Untangling the Eating Disorder Web

I reflect back to when I was younger and I remember talking with my friends, laughing over music, movies, actors we had crushes on and I remember how much of my childhood was organic innocent and fun. I now think about times today and it baffles me how much the focus and conversations of todays youth has changed. Young girls and boys have become increasingly more aware and fixated over not only body image but overall appearance and image of self. The focus has become so heigntened and it only continues to grow. With today’s  celebrities, media fixations etc  the younger generation is being fed false images and personas that are impossible and dangerous to want to obtain. I do not blame any specific avenue for the increase in our younger generations precoccupation with self and image but I think there are many contributing components for what leads children at a younger age to develop a complex with their body, themselves and their self esteem.

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I like to compare an eating disorder to a spider spinning its web. It starts small but slowly and over time can continue to be spun and develop and grow bigger and bigger. As it develops it has unmeasurable strength and has developed into the foundation of what the spider lives on. Eating disorders are like the web. It is my mission to help clients untangle that web and remove the tangles that bind them. What makes an eating disorder one of the hardest things to overcome is, like the spider in its web, it becomes the source of survival and a sense of comfort and a home. Understanding this concept alone as a therapist has helped me to help those who are struggling. To understand and be able to empathize with the fact that for someone who has a an eating disorder it is serving a purpose in their lives, it is tangled within them, it is not who they are or a life they are choosing to live but it is what they are are tangled in. Understanding the many layers of their eating disorder web will help the therapist bring to light new revelations but most importantly empower a client to untangle themselves from the web and break free.

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I attended a very interesting talk from a wonderful woman in the eating disorder field, Anita Johnson and she imparted so much wisdom into me and how I will further expand on the way I treat eating disorders. One thing she spoke about really stuck out to me and it was her saying to look past the eating disorder behaviors. As a clinician in private practice or working in treatment centers one thing I have noticed clients say is not everything is related to their eating disorder. If a client is sad, resistant, angry, frustrated I have noticed the clinician will automatically assume it is caused by their eating disorder. This is where the danger lies because we are reducing their whole being to being fixated on the fact that they have an eating disorder. The message is being sent that ” you of course are only upset because you are suffering from your eating disorder, your eating disorder thoughts are causing your emotions for the day” My questions is can someone who has an eating disorder not be upset about anything else? As clinicians we have to be careful and examine all the layers that make up our clients, not ourselves be fixated on their behaviors and relating everything to it

Anita opened my eyes to this powerful revelation. The eating disorder behavior is a symptom of the pattern someone has within other aspects of their life. A powerful question to ask someone who is battling an eating disorder is to see in what other areas of their life are they restricting, binge purging, binging etc. You may be asking how does someone binge purge anything else but food, well here are some examples.

Restricting: Restricting relationships, restricting emotions, restricting pleasure, restricting work and jobs etc

Binge/Purge: Taking on too much and feeling overwhelmed and then needing to get rid of things. Taking on too many jobs, relationships, commitments etc

Binge: Never getting enough of or feeling fulfilled by: love, sex, work, school, friendships etc

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To look at how certain behaviors are translated into other areas of someones life can be rather freeing, to say look you are not just defined by your eating disorder, everything you do is not because you have an eating disorder it is your pattern in many other things. This pattern is serving a purpose in your life! As clinicians we need to help our clients discover their web and all its components and free themselves from it. We cannot continue to fixate on one part of the web and think it will be untangled we must be the facilitators to untangle the many dimension of an eating disorder and the many dimensions of our clients.  We must become the facilitators of change! 

To see more from Priscilla Jadallah watch her online series with Bryan Bixler titled 

Behind The Mask: Eating Disorders Unveiled

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It’s not about the FOOD

Having worked with eating disorders for over five years I have had many conversations with many different clients. Each story is unique, the way their eating disorder started, the triggers they feel, how they used their eating disorder to cope, the reasons are all very different. One main point I always try to educate people about is no person who suffers or who has suffered from an eating disorder is the same. The behaviors, patterns may be similar but the underlying issues, reasons etc are all very different. One other point I try to educate people on and bring awareness to is that EATING DISORDERS ARE NOT ABOUT THE FOOD!  One common thing clients have come to me and said was, they were triggered or angered by a family member or friend telling them ” To just eat a burger” “Why can’t you just eat ” These types of  question comes from no fault of the person asking it but it does stem from a lack of understanding and education about the depths of an eating disorder. This is why my mission has always been to increase awareness and education because the more people can understand the many layers to the emotional aspects and causes of an eating disorder the better the support system of those who have an eating disorder can understand and cope themselves. My main message to people is that an eating disorder or any addiction for that matter does not discriminate, it does not care about your race, age, financial situation or gender. It can affect anyone anywhere the more we as a nation can understand eating disorders the more we can help those who are fighting them.

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The common assumption is that eating disorders are about an obsession or fear of food. That the main focus for someone with an eating disorder is a fear of getting fat and body image. While these are slightly true and what seems to be the most focused on, the reality is that an eating disorder like any other addiction or drug of choice is another avenue of emotional coping. It is another way to numb out, to feel a sense or release and to escape or avoid unwanted emotions. Anorexia, Bulimia & Binge Eating are also like a drug they give a person a sense of a high or release. The truth is that an eating disorder is often the cause of some sort of trauma, emotional event, life situation, or a number of many other factors.

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I also like to educate people to not blame the parents or family environment. Like anything else a child may have had very loving healthy parents but an outside source could have caused some emotional damage. A person with low self-worth or without a strong sense of identity may be more vulnerable. . This a why eating disorders  can occur at younger ages because at a younger age the identity is just forming and often times the opinion of peers is so important that it can shape how a young adult or child views themselves. I also often hear that people assume eating disorders are a way for someone to gain attention or  “attention seeking”. This infuriates me and further motivates me on my mission to educate. Someone does not choose to develop an eating disorder it is an all consuming disorder that if someone had a choice to just stop they would. It is like any addiction or disease once it reaches a certain point interventions must done to recover. This is why understanding the emotional background of the eating disorder is crucial to developing an appropriate response and treatment approach. Education at an early age is important. Bullying and the medias portrayal of beauty as well as our nations preoccupation with dieting etc are all contributing factors. 

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My message to everyone is do not judge anyone and assume their road is easy. Do not diminish the struggles and challenges someone may be facing. Instead be curious ask questions, educate yourselves there are too many stereotypes about eating disorders that we must break, we must make people aware of the reality. That there is much more to someone who is suffering from an eating disorder than a fear of getting fat and a fear of food. Look beyond what you see.