Read about how she transformed from Daily Binging and Purging to Peace and Freedom in 6 Months
Six months ago Maryanne called me, feeling totally down and stuck. A 30 year old, divorced mother of 2 children (10 and 12), she said, through tears, that I was her last resort. I’ve been at this work long enough, and have my own eating disorder history and longstanding recovery so I understood what that statement meant. It meant she was desperate. She’d tried every diet out there and maybe even some sort of residential treatment or ‘weight loss retreat.’
She’d tried different kinds of medical intervention including anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication, maybe even contemplated or taken part in a lap-band surgery or some such process, but they all had far more negative side-effects than any benefits and so she’d quit them (In the case of those who go for the surgical fix, bulimia is a common outcome if they haven’t fully healed the underlying thought processes and stressors that lead them to overeat in the first place. This is because if they had healed their relationship with food it is highly unlikely they’d choose to have surgery). So ‘last resort’ means, ‘I feel like I’ve tried everything, I’m depressed, I’m hopeless, and if something doesn’t change I’m doomed.’
Doubt is Healthy
When Maryanne called me that day and shared a bit about what was troubling her at this time, I was able to say with confidence, ‘I’m going to help you to understand why you do what you do and why you’ve felt so stuck in being successful with the things you’ve tried so far. Then we’re going to work together to make sure you’ve got some simple tools you can use whenever you start to feel stressed, depressed, overwhelmed or think about binging, that will help you to understand what’s really going on in that moment and to be able to freely choose a solution that is going to solve that problem and make it so you never feel the need to lean on binging to cope with life again.’
As I said this with conviction and Maryanne enthusiastically agreed to give it a go I could tell that she was both hopeful that I might just be able to deliver, while at the same time doubtful that this was going to be any different from anything else she had tried before. I told her that it really is a healthy thing to have doubt about something that is new and untried. What is important is that we don’t let our doubt about something prevent us from giving it a try (that is assuming we have good reason to assume it is healthy and helpful).
I also told her that I wanted her, needed her, to be skeptical of this process. I wanted her to challenge things is said and suggested. I wanted her to argue when things didn’t feel right. And I told her I wanted to do that because that way she could see that this process makes sense and that there is a simple, easy answer for the resolution of almost everything that we experience in life. Also, asking questions helps us to see where our thinking may be confused and where it is accurate and it helps expedite the process of learning to think rationally and feel confident in our perception of ourselves and our world.
Lastly, I told her that I had absolutely no doubt that she would be successful in changing her relationship with food and how she felt about herself and her body, not because I knew Maryanne well enough to know anything about her abilities but because I know this method well enough to know that if a person has support to just add one step to the next the only thing that can happen is that the way they think and see the world changes, their self-esteem increases and their need for harmful coping strategies of any kind evaporates.
Maryanne and I set a time for our first Skype session, which we began, at my prompting, with Maryanne sharing a bit more of her life history.
The First Session
She’d been going round and round the diet-binge-guilt cycle intensely for 16 years. She last remembers having had a ‘normal relationship’ with food when she was about 13 after which time it had been increasingly out of control. She recalls that prior to 13 she ate a lot, so much so that people would frequently comment on the size of her meals and snacks, but she was very physically active and identifies herself as something of a tomboy at that time. Upon reflection she sees that while she always believed her eating disorder started later in life, she had actually been using food to cope since her very early years. Her activity level just made it less of an issue from a weight perspective and so it didn’t really start to become conscious until years later.
Maryanne married young at 17, partly to get out of the house and partly because Luke, her boyfriend since the age of 15, threatened to leave her if she didn’t. Maryanne was desperate to keep this partner because she truly believed no one else would want to be with her. She had been ignored and neglected by her parents who were emotionally withdrawn and both of whom used alcohol to blot out their day and the pain of their respective childhoods. While they were not ever aggressive towards her they simply just weren’t there.
Maryanne grew up internalizing that experience to mean that she just wasn’t important enough; she wasn’t lovable; there was something just not good enough about her. So when Luke demanded that she marry him ‘or else’ she felt panicked and traumatized at the thought of the loss of the one person whom had ever spent any time with her and made her feel special. He was significantly older (almost 30 to her 17) and incredibly insecure but Maryanne didn’t see that, she just saw that someone wanted her.
