a herb or two, in the lead up to evening meal preparation; gone is the dread of grocery shopping; restaurant meals, and picnics. I love, above all, meals shared with family and friends.
A healthy relationship with food in turn helps me to have a healthy relationship myself and others. Conversely, healthy relationships and food help to achieve a healthy me; we build on, and with, each other, and our faith in each other grows stronger.
For 40 years, however, every meal was an ordeal, sandwiched between layers of fear, anxiety and guilt. I admired anyone who could eat a meal without feeling guilty. Why couldn’t I? Rationally, I had not done anything wrong, but ED-driven fear pursued me. My meals were regimented, their planning consuming and clogging my mind. I feared I would never escape the debilitating food thoughts.
It’s up to me
At age 37, I wrote in my diary that recovery “is something I have to do myself, something I have to conscientiously control. I have to tell myself, over and over, I am in control of me. I can blame no-one, nor can I expect anyone to ‘cure’ me.”
Sigh, at 37, I had yet to learn that recovery and good mental health would not occur while each day was structured according to ED’s way—for instance, restricting food intake and doing a set amount of exercise.
For re-connection with thoughts and feelings to occur, my foundation of self required a rebuild in my brain. Writing and under-scoring “I must do this and that” in my diary was not sufficient. I had to think and feel it too because healing had to come from within. Only then, would my sense of identity and purpose become clear.
Sharing my writing
At 37, swamped by uncertainty, I did not know who I was, or which way was forward. ED injected fear into every meal, every decision. An analyzer-supreme, I lacked skill to recognize thoughts for what they were and did not know how to separate, let alone accept and transcend, overwhelming negative emotions.
The more I attempted to offload and sort mental chaos in my diary, the more irrational I became in relation to real or perceived distressing events. However, eventually I turned a corner. I began sharing my writing with a trusted therapist. Gradually, the learning of diary‑writing techniques helped in the recognition, accepting (for example, “these are indeed my thoughts”), defusing and re-packaging of chaotic thoughts into manageable perspectives.
Coming out as a food lover
To be ‘me’ I had to stop hating food and start loving it. Food could no longer be the ‘boss’ that determined my moods, everything; it had to transition from the role of self‑harm bully to nurturing and supportive self-love collaborator. Even though I was weight-restored, food intake was irregular and thought patterns continued to be food‑driven. What else could I do? A breakthrough occurred when, at age 47, a therapist suggested:
“Get in touch with your feelings and food will gradually take care of itself.”
Regular, nutritious meals daily were essential; sounds easy, but the pattern of over-eating one day and restricting the next, ran deep. To overcome this behavior, I had to look beyond the food into parts of myself that ED had kept disconnected for years.
ED had led to my body and brain behaving like strangers uncomfortably, and suspiciously, sharing the same skin. The diaries provide stark evidence of this. Under the therapist’s patient guidance, I began to leaf and delve through the layers, many containing long-held secrets, to grieve (for the repressed me), retrieve and reunite with my true emotions.
Basically I began to learn to think in ways that were compassionate and honest, and develop these true-me thoughts to the point where they became automatic. This took a lot of practice. Repeat: a lot of practice.
(Professor Michael Levine comments: And COURAGE. With courage defined as “going forward toward a valued goal in the presence of anxiety and doubt.”)
Faith in friends and family, and self
Eventually, I likened the challenge to that of walking a tightrope. Equal attention to consuming adequate daily food nourishment and tending properly to emotions, allowed me to walk safely and confidently ahead, and avoid slipping and plunging into the black fear and ED-driven chaos. If my body lacked nutrition and emotions of self were not nurtured, anxiety took hold, making the tightrope unstable. Striking a healthy balance required much support, courage and practice. Skills were required in self‑awareness, patience and an honest, rather than ED-driven, faith. Luckily a safety net of support comprising treatment team, family, and friends were now guiding the way. They instilled within me a fledgling belief that I could actually do it. My diary recorded this progress:
“I see now, after much reading, that I need to give up my control with food—I must give up dieting and cessation of bingeing will follow, automatically. I must not use food as a control mechanism. I MUST let it go. [Author’s diary, 1990]
I believe the key to curing my eating disorder is to respect myself in every way, including energy intake with food and drink. I will look after my total health by having enough sleep, nutrition and exercise, will learn to manage my time and put myself first.”
[Author’s diary, 1991]
Sighting real self is a pinnacle moment
My therapist provide another suggestion:
“Separate your thoughts from those of your eating disorder.”
How would I know if a thought was honest, belonged to ED, or was influenced by prescription drugs? The diary would help me work through this confusion, which would remain until I quit being a slave to ED.
“I must focus on solving my problems, and refrain from using food to ‘cope’ with intolerable situations.”
[Author’s diary, 2006]
Gaining insight of a real self is a pinnacle moment in recovery from an ED. This discovery, even a glimpse, instills hope. Family, friends, faith and authentic feelings can help enormously in building and strengthening this hope, and keeping you on the healing path. The path is tough and tortuous but the rewards are priceless – for you and all who love and know you.
Anne was about to enter a treatment center when she wrote ‘Precious Stranger’. Anne explains:
“It was as if some deeper part of me flowed through my writing telling me that there was a me—the real Anne—still inside, a me bigger than ED, a me that could still be reborn and live apart from ED. There is a precious stranger inside anyone who struggles with an eating disorder.”
So poignantly familiar.
Through my heart.
My mind searches,
Closes the chasm.
Once a part
Of my being.
Across eternity return
This article is drawn from my book, Using Writing as a Therapy for Eating Disorders—The Diary Healer , the creative work in my PhD (Philosophy). This book explores how the diary can be integrated into treatment and recovery, and how diary excerpts from multiple sources can be used to create a book about eating disorder recovery. For details, see http://www.thediaryhealer.com or go to http://acquire.cqu.edu.au:8080/vital/access/manager/Repository/cqu:13833