Disordered Eating and Emotions: What Recovery Really Means

Mother with her child sharing candyWhen I write articles for GoodTherapy.org, I usually write about my views on recovery from disordered eating and body image concerns, and about things I’ve learned from my professional experience. This article is different: it’s about my personal experience. This month’s article was originally due the day after Halloween.  For reasons I’ll mention shortly, I hadn’t started writing it by Halloween day. When I pondered this aloud on Halloween afternoon, my son asked what the article I had to write was about. When I told him, “disordered eating,” he said, “You have to write it about Halloween candy!”

Let me backtrack and tell you why, the afternoon before the article was due, I hadn’t started writing: two days earlier, on Friday afternoon, my home was burglarized and both my husband’s and my computers, among other things, were taken. My plan had been to get started that day. Now, not only did I not have my computer, I had to spend the afternoon trying to process what had happened: calling 911, calling back because the police hadn’t arrived after 45 minutes (I was told they were really busy and would get there eventually), and then calling again after an hour-and-a-half because I needed to leave to see a concert my son was playing in, and had to tell them not to come until later. (The second and third times I called, I got a voice mail message: “You’ve reached 911 Emergency. Do NOT hang up — your call will be answered by the next available operator.” Unnerving.)

What does any of this have to do with disordered eating? Well, plenty. Let’s start with Halloween candy. When I was a kid, I loved trick-or-treating. I loved discovering what was being handed out at each house. This was back in the day before razor blades in apples or drugs in homemade cookies, before everything had to come in individual packages, so the possibilities and combinations were endless and tantalizing.  At some point in my teens, I stopped trick-or-treating, and I started dieting. I didn’t eat Halloween candy because I was always on a diet, but if I had access to it, I would often sneak it and eat a lot of it. I had developed binge eating disorder, although there wasn’t a name for it then — I thought my problem was lack of willpower. When I found recovery from what was called “compulsive overeating,” I abstained from candy. I ate only at meals, and candy wasn’t something one ate at a meal. And candy, especially chocolate, was a “binge food,” and thus off limits.

One part of recovery from an eating disorder is changing one’s eating behaviors. Another part is learning to handle life’s difficulties without turning to eating or body-image-related behaviors in order to cope. Developing healthy emotional coping skills is part of the fundamental objective of recovery: creating a rich, healthy and meaningful life. The two parts add up to a life in which one’s relationships with food and with one’s body are relaxed, and one can take adversity and emotional turmoil in stride, with a heart open to experience life’s rewards.

I pondered my son’s words and my plight. When I had discovered that my computer was stolen, I figured I wouldn’t be able to get this article in by November 1. I couldn’t even remember what I had intended to write about. I was angry, hurt, and frightened; I felt violated by the strangers who had the nerve to come into my home and take my family’s things. I didn’t have my familiar computer with all my familiar stuff on it.

What’s germane to the subject of disordered eating is this: during that stressful time, it never occurred to me to turn to food to soothe myself. Nor did I find myself obsessing about how I needed desperately to lose weight and planning for improving my eating and exercise habits, which used to be a common response to stress. I had skills and tools and resources for managing my emotions and handling the logistics of the necessary responses to the robbery. For this, I am deeply and eternally grateful.

Between Friday afternoon, when I discovered the burglary, and Halloween night, I attended my son’s Friday night concert, met with the police, and took my son and some friends to a midnight showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I got up early the morning after the burglary to change every password I could think of because even though I’d been out very late, I couldn’t sleep for worry about sensitive material on my computer and online. I helped my son shop for the materials for a Halloween costume and did the fitting and sewing, attended a wedding and a reception, sang with my choir at two church services, and bought and installed a new deadbolt for the front door (well, we had to call our next door neighbor, a home builder, over for assistance, as my husband and I couldn’t get it to work. Part of recovery is knowing when and how to reach out to others for help!). Finally, I bought Halloween candy for the neighborhood trick-or-treaters.

The candy didn’t call to me the way it used to. Not one bit. It’s been years since I’ve considered any food to be “off-limits.” Recovering fully included getting to a point where I didn’t need to abstain from any foods or eating behaviors.  I can have all the Halloween candy I want, and on Halloween, I didn’t want any. I figured I’d get to some of the candy eventually, that at some point, I’d be interested in it. If I wanted some candy after dinner, it would be there. If I didn’t, it’ll be there the next day, or the next year. There’s no hurry. I was living in the moment and dealing with what came my way. I  felt the emotional impact of the burglary without being overwhelmed or paralyzed, without interest in abusing food but with great interest in taking good care of myself. That is what recovery is all about!