Maryanne and Luke had 2 children fairly early in their marriage. She quickly became desperately anxious and unhappy in her relationship as Luke’s daily verbal assaults, moodiness and emotional blackmail (threats to leave, silent treatment etc.) wore her down. She increasingly took her stress out on her body: Binging while Luke was out of the house or, when she could do so without him knowing, speeding to a local drive thru and loading up on carbohydrates and sugar. He began to shame and humiliate her in private and in public for having extra weight on her body and in response she began to experiment with laxatives and forced vomiting. She became not just an overeater but a bulimic. She was ashamed. She reports that the only time she didn’t purge or eat tonnes of crap was when she was pregnant. She acknowledged that it seemed strange that she could take care of her body for her children but not for herself. However, she had been unable to find the key to the meaning of that gesture and apply it to her own body the rest of the time.
Maryanne’s husband became increasingly jealous and, while he’d always been a drinker, he began to lean on alcohol daily and became quite aggressive when he drank. She didn’t know how to speak up for herself and didn’t feel confident enough in herself and in her sense of what is right and fair and reasonable and so she didn’t challenge his behaviour she just tried to find a way to be okay with it; An impossible assignment for any human being.
She began to fear for her safety and that of her children but struggled with the messages she had been hearing from this man, now for a decade, that she was stupid and ugly and quite incapable of taking care of herself if he wasn’t there to keep her afloat. The truth, if she could just allow herself to see it, was quite the opposite. She was raising her children well. She was working full time. She was providing the lion’s share of the money in the home and doing the bulk of the parenting and household chores. In the opinion of all but her husband she was an incredibly capable, strong, amazing woman.
When their marriage finally ended Maryanne immediately found a replacement stressor/obsession/body and weight focused unsustainable goal: Body Building Competitions.
For Maryanne, this pursuit gave her exactly what she thought she needed at the time, something to obsess over, something to distract her and a socially sanctioned way of obsessing about her body and restricting her food intake. This pursuit also met her needs for validation and approval because of all the accolades she received when she was in show form. The positive feedback, (‘you look amazing,’ ‘wow, I wish I looked like you,’) fed her insecurities, leaving her increasingly needy of external validation and never coming close to satisfying.
She noticed that people never said a word about her body when she gained some weight after shows. Nor did anyone take the time to find out how it was that she was achieving that weight and low body fat – she would never have told them about her binging and purging and extreme restriction anyway but the fact that no one thought to ask made her feel sad and believe even more strongly that people really only cared about how she looked. At that time in her life, and, by her own admission, for many years prior, all Maryanne cared about was getting approval from other people at any cost. Given her perception of what made her valuable to others (her body, her sexuality), it was imperative that she continue to restrict in public, and secretly binge and purge to ensure she got the approval she so desperately needed.
Of course, it’s not just the field of body building that supports our dysfunction around food. Clients who are in the worlds of acting, dancing, yoga, professional athletics, nutrition (dieticians, holistic nutritionists) and health care (nursing, and ironically, often counselling), to name just a few, also find that their career / hobby seems to add pressure and expectations for them to look or behave a certain way in relation to food and body/weight. This external expectation (real or imagined) can make it very difficult for one with any insecurities to admit they have a problem and to seek help. So they go on, just like Maryanne, for years, feeling increasingly phony and fraudulent and showing one face (or body) to the world, seeming to have a decent diet and ‘great willpower,’ while binging behind closed doors.
She began to engage in drinking and some hard core drug use to try and manage her hunger symptoms and her social anxiety which only led her into a deeper and deeper sense of frustration, fraudulence and despair.
Her patterns in relationship had turned largely into one night stands where, whether she really wanted to or not, she found herself engaging in sexual encounters with whomever seemed to want her in the wee hours of the morning. She would awaken feeling ashamed and anxious and vowing never to do that again only to find herself in the same situation that very evening or the next weekend.
It is from this place of shame and frustration, restricting, binging, purging, drinking, drugging, and just plain stuckness, that Maryanne was calling when she first reached out to me.
At the end of our first session I gave Maryanne a homework assignment (I’ve added it below for you to explore). Each session thereafter we simply added one more piece of the puzzle, connected a few more dots. Each session Maryanne could see the progress she was making, get some redirection and clarification of old patterns and was provided with a simple, clear, homework assignment to support her in the next step, and the next, and the next. Soon she was off and running, and within 5 months she had completely ceased binging and purging all together.
Then Vs. Now
When Maryanne first called me, by her own admission, she didn’t really imagine that she could ever get to a place of not binging and purging every day and not obsessing about her weight. She never ever imagined that she’d be able to feel confident in her body or in asking for what she needed from others and holding them accountable to their commitments. In her mind, she expected that the best we’d be able to achieve was a place where she was somehow able to maintain a white knuckle grip it to through each day. In her words “I really thought that that was the best I could hope for.”
