Tag Archives: recovering from anorexia

eating disorders: learning to let go

this is the second interview for this blog’s very own eating disorder’s week month spring. the first one was a three-part series on eating disorders and relationships. here is an interview with a vancouver woman who has struggled with recurring eating disorders, including anorexia, orthorexia and bulimia, and is currently maintaining a healthy weight with a healthy diet.

isabella: you say you’ve learned to stop obsessing about food. do you find that stopping that obsession is absolutely crucial for recovery, or does it just happen to be a tool you find useful for yourself?

vancouver woman: i’ve not been witness to anyone who’s recovered the same way i did. most people i knew who were in recovery were as obsessive as me about their diets; they were being told to eat more calories but they were still being tallied.

for me, letting go was critical. my ED phased between bulimia and anorexia with orthorexia; the orthorexia was very obsessive because it wasn’t just thinking of fat and calories but also the quality of the food and pesticides and additives, etc. i was vegan for a time too, which added yet another layer of concern and guilt. (now there’s the carbon footprint to worry about too!) it got so extreme that when i went into market there would be barely a half dozen items i was “allowed” to buy. that restrictiveness spiralled, i was vegan too and there was hardly anything i “could eat.” so i had to eliminate all restrictions and learn to get over the guilt and self-monitoring and calculating. to eat naturally again i had to start letting myself eat *anything* and not measure consequences.

do other people need to do that? i would say it depends how deeply obsessed they are.

isabella: can you give a “before and after” example of a particular type of food or behaviour around food?

vancouver woman: i had a small handful of recipes i made all the time because i knew what the calories and fat were thanks to online calorie counters; tally up the ingredients then divide and plan meals. that meant fewer and fewer convenience foods. might sound great, right? ultimately i was eating only homemade vegan soup with few ingredients because otherfood was too hard to make, to control and justify with all my rules. i never ate out, either. the more spartan and virtuous my diet became, the more rewarding it was (so was the weight loss) which kept it going.

now i don’t consult calorie counters at all, and don’t follow diets that require it. i admit i still look at labels when shopping but it’s for general quality info (like avoiding MSG).

isabella: “letting go” sounds so simple – and can be so difficult to do. do you have some tips about how to let go of the obsession about food?

vancouver woman: i had to stop all forms of restricting. all at the same time i stopped counting calories, stopped being vegan, stopped buying organic-only food. all the rules and barriers i’d created to keep myself from eating.

but the disorder wasn’t just about food, it was obsessing over my body too, so i also stopped weighing and measuring myself. all the numbers, conditions and pre-requisites had to go.

from there it was a matter of being mindful of having chosen to remove those restrictions. reminding myself again and again not to feel guilt or fear about food. “no guilt” became a mantra.

isabella: having learned how to let go of the obsession with food, do you find that this letting go is helpful in other areas of your life, as well?

vancouver woman: i can’t think of anything, no. my mindfulness skills were acquired before my recovery (independently of it; i never had a therapist work with me on my ED, nobody covered by insurance had special training) so i was already practicing.

isabella: is there anything else you would like to add?

vancouver woman: i do have a small regret about giving up veganism, because i support it in principle and have friends who are vegan (some people judge me for it now, not knowing my history). i don’t often eat meat beyond seafood, but fear that if i relabel myself i’d go back to scanning ingredients for reasons to put food back on the shelf (eggs are in so many things) and it could be a slippery slope.

i do choose healthy food a lot anyway. i genuinely prefer the taste of tofu!

eating disorders: mothers and daughters

mother and daughterthis is a continuation of my conversation with joanna poppink about adults recovering from eating disorders, with an emphasis on how that impacts relationships. joannna poppink is a psychotherapist with a private practice in los angeles specializing in eating disorder recovery (you can see her blog at stop eating disorders.) yesterday i said i was going to present it in two parts; actually, i’ve decided to present it in three parts because … well, you’ll see why in the last instalment.

here joanna talks about how women with anorexia or bulimia (and, by extension, with any kind of eating disorder) relate to their mothers.

isabella: women with anorexia or bulimia often have complicated relationships with their mothers. when that is the case, how can these relationships become a little easier?

joanna: this is a huge question with, in my opinion, some wishful thinking attached.

first of all, women without anorexia or bulimia have complicated relationships with their mothers. the mother-daughter relationship is one of the most complex relationships of all. so please, all women suffering from bulimia or anorexia, take a breath and ease up on your self criticism, your judgments and your desires for wish fulfilling ease with mom.

that said, what is an approach that can bring some ease to the relationship?

the fast answer is the simple and straight forward one. get well.

eventually, if you stay on your recovery path, you will get well. as you gain more health and emotional stamina you will be able to use your emerging creativity along with your strategic thinking and core of love you have for this woman who is your mother to negotiate your relationship.

what does this mean? well, it means you can’t have what you want. your mother may change. she may not. but you are changing. so it’s up to you to find a way to relate to her as she is, not as you wish her to be. it can be a shock to your system to look at your mother as a woman.

if you always argue about certain topics, don’t try to win. as you would with a friend or acquaintance, sidestep the subject and bring in a topic that is pleasant and interesting for her. give her the gift of peace and ease. it’s a gift to you too.

let go of your need to win and your need to be seen in a particular way by her. focus on conversation and activity areas where you are compatible or where you can be patient and generous.

your great gain in life is recovery itself. you get a healthy life that you live with more responsibility and satisfaction than you ever had while living with your eating disorder. with your increased health and life energy, you can afford to be generous with this woman who is your mother in all her imperfections.

you are an adult now. you can extricate yourself from situations that go against your health and your values. you can accommodate with generosity when the situation brings no harm to you and brings space for peace and ease with your mother.

