Though we all have unique human experiences, with emotional challenges that are manifested through a variety of conditions and circumstances, what we all share is a fundamental emotional truth that lies at the very heart of PBS’ This Emotional Life series.
As stated by host and social scientist Dr. Daniel Gilbert early on in the first episode:
“Scientists now know successful relationships, more than any other factor, are the key to human happiness.”
At The Center for Counseling and Health Resources in Seattle, Washington, my team and I have been helping men, women and adolescents with eating disorders for 25 years. I have studied, written and spoken extensively on the subjects of anorexia, bulimia, binge eating and compulsive overeating. I am also a certified eating disorder specialist and member of the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals (IAEDP).
It is from this experience with eating disorders – as well as other issues ranging from depression to addiction – that my fellow colleagues and I have witnessed firsthand the undeniable connection between happiness and the success of our social relationships.
In fact, the key to an eating disorder lies in relationships, usually the closest of them all – relationships within the family. As noted in my book Hope, Help & Healing for Eating Disorders: A new approach to treating anorexia, bulimia and overeating:
“The behaviors surrounding an eating disorder are the result of a relationship – perhaps several relationships – tilting off the mark. You may be able to pinpoint immediately where and when your life diverged from what you wanted it to be. Or maybe you can trace a slow slide from the ideal to the real.”
It is my intention with this blog to share facts, insights, true stories and affirming actions you can to take to help yourself or someone you love heal from anorexia, bulimia, binge eating or compulsive overeating.
Specifically, in this blog I will address the connections between eating disorders and:
- Family patterns
- Asperger syndrome
- Physical health
- And more
The Cycle of Eating Disorders: “Controlling” the Pain
It had been with her all day long. A nagging, pressing dread clouding up a beautiful spring afternoon. Emily had hidden her anxiety throughout the day, engulfing herself in work to keep it at bay. Now she was headed home, five-thirty in the evening, and alone in her car. No one else was around to promote deliberate cheerfulness. Restlessly she switched from radio station to radio station, never staying on one for more than a minute or two. Nothing satisfied.
I hate my life.
Startled by the suddenness of the thought, Emily’s stomach balled up in a knot. Desperately she tried to push it back down. Not now, she said to herself. She was stressed, she was tired, and she definitely did not want to deal with it.
Well, if she had to go home to an empty apartment, she might as well bring something along to cheer herself up.
Her apartment might be empty, but her stomach didn’t have to be.
Turning the corner, Emily started down the main frontage road alongside the interstate, brightly lit in the dusk with familiar fast-food signs. As long as she stayed in her car, she could remain anonymous. She could almost taste how good it was going to feel to sit in her apartment alone and really, truly, relax and forget for a while.
The anxiety Emily experiences is a common feeling associated with eating disorders. Sometimes the source of this uneasiness is hard to pinpoint, buried somewhere in a lifetime spent denying one painful experience after another. Other times the source of unease is more apparent, connected to a specific circumstance or event. As made clear in PBS’ This Emotional Life series, our social relationships dramatically impact our happiness. And at the core of every eating disorder lies some sort of conflict in one or more past or present relationships.
Emily regretted not finishing school. She was disappointed in her failed marriage. She hated her job. She felt neglected by the few people who she called friends. Bottom line, she was lonely and she felt left behind.
Overwhelmed with these painful thoughts and feelings, Emily was desperate to control them. While some turn to alcohol, drugs, sex or even gambling for suppression of pain, Emily’s addiction of choice is food, as it is for approximately 10 million people in the U.S. alone.
Unfortunately, using the consumption of food to stuff down feelings never lasts long. For binge eaters, compulsive eaters and bulimics, the guilt and shame after eating is too much too bear. On the other hand, anorexics carry around a constant feeling of self-loathing for their self-imposed starvation.
For Emily and everyone else living with eating disorders, the cycle is the same:
- Feelings of unease and dissatisfaction
- Desire to cover over those feelings
- Use of food (abstention or consumption) as chosen method
- Feelings of guilt, shame, self-hate, and hopelessness after disorder behavior
- Renewed self-hatred over weakness
- Emotionally predisposed to repeat the behavior
As though their past problems with relationships aren’t challenging enough, those living with eating disorders alienate themselves even further trying to hide their feelings, behaviors and consequences from those closest to them.
Thankfully, my colleagues and I have witnessed transformations nothing short of remarkable for those who have tried a holistic approach to healing from eating disorders. After all, our emotional lives inevitably affect the mental, physical and spiritual too, all aspects of the “whole-person” treatment options I will outline in great detail in this blog series. I expect to draw extensively from my book, including the end-of-chapter Affirming Actions. I’d like to share one with you now, most effective when written out and displayed in a place you will see it often:
The path to healing is worth the journey. I will have no regret.