At a talk I gave last fall, one audience member, a psychiatrist, asked me what I thought helps people recover from an eating disorder. My answer, in a word, is self-expression. Among the nearly four dozen women I had interviewed for Lying in Weight those who had reached bottom and then somehow found their way back had all embraced some kind of creative endeavor.
These women wrote, painted, danced, advocated, designed, blogged, and social networked (in a good way) their path to wholeness. And as they journeyed forward, unpeeling layer after layer of calcified hurt and pain, their projects expressed their odysseys.
Sometimes, the project fostered the growth. Others, the healing inspired the project. Healing and creative endeavor are chicken and egg. And so to promote healing, as much as we work the program, be it cognitive behavioral therapy, interpersonal psychotherapy or other, we must allow ourselves the opportunities for self-expression, in whatever form feels right.
A recent example of such an opportunity comes from Monica Ibarra-Robbins. She friended my on Facebook with a note saying that she, too, had suffered from an eating disorder. To try to break free, Monica had created a "visual diary."
"Unable to express my emotional turmoil," she writes, "I searched for a way to expose the monstrous 'being' that fully dominated my thoughts and feelings."
A friend gave her a sketchbook, “to doodle.” Monica used it to purge her feelings onto a black canvas. The result is a gallery of growth, filled with setbacks and hurt as well as breakthrough and liberation. In short, Monica has created a graphic trajectory of recovery, how it really happens, which is not a straight line from sickness to health, getting better every day. In truth, recovery is messy, circular and sometimes very lonely.
Reaching out in any form can help.
For therapists, a patient embracing a creative project can be an outward sign of internal progress. Eating disorders tend to be very egocentric, and they tend to force preoccupation with pain and the body in pain. A patient can lose sight of his or her creative potential. But it is there. It just needs to be tapped.
“In fact, an eating disorder, at its core, is a creative act,” says Joanna Poppink an eating disorders therapist in Los Angeles, also active on Facebook and the Internet.
Remember, if you are suffering, you probably hatched an eating disorder as a means to survive extraordinary psychological pain. Why not try something else, equally creative? By virtue of your eating disorder, you already know you can.