Chapter 36 – How Lucky I Am
“I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know that just to be alive is a grand thing.” – Agatha Christie
The study of eating disorders is a relatively new field, so there are varying statistics on recovery rates. There is a general consensus that left untreated, 20 percent of those with an eating disorder will die from it. It has been suggested that only 20 to 25 percent fully recover, with somewhere between 20 to 30 percent left to continue to struggle with eating issues. Another 10 to 20 percent do not improve, even with treatment, and live marginal lives consumed with daily struggles around food, body image and weight.
As with any addiction, the first step in recovery is to admit that there is a problem. Often, family members become so tired from trying to save the affected individual that they must at some point retreat and protect themselves. This does not mean family members no longer love or support the individual, only that they have come to the conclusion that anyone with anorexia has to want to get well for himself or herself before help can be provided. Recovery takes a long-term commitment; some promise that no matter how bad things get, health is the ultimate goal. It is impossible for someone on the outside to force recovery. However, because anorexia is a life-threatening illness, it is essential to provide options for anyone suffering from this disorder. Interventions and suggestions should not be discounted. It’s impossible to know whether taking action or giving advice will resonate with an anorexic, but it’s important to keep trying. It was Dick Van Dyke who once said that with his alcoholism, 100 people gave him the same piece of advice, but he wasn't ready to hear it until the 101st person said it. In other words, timing is everything when it comes to recovery, just as it was for me when my sister finally told me how my eating disorder had affected her and that I needed to take responsibility for my own recovery. I wasn't ready to change before that. In severe cases of anorexia, a hospital setting may be most appropriate, simply so that the patient can be carefully watched on a 24-hour-a-day basis.
Once the decision to get well has been made, there are many physical and emotional hurdles to clear. Anti-depressants, either synthetic or all-natural (e.g., SAM-e, TravaCor, or St John’s wort) can take the edge off the depression and anxiety that often accompany an eating disorder. Unfortunately, there are many physical symptoms with which to contend once regular eating is resumed. Digestive enzymes, pancreatin and hydrochloric acid can ease bloating, gas, and that uncomfortable full feeling while helping the body absorb more nutrients. With severe malnourishment, intravenous vitamin drips can be most beneficial. A good multivitamin and mineral tablet – especially one that contains an adequate amount of zinc, a mineral that has been shown to improve the symptoms of anorexia – is crucial when adequate daily nutrients are missing from the diet. Ultimately the body is resilient and is able to repair itself when given the chance. Healing is possible. With proper nutrients and an improved mental outlook, the healing process can occur more quickly.
Lorraine Moller and Colleen Cannon, two former world-class athletes, have an approach to eating and health that goes beyond using food merely as fuel. Their thoughts on the topic are truly inspirational.
Lorraine was able to convey what I consider to be crucial to recovery: the evolution of the self. She says, “The truth of who you are is wonderful. It seems we are often struggling to make our inner reality match our outer world. Everywhere we’re caught up on this idea that we’re not okay.”
I sat for a moment and thought how often my fear and lack of self respect allowed me to be taken advantage of by others. In addition, I thought about how undeserving of praise, money, and of course food I often felt. My inner reality of being not okay enough to deserve the good in life was certainly being reflected in my posture, look and overall physique. Lorraine goes into detail about this:
We tend to limit ourselves in the world by labeling ourselves, and freedom comes only when we move away from these labels. . In discovering the core of who we are, not defined by outer appearance, others or outdated internal belief systems, we open up to a world of possibilities. The more emotionally invested we are in our weight, the more we move away from performance. You have to ask yourself, “how far will I go to reach my goal?” If you are unable to move forward and are stuck in your identity, it can be miserable, but this is a sign that resolution is needed. It’s time to integrate a larger perspective and fulfill your potential as a creative loving being. Whenever we come up against something that’s not working in our lives, we need to figure out in which way we’re not loving ourselves. We need to be continually reinventing ourselves and move from one experience to the next. If everything in life is suggesting a change, and, instead, stagnation is achieved, it can lead to heartache, sorrow and pain.
In terms of my own performance, it did suffer. Had I not been so caught up in being thin, it's possible I could have focused more on how to improve my running. It's as if I was too thin to consistently do well and too hungry to focus on the things that mattered, yet too afraid to change. I had competing goals, and being thin eventually won over being an outstanding athlete. I often wonder how much I used my eating disorder as an excuse to not do well. It was obvious that I was too weak to run well in the long term, but somehow it was important to me at the time to know that I was thin, as if that's any kind of measure of success. It's not. If anything, it showed how out of balance my life had become. My focus of doing something exceptionally well had shifted to a focus on weight. If I had allowed myself to eat outside the strict rules I had set for myself, there's a good chance that my running career would have been much longer and might have flourished rather than fizzled.
When it comes to therapy, Lorraine suggests that this can be helpful, but only in that therapy and other modalities of healing lead to a better understanding of the self. What’s more important to recognize is how self-imposed limitations are keeping the spirit from full expression:
The spirit keeps wanting expression. As we learn and grow, our world needs to expand accordingly to encompass more, and it should be more wonderful. It’s the same with training. If you train right, you should be getting better and faster and having more fun. The body is a vehicle for the spirit’s expression. [If spirit isn't a term that resonates, one can think of it simply as moving on when it's time, regardless of any spiritual beliefs] We don’t want to get stuck in one archetype. We want to be able to express ourselves in many ways throughout life.
As Jackson Pollock once said, "It doesn't make much difference how the paint is put on as long as something is being said. Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement." For those of us who can no longer run to make a statement, we must find other means of expression.
Before my interview with Lorraine came to a close, she mentioned some ideas to help with the recovery process. The concept is based on how core beliefs can be changed:
Thoughts always follow beliefs, but you always have your creative genius which comes in like divine inspiration and can put in a crack in your belief system. This is where you have the first step. Something that changes your thoughts and makes you realize that maybe there is another way. We have thoughts, which is basically an internal process, and words that are an expression following thoughts. Words are one step farther into reality than thoughts. Then we have action based on these thoughts that is actually putting ourselves out into the world, going even farther into reality, so if our actions are based on thoughts and ultimately on our beliefs, we can work backward by deliberately using action to send the feedback system a new message. This action, even if it’s scary, will reinforce a new belief. Words can be used as well to create a new pathway to a new belief system. A good exercise is to look in the mirror and see the beauty in you. Say out loud ‘I look beautiful’ even if thoughts come up that are contrary. Eventually the statement can become part of a new reality for you.
Having tried this exercise, I can say that it's not one that's as easy as it sounds. All the years of telling myself I was ugly got in the way of seeing any of the beauty in me.
I asked Lorraine why it’s so common for us to put limitations on ourselves. Her feelings:
Limitations are part of the soul’s journey. They can be taught by parents or the people around us or they can be self imposed, but since we are in this reality to learn about love, we can’t learn about love without first knowing what love isn’t. We need to move away from the model of the body as a machine and look at it more as an energetic unit. As we move toward this model, it’s important to also look at food not as compartments of calories, fat and carbohydrates and instead look at food as something that nourishes us. Ask what the life force behind the food is. For example, a piece of cake baked by a loving grandmother will have a whole different energetic feel to it than a piece of cake that has been sitting on the shelf that’s filled with preservatives and artificial ingredients. The one baked by the loving grandmother is sure to have a much higher life energy around it. If I look at beliefs around food, my body will get a very different message based on what I put in my mouth than the message sent when someone else eats the same thing. It’s all how we view it and our beliefs around it.”
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