Eating disorders are about more than just weight. They’re about control, perfectionism, boundaries, families and emotions. They represent a way of thinking and relating, both to yourself and to others. Recovery therefore, isn’t just a matter of BMI. It means challenging long-held beliefs – e.g; that life can be seen in terms of black and white. That emotions are bad and sharing them makes you a ‘burden’. That control means safety.
Anorexics for example, are often far more focused on making plans, getting things right and getting things perfect, than other people. They find it difficult to live in the moment or let go of mistakes. They can quickly become obsessive and value routine and familiarity. They often have very little sense of self and look to others for affirmation and identity. In some cases their eating disorder is what gives them identity – they want to be free of it, but are terrified of or unable to imagine who they are without it.
I was first diagnosed with anorexia when I was about 13 and struggled with it for the next four or five years. Although by 18 I’d recovered physically, I found that psychologically I was at the same stage as I’d been when the disorder began. My emotional development had been frozen.
For me, anorexia worked by sublimating other fears into the desire to be thin. But instead of dealing with those fears, it just smothered them temporarily. As my eating habits normalised, they resurfaced. Getting better meant facing them and covering the emotional ground I’d lost. That was just as scary as gaining weight – but much more difficult to explain. I looked better – and older – on the outside. But internally, the emotional battle was just beginning.
From the outside, though, what was everyone thinking? Phew! I’m so glad all those difficult struggles are over. The scales are right, everything’s fixed.
Can you see a problem here?
Emma Scrivener was born in Belfast, but now lives with her husband and daughter in the south east of England. She suffered from life-threatening anorexia, both as a child and as an adult. She now writes and speaks about her experiences and how the grace of Christ speaks in the darkest places. Emma blogs at emmascrivener.net and her book, ‘A New Name’ is published by IVP.