HUNGRY Exploring causes of eating disorders
Special to the Sun
Anorexia and bulimia are formidable and vicious predators, addictions that primarily affect women and girls, but boys and men are affected in increasing numbers.
The modern psychological theories around causes range from family dynamics, such as overly controlling or rigid parents, sexual abuse, depression, impossible standards of thinness cranked out in women’s magazines, the fashion industry and movies and television, but I would like to explore other possibilities.
The symtpoms include overwhelming fear of food and weight gain, an angry, anxious attachment to food and an unloving and disconnected relationship with one’s body. Relentless and powerful, the disease lurks in the shadows even when we find peace enough to risk feeding ourselves in healing ways.
The desire to become smaller or to disappear completely seems to have no endpoint. For those who suffer from addiction to over-eating, the layers of insulation make it easier to disappear in a different way by slow withdrawal into loneliness and isolation.
As a depth psychologist, and having boxed a few rounds with anorexia, I explore the broader picture around causes for psychological suffering and how we humans reflect the culture around us. As members of nature’s family, we perceive with our senses and act out what we experience in the theatre of our bodies.
I was haunted by messages from my mother and mean boyfriends. I now realize I was also expressing profound psychic wounding through the vessel of my body, in addition to carrying and reflecting the symptoms of the culture. I felt brutalized by my environment’s harshness, crushed by my life experiences and overwhelmed by the competition and pressure to attain the standard of independence so worshipped in America.
Being small, fragile and invisible reflected how I felt. Starving seemed appropriate for expressing that feeling.
The in-your-face valorization of thinness, particularly among women in Western culture, is as pervasive as the idolization of food, particularly junk food, which is inexpensive and manufactured to appeal to taste buds rather than offer nutritional value. We are besieged with messages that “Super Sizing” is better, yet thinness is our culture’s Holy Grail. These insanely mixed messages are cause of despair and confusion around food and our bodies.
Cheap, unhealthy food is available everywhere. We are not taught to think of food as medicine or fuel. We no longer expend energy to obtain food, and we eat for reasons other than hunger.
As a collective, we are gripped by the “never enough” disease; a belief that bigger, more and better is what we need to strive for.
The reaction of the psyche may manifest in becoming smaller, invisible or extremes of asceticism. The opposite reaction is over-consumption in every form.
too much, never enough
Bulimia behaves like an angry, abusive attacker, yanking its victims between blind furies of eating and purging, despair — a desire to be empty. Anorexia makes it impossible to reach a final destination of “thinness,” tricking its victims into seeing distorted reflections in the mirror. The never-enoughness of anorexia and other eating disorders are similar to alcoholism or addictions to behaviors such as gambling, shopping and sex, but anorexia compels its victims to consume less and less — there can never be enough starvation.
Psychologically, we are starving for something, to hurried to be still and tap in to the real source of our starvation.I observe a starvation of our innate need to be sensual, to soften and live according to our senses and intuitions, to slow down and turn down the volume on the noise of our competitive culture. Anorexia may be a reflection of our psychological and spiritual starvation, a physical symbol of the bony, sharpness of life in a culture driven by competition. I also wonder if it is an expression of a primal memory of what it was like to feel hunger and emptiness, to be animal-like in our way of feeding ourselves, lean, hungry and able to run.
STARVING TO INVISIBLE
Marion Woodman, a Jungian analyst, suggests both are ways of dissociating from the feminine body. For women who have experienced sexual abuse or trauma, becoming invisible by starving or by eating until well insulated from predators may be a tendril of eating disorders’ complex roots, and the rejection of the body. Women who suffer from body-hating are finding yoga and meditation brings them back into their bodies in a compassionate way, which also helps heals the psychic trauma of dissociating and rejecting themselves.
Another welcome path of healing is identifying the voice of an eating disorder as a separate being, like an abusive partner and to develop an irreverent relationship with this narcissistic sociopathic that occupies the mind.
In her book, “Life Without Ed,” Jenni Schaefer writes honestly and with an irreverent sense of humor about her “divorce from Ed,” the name Ed derived from the abbreviation of Eating Disorder. The relentless internal voice that drove her eating disorder was a male voice — as it is for most women.
If your voice is female as mine was (and still is sometimes), consider naming it EDith or Edwina.
I am drawn to the idea the medicine for us is in slowing down, finding the rhythm and lullaby of the breath as we sway and bend with life. Tthe way of balance and peace is in taking the tiny bites along the path and being present with each one, and recognizing and reconnecting with nature as a source of love.
Kimball Pier is a practicing therapist and substance abuse counselor. She has an M.S. in marriage and family therapy and advanced divorce mediation certification. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.