Now, 6 months later she says: “I see things totally different. I haven’t binged and purged for a month! I never ever thought that was possible. But the most amazing thing is that I don’t feel any desire to do so. It isn’t a battle; it’s just not an issue. I just freely eat whatever I want when I am hungry and just don’t even think about it when I’m not. Now I can get on with living! And it feels great!”
Hearing this brought tears to my eyes. It wasn’t a surprise. I knew she would achieve this! I knew it was possible from the moment we first spoke. It’s just that, in that moment of hearing her share and knowing that she’s now feeling the same sense of trust and peace and ease around food that I’ve enjoyed for decades made me want to wrap her in my arms, pop the cork on the champagne bottle and make sure that Maryanne knew how incredibly momentous this achievement was.
You see the only way Maryanne could be experiencing this kind of peace and confidence around food is if she really ‘got’ it. She must have truly changed the way she thinks about every aspect of her life. She learned a brand new way of approaching her thoughts and her feelings and her problems that created, in a very short time, a sense of true confidence and trust in herself to handle anything that came her way with dignity and respect for herself. She never once spoke up for herself before and now she does it with ease and regularity, and contrary to what she had been told by dear Luke, she is more highly respected and her relationships are healthier and more enjoyable than they’ve ever been.
So both she and I can trust that even when the crap hits the fan from time to time in life, which it will, despite our best intentions (simply because while we can control our own thoughts and behaviours we certainly can’t control others) Maryanne’s first response will not be to duck and cover with depression, food and bad body thoughts. She’ll notice how she’s feeling, figure out what’s triggering that sensation and take action to resolve it. She’ll have confidence in herself, not because she believes she’s perfect or always right but because she’s listening to herself and because she knows she can trust herself not to agree to anything that doesn’t feel right and reasonable to her. That’s true confidence. And when we have that, we don’t need food.
If Maryanne’s story hits home and you’d like to experience that same sense of peace that she is now there are 2 things I recommend you do today.
- #1 – Ask yourself, just for today, to notice when you’re feeling unsettled or when you’re either restricting, binging, or purging and when you notice those feelings or actions, ask yourself: ‘Separate from food and body image, just before I felt that way or started thinking about using food to cope, what was I thinking or what just happened?’
You’ll start to notice the things that are really triggering you. And if you check in as I’ve suggested and you really believe that it’s about the food, all that means is that you need a little support to dig just a little deeper. This typically takes about 5 minutes, not an arduous process for either you or me. Which leads me to recommendation #2.
- #2 – Call me! Or email, whatever feels best. Either way, let yourself receive some support and guidance to take the steps to full recovery and lasting change. Give yourself every chance to be done with this once and for all. Don’t believe the well-intended but terribly misinformed silly doctors and psychiatrists and 12 step programs that will tell you this is a disease that once you’ve got it you’ve got it for life. That’s a total pile of crap. They didn’t know how to help you that doesn’t mean you can’t be helped! Maryanne, is not unique, neither am I. We are just normal folk who were confused and now we’re thinking clearly.
I’ve never yet met someone who was able to completely overcome disordered eating without consistent support in the right places. There are many folks I meet who think they’re better because they don’t purge anymore but they are still anxious, insecure, doubtful and mistrustful around food, they still restrict and feel uncomfortable in their own skin and struggle with asking for what they need in relationships. In my books that’s still hell. That’s not living at all. That’s not recovery at all and it isn’t the best you can hope for.
All together Maryanne had 15 counselling sessions with me and attended 2 workshops over 5 months. She’ll likely have a few more sessions over the next while just to touch base and tweak things as they arise in the other areas of her life. She also is a member of our one line program and pops on every now and then to ask questions and share what’s going on. She’ll call in to our teleclasses too from time to time as she feels she’d like to connect.
So, the truth is, complete recovery is possible. And it doesn’t have to be hard or take a long time when you have the right support. Enjoy your homework!
*A side note: With the exception of her attendance at 2 3-day workshops during that 6 month period, every single session we had was either over the phone or via Skype. The notion that ‘face to face’ support is necessary for significant and rapid change is just untrue and can prevent many men and women who could benefit from support, from reaching out and finding themselves, a short while later, experiencing Maryanne’s state of peace, self-confidence and joy.