Over ten years ago, I received an email that I was sure to be spam. The sender was Dr. Anita Johnston. Why would Dr. Johnston be emailing me? I had read her book, Eating in the Light of the Moon, years prior—when I was still struggling with my eating disorder—and found her words incredibly helpful. As it turns out, she was, in fact, emailing me. She was actually asking me to co-present at a conference with her. This was another one of those moments in recovery when my life seemed to come full circle. Since that first email, Dr. Johnston and I have presented together several times, and even better than that, we have become fast friends. I am deeply honored to share Dr. Johnston’s wise words on my blog with you today. (This is my absolute favorite section from her book!)
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Excerpt from Chapter 3, Eating in the Light of the Moon
The recovering woman needs to recognize that her obsession with food and fat does not define who she is. Her perspective must shift so that she can see this obsession not as some horrible character defect but, rather, as a simple, and much-needed protective mechanism she picked up along her journey through life. It is something she has learned to use to help her deal with the emotional distress of being different or feeling misunderstood, unaccepted, or overwhelmed. She needs to consider the possibility that the development of disordered eating patterns may not necessarily have been such a poor choice, given the limited options, resources, or coping skills she had available to her during stressful periods or times of crisis in her life.
Imagine yourself standing in the rain on the bank of a raging river. Suddenly, the water-swollen bank gives way. You fall in and find yourself being tossed around in the rapids. Your efforts to keep afloat are futile and you are drowning. By chance, along comes a huge log and you grab it and hold on tight. The log keeps your head above water and saves your lift. Clinging to the log you are swept downstream and eventually come to a place where the water is calm.
There, in the distance, you see the riverbank and attempt to swim to shore. You are unable to do so, however, because you are still clinging to the huge log with one arm as you stroke with the other. How ironic. The very thing that saved your life is now getting in the way of your getting where you want to go. There are people on shore who see you struggle and yell, “Let go of the log!” But you are unable to do so because you have no confidence in your ability to make it to shore.
This is not unlike the position many people find themselves in when they first become aware of their disordered eating. They feel foolish at best, humiliated at worst, that they are unable to stop a behavior that is interfering with their desire to get where they want to go in life. In the face of their shame, they quickly forget the role their disordered eating played in their survival, how it helped them keep their heads above water through some rough times by giving them a way to deal with their conflicts, feelings, and difficult situations. They immediately assume that there must be something wrong with them to continue such “destructive” behavior. This view, unfortunately, is supported by well-meaning friends, family, and professionals who suggest that they “just stop doing it”: stop starving themselves, stop bingeing and purging, stop eating compulsively, stop gaining weight.
Simply letting go of the log may not, in fact, be the best course of action to take. What would happen if you let go of the log, began to swim to shore, and got halfway there only to find that you didn’t have the strength to make it all the way? This means that you won’t be able to make it back to the log, either. Many people feel foolish for clinging to the log, and many of their friends, family, and even health professionals become frustrated with their “resistance” to letting go. They assume the tenacity with which they cling to their disordered eating is a personality flaw, rather than a sign from within that more preparation is needed.
Recovery from disordered eating requires honoring rather than condemning the resistance encountered. It insists upon a recognition that any behavior that slows, stalls, or creates obstacles in the path toward recovery has meaning and a purpose that can be valuable, even essential.
A woman who seeks recovery needs to understand clearly the ways in which her disordered eating has served her so that she can stop viewing it as simply an impediment to her happiness. Only then can she know precisely which skills she needs to develop in order to live a life free from bingeing, dieting, and food obsessions.
One woman may discover that her fat has helped her avoid unwanted sexual advances from men. This tells her that assertiveness is a skill she needs to develop before she can let go of her weight “problem”. Another woman may discover that she has binged and purged to eliminate inner tension she experiences when faced with conflict. This means that in order to resolve her bulimia, she needs to learn some conflict-resolution skills. Yet another woman may recognize that her obsession with dieting helped her cope with an intrusive, alcoholic mother, and for her, recovery entails learning how to set boundaries in relationships.
To recover from disordered eating requires the development of whatever skills are necessary to replace the function of the log. Once a woman develops these skills she will discover that they are much more effective and efficient than the disordered eating behavior, and will tend to choose to use them to help her cope with whatever stressors life throws her way. She can then let go of the log, relying on her newfound skills to keep her afloat and to give her the strength she needs to make it to shore.
And so, very slowly and carefully, you let go of the log and practice floating. When you start to sink, you grab back on. Then you let go of the log and practice treading water, and when you get tired, hold on once again. After awhile, you practice swimming around the log once, twice, ten times, twenty times, a hundred times, until you gain the strength and confidence you need to swim to shore. Only then do you completely let go of the log.
Recovery from disordered eating begins with the understanding that the disordered eating behavior served you when your goal was survival. This understanding is then followed by the development of new skills that will enable you not to simply survive, but to get what you want out of life, to thrive. Survival is no longer the only goal. The goal becomes one that includes a life that is rich and fulfilling.
It is a gradual, step-by-step process that calls for letting go of judgment (“there is something wrong with me”), the development of some important life skills, and learning to trust that inner voice that will tell you when you are ready.
For a chance to win a signed copy of Eating in the Light of the Moon, just post a comment below. How were you able to “let go of the log” in your life?