Who am I without Ed? When I was struggling with my own eating disorder, this was a question I thought (and worried) about a lot. With this blog post, I am thrilled to introduce you to an expert who will tackle this challenging topic. Dr. Tamara Pryor is the Clinical Director and Director of Clinical Research at the Eating Disorder Center of Denver (EDCD). Several years ago, I had the privilege of speaking alongside Dr. Pryor at a professional training in Denver. I assure you that she is not only deeply wise but also fiercely passionate about helping people to overcome their eating disorders and to move toward fulfilled living. Let her words below serve as a guide on the journey.
For a chance to win a signed book, see information at the bottom of this post!
- Can you tell us about the Eating Disorder Center of Denver’s Defining ME™ (@DefiningME) campaign and how it can be helpful to those struggling with eating disorders?
EDCD’s Defining ME™ campaign has its origins in the story of a real person who experienced the struggle of recovery. Through that effort, she discovered that she had no idea who she was without her eating disorder. The illness told her what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and how to feel about herself every moment of every day. She realized that she was basically going to have to start from scratch to begin the journey of discovering the shape, color, and flavor of her life. She discovered it would be up to her to define who she intends to be in the world.
I believe the Defining ME™ campaign clearly names the challenges and potential discoveries that lie ahead for the individual who is pursuing a life defined by personal freedom and choice. It is a “jumping off” place to begin practicing change and daring to engage new and different experiences.
- One of the most popular questions I receive is, “Who am I without Ed?” How can people begin to answer this important question?
Answering this question requires a mix of bravery, curiosity, and a willingness to experiment and to believe that growth comes through making mistakes. It requires persistence and patience, a strong desire to make peace with yourself, and a stubborn refusal to allow the eating disorder to continue to hijack and rule your life.
We encourage our patients to begin by simply imagining a day without the demands of the eating disorder.
We ask them to go on an imaginary archeological dig to discover lost parts of themselves and to begin to find their likes and dislikes. We ask them to dare to be true to themselves by sharing an honest opinion. We ask them to remember a time when they still believed anything was possible.
I will pick up a magazine, sit with a patient, and ask, “Do you like that color? Do you like that style? Would you ever like to do that (e.g. bike ride, juggle, color your hair pink)? Do you agree with that statement? Do you think that’s funny? Does that offend you?” We do a lot of work with values clarification to help individuals identify their values prior to the eating disorder and to determine if those still fit or whether they have changed. Their values can now begin to reflect any changes.
- What are some specific challenges that have helped your patients to define themselves away from the illness?
The challenges need to be unique to the individual. After a person has identified the role the eating disorder has served, it is then possible to begin to determine what it is she really needs and ways to go about getting those needs met. For one individual, it may be the challenge of refusing to do what the eating disorder is telling him to do. For instance, the eating disorder says, “You have to weigh yourself. You can’t trust your body. You have to know that number in order to be okay.” For this person, a tremendous challenge and glorious success is when he can say, “No, I don’t need to weigh myself. I have better things to do. That number doesn’t define who I am.” For another person, a challenge may be disagreeing with someone else’s opinion. It may be taking the risk of speaking up in the moment and not pretending to either not care or simply opt out of having an opinion. By taking this challenge, a distinctively individual voice is being born. I remember a patient from many years ago who always came into my office wearing red lipstick. When I finally asked what the lipstick meant to her, she shared that her mother had told her that her only attractive feature were her lips and that she should never leave the house without wearing lipstick. At 26 years old, this young woman took the challenge of walking out her door and into my office without the red lipstick. In this single step, she began to define herself.
- You told me that you use the concept of “planned spontaneity” with certain patients. Can you explain what this means and how it can be helpful?
Many individuals with eating disorders are extremely harm avoidant. Although they may want to do new and different things, there is still the desire to be able to predict outcome, to not mess up, and to not embarrass themselves or others. Therefore, it can feel easier and safer to “not do” rather than risk “doing” and not succeeding. I think it is unrealistic to expect these individuals to move from being cautious, careful, and planful to becoming spontaneous risk takers. Even contemplating the idea of being spontaneous can easily overwhelm them and send them scurrying back to the familiarity and perceived safety that the rules of the eating disorder provide. Therefore, I often speak with them about the concept of “planned spontaneity.” They can do something that looks spontaneous (e.g., let’s go on a picnic tomorrow) when in actuality, they have been thinking and planning this for days or weeks. This allows them the time they need to feel in control of the choices they make. Timing and dosage are very important when making changes, and what is most important is that the change is desirable and the individual feels ownership and a sense of personal empowerment through this process of change.
- What is one final message of hope?
Do not let fear control you. Each and every one of us has to figure out what we want to define us. We are like individual designer drugs. And, we get to do this repeatedly throughout our lives. It is what truly makes each of us unique. With practice, this challenging process can be satisfying and fun. Don’t ever give up on the creation of YOU and your recovered self.
Book Giveaway: With this post, we are giving away a signed copy of Goodbye Ed, Hello Me. To enter to win, just comment below describing one way that you define yourself outside of your illness (e.g., My favorite color is pink. I am a mother. I am a son. I like to sing.) One winner will be chosen randomly among all of the commenters.