to do this, you have to let go of many wishes and hopes for responses you felt you were entitled to. but that sense of entitlement may be a leftover from your eating disorder. if you drop those entitlements from you psyche (not so easy) or drop them into your journal (much more doable) you can free yourself and your mother from the past and be with her as she is.

you may discover a woman you didn’t know was there. you’ll certainly discover more about who you are and how you can be increasingly present and competent in this world.

stay tuned for part 3!

image by deederdoll

eating disorders and relationships

remember last week i asked people to be interviewed about eating disorders? well, some people volunteered. today i am happy to introduce you to joanna poppink, MFT, a long time private practice psychotherapist in los angeles specializing in eating disorder recovery. her blog is at stop eating disorders.

joanna will talk about how eating disorders affect relationships. she has a lot of very interesting things to say, so we’ve decided to present her wisdom in two parts. i’ll be posting part two by sunday.

isabella: i am often contacted by people whose boyfriends or girlfriends suffer from anorexia or bulimia. they want to help and have no idea where to start. what advice do you have?

joanna: i’m a trained licensed psychotherapist in practice since 1980. i’ve specialized in treating people with eating disorders since about 1984 and have attended countless 12 step meetings. and, helping someone with an eating disorder is still challenging for me.

so, then, what can a loving friend or family member or caring colleague do to help?

first is to separate the person from the illness. you support the person you care about, but not the eating disorder. you make no special arrangements to defer to the demands of the eating disorder, don’t make special foods, avoid certain restaurants, keep secrets for the person or go against your own values and principles to help them feel better.

the best thing you can do is let them know you care about them while you continue to live a healthy life yourself. let them meet you in health. let them be inspired to find their way to recovery so they can join you in a healthy life. let them see what they are missing when you don’t compromise your values to accommodate the eating disorder.

you can’t force a person into recovery. but you can show them the benefits of living a healthy life and perhaps, by so doing, inspire them into recovery.

isabella: once a person starts on the road to recovery from anorexia or bulimia, how does that impact on their relationships – romantic and otherwise?

joanna: anorexia and bulimia are illnesses that affect a person’s body, mind, heart and soul. a person with an eating disorder often believes her perception of herself, her values, her strengths and weaknesses, her intelligence and even her loves and hates are her own. she doesn’t realize that all these aspects of her lived experience are powerfully influenced by her eating disorder. her dreams and visions for herself are limited and distorted. she doesn’t know who she is, and she thinks she does.

everyone, and i mean everyone, in her life is present in a relationship with her based on who they think she is. many are in relationship with her because of who they need her to be.

when she moves into recovery mode, her genuine personhood begins to appear. her taste and preferences become clearer. she is surprised by her strengths, and often, so is everybody else. instead of trying to please or deferring out of fear, she finds herself saying, ‘no,’ where she used to say, ‘yes.’

some people benefited from the gifts she has but never used for herself, like intelligence, creativity, education and various skills. some needed to be with a dependent and frightened person so they could be in the powerful, rescuer/savior role.

the people who can grow themselves, who can live a mature and responsible life with respect for another’s boundaries, goals and lived talents as she follows her heart can remain in relationship with the recovering person. the relationship will become more equal.

but it’s difficult for people to grow and change if they are set in their ways and committed to a particular way of life and sense of themselves. many will not be able to tolerate the recovering person’s emerging self and her self respect.

a challenging part of recovery involves dealing with the shock and pain of discovering how vested others were in the eating disorder symptoms. when the symptoms fall away and the true person emerges, many old relationships fall away.

the new relationships are based on who the recovering person is now. people who are attracted to a sick person are different from people who are attracted to a healthy person.

parents and eating disorders

today we have a guest post by laura collins, mother to a daughter who struggled with anorexia, and an activist in the movement to help people with eating disorders. you have probably met her already – she’s contributed some posts to our carnival of eating disorders, from her blog eating with your anorexic.

isabella was kind enough to ask me to write a bit about a new project: F.E.A.S.T. (parents empowered and supporting treatment for eating disorders).

F.E.A.S.T. is really the culmination of six years of networking and information-gathering since my daughter recovered from anorexia nervosa. when my daughter became ill i was as clueless and lost and frightened as any parent. i found the treatment world unimpressed with my willingness, and eagerness, to help my daughter recover. my husband and i felt – because we were – blamed and marginalized.

but we were lucky: our daughter’s illness coincided with a change coming about in the ED world: a growing realization that eating disorders are biologically based brain disease. this knowledge has caused a treatment world that had been focused elsewhere to reconsider the role of parents and carers in the treatment process. instead of seeing parents as either pathological or unnecessary, parents were beginning to be trusted as appropriate caregivers and resources. our family was lucky to have ridden that wave – but i quickly realized that change is very slow and that most parents even today are not being told that their child’s eating disorder is not a choice – and is not something they have caused or erred in not preventing. the blaming of patients and families is still going on – and this is damaging patients and families.

my work as an activist – giving talks, writing articles, offering online resources and years of an online forum – have taught me the power of parents to support a loved one toward recovery. i’ve also learned the collective power of parents, and the damage of the collective silence of ED parents. we’ve stayed quiet out of fear and guilt. when we let go of fear, and reject the blame, we can do great things.

F.E.A.S.T. is a way to empower parents with information, mutual support, and activism. i am so excited to be part of this.

supporting the family is one way to support patients – our loved ones. no parent should feel helpless or alone!

i think it’s important to take into consideration all the many points of view on mental health issues such as eating disorders. while my theoretical perspective on anorexia is a bit different from laura’s, i have great respect for her work, and am honoured that she allowed me to present her new oragnization here on change therapy.