The other day I took a walk around my picturesque village. I was thinking about it being Eating Disorder Awareness Week and wondering what I would write about. I knew I wished to offer something for this annual recognition week that starts in the last week of February–but I wasn’t sure what. Passing the old Victorian houses that line the narrow lanes of this old place, I was feeling perhaps more like a gothic romantic than a modern nutritionist.
This year, the theme that informs the week is “Everybody Knows Somebody”. This speaks to the fact that given the high prevalence of eating disorders in our society, chances are everybody most likely does know someone–whether they realize it or not. Eating disorders are intangible in their essence. They share many elements of an old gothic novel–a vampire story perhaps.
When eating disorders tighten their grip on an individual–as undernourishment and starvation deepen–they can figuratively and literally suck out the lifeblood. But, outward appearances usually do not identify those with any of the different complex types of eating disorders which we simplistically categorize as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating. Related and variant disorders exist as well. And unfortunately, just as with vampires, we may not realize until it is too late, that we actually know someone who is affected. Recognition of these conditions and resources dedicated to their treatment are abysmally low and this is why Eating Disorder Awareness Week is extremely important.
Though my job is to help people re-nourish, balance intake and make peace with food and eating, I recognize that sustenance needs to occur on many levels. Working with those who suffer, I get to be privy to the underside of these debilitating conditions. When I am up close and personal with my clients, I more easily see that they are not fully embodied, as their illness has detached them from their physical form. It is subtle of course, but they have a fragile, ethereal quality. This does not dismiss the fact that people with eating disorders tend to be extremely intelligent, highly productive, deeply empathic and exceedingly capable.
What is most painful for me to witness is the profound isolation, loneliness, and secrecy that these disorders engender. This cruel disease finds its oft very lovely victims scrounging for food at markets alone late at night; avoiding the pleasure of sharing satisfying meals with friends; preparing meals for their children yet not partaking themselves; and, loathing self so profoundly that they apologize for the space they inhabit. The survival of these disorders depends ferociously on the preservation of deep and dark secrets.
Frustrated by my knowing that there are many right in my little community who suffer alone and invisibly and that there is a serious dearth in services–even more so since New York State cut funding to eating disorder programming a few years ago–I recently formed a small program in conjunction with a local holistic health center. I forced myself through my own usual hesitation and trepidation led by one strong intention–to see if I could create a space where people could find a place for a moment of peace, where they could allow themselves to be safely seen–and to share in a cup of tea. The first session was attended by seven courageous people who came out of the woodwork where they usually hide.
The work of two women inspired me to even consider this. One is Shannon Cutts, a survivor of her own 15 year-long battle with anorexia and bulimia, who wrote the book Beating Ana and started the program MentorConnect. She brought to the table the healing component that emphasizes the importance of social relationships as an antidote to the pervasiveness of these illnesses. I recommend her work highly as a complement to other care.
The other is Mary Ellen Clausen (and her husband Dan) whose own lives were touched by their daughters’ eating disorders. On a wing and a prayer, they created a welcoming space called Ophelia’s Place, where people can just come for some coffee, chocolate, comfort, and care. From the ‘Our Journey’ page on their website, “We are learning to listen harder, “fixing” less, and believing that the struggle is where the healing begins. We are learning to “model” healthy behaviors and challenge the “norm”. We are learning to replace blame and judgment with love and unconditional support. We are learning forgiveness. We are learning that recovery is a process and part of that process is an understanding that living life can and must co-exist through the eating disorder.”
This message is important for me to touch base with as I continually try to anchor my own work in this area. Today, with a client of mine I tried to fix too much. This is a frequent challenge for me–meeting the mandate of reaching for adequate nourishment with some sense of urgency and being prescriptive–while also trying to provide that crucial piece of support and mirroring forgiveness. I find this work very humbling and it demands leaps of faith for all involved.
When I returned home from my walk, I happened to check my little Facebook page. Someone I know had posted a link to the website of my old friend, Sandra Mudge. who I had not been in touch with for many years. One click led me to her fantastic, whimsical, provocative and sacred artistic creations.
With a portfolio of paintings, collages and photographs–and some other media–Sandra’s heavenly work seems to captures the delicate and ethereal essence of eating disorders–exactly that which I was trying to express–something more representational than descriptive. In her fine art section are a series of pieces of beautiful dresses–doll clothes of taffeta, silk, and lace adorned with fragile firefly and butterfly wings–but they are empty of the little girls who should be wearing them –who should be fleshing them out with life, vitality and childhood innocence.
As Sandra, Mary Ellen, Shannon, and many others continue with their powerful talents to ‘transform helplessness to hopefulness’; and, when faith is summoned, and stories of recovery are shared, more ‘dolls’ can be restored to their full life potential–and they can then take flight.
So this week, stop for a moment to think about the somebody who you may know. If this is you, please seek help, have faith and never give up hope.
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In health, Elyn
My Plate Haiku
In the dark places
I ask courage to believe
I am beautiful.