© Copyright 2010 by Deborah Klinger, MA, LMFT, CEDS, therapist in Durham, North Carolina. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Melissa

    Melissa

    November 8th, 2010 at 5:06 PM

    Sometimes making the effort to find something else to divert your attention from the trigger has worked well in the past. I do not always have success with that but it can help.

  • Cathy

    Cathy

    November 8th, 2010 at 7:26 PM

    It’s always nice when you find a way to recover in the face of adversity,isn’t it?yes,it’s not easy but then the difficulty is what makes the recovery all the more sweeter!

    And I congratulate you for having conquered over your craving for candy.I just can’t keep myself away from chocolate.

  • Steve

    Steve

    November 9th, 2010 at 5:52 AM

    Recovery means having the strength to say no even when you want something really badly. I am not sure that there is ever a day in my own life when I will not at least have a passing thought about having a drink, but then my rational side kicks in and I know that this is not the choice that I need to make today. Tomorrow I will probably go through the same thing but my own ongoing therapy and recovery allows me to see that this is not where I want to take my life again. It is too easy to spin out of control all over again with “just one drink” or maybe in your case “just one Taste” and I know that this is somewhere I am no longer willing to go. That’s what recovery is for me- being able to clearly see what I want out of life and to take the steps that need to be taken every day to get there.

  • Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    November 10th, 2010 at 6:54 AM

    Melissa, distracting one’s self from whatever is triggering an urge to abuse food can be a useful strategy, as long as it’s paired with a focus on what one really needs (emotionally/psychologically). I see urges to engage in eating-disordered behaviors as information, like a smoke alarm: there’s a fire somewhere. Eating disordered behaviors are substitutes for what one really needs,and recovery involves learning how to figure out what those things are and how to get or give them to ourselves. I truly wasn’t interested in that Halloween candy– I’ve discovered that part of being recovered is that I don’t have to resist an urge to abuse food when I’m upset, because that urge is no longer there.

    Cathy, thanks for your affirming words! I don’t believe I’ve overcome any cravings. I still love chocolate, and eat it almost daily. However, I don’t have any urges to misuse any foods, including candy and/or chocolate. I’ve learned there’s a big difference between urges to misuse or binge on sweets, and enjoy them as one of life’s appropriate pleasures.

    Steve, I believe that a major difference between recovery from an addiction to a substance like alcohol and recovery from an eating disorder is that with a substance addiction, the person has a physiological reaction to the ingestion of the substance, and must abstain from ingesting it, whereas with disordered eating, abstaining from certain types of foods feeds the disorder and must be avoided. Part of eating recovery is having no off-limits foods and creating a harmonious relationship with food and self, which is almost the inverse of recovery from alcoholism, in which the alcoholic must never take that first drink.
    There are eating recovery philosophies that align themselves with an addictions perspective, and I participated in a program that operated that way early on in my recovery, because it was the only program and approach I knew of that wasn’t a diet. But my experience over the years has taught me to see it differently.
    I love what you say about recovery: “being able to see clearly what I want out of life and to take the steps that need to be taken every day to get there.”

    -Deborah

  • Tyler Beach

    Tyler Beach

    November 11th, 2010 at 7:29 PM

    Love this Deb!

  • Toby

    Toby

    November 12th, 2010 at 5:40 AM

    Wonderful feedback Deborah. I think that clearly there are a lot of people here at this site and hopefully beyond who have read this message and find strength from the articles that they read here as well as via the comments of other readers. Thanks so much for that as I am sure that it makes a bigger impact than maybe many of us are aware of.

  • Liz

    Liz

    November 23rd, 2010 at 1:13 PM

    You really hit upon some key points that I have been interested in and studying.
    First is the addictive nature of eating disorders. I have had a lifetime of struggles with over-eating and binge eating. I have not been successful with the control of such behavior and losing weight until the last 3 and half years (I lost 120 pounds). Among the reasons for this success is my realization that this was an addictive behavior and as such I need to change my attitude about losing weight, eating, and exercising. In the past going on a “diet” to lose weight had only been a temporary fix at best. This attitude change happened (is still happening) over a long period of time, and includes the knowledge that diets don’t work for me, but what I needed was a life-style change; and what I still need and will always need is to be steadfast and determined to maintain the healthy life-style that I have come to love. This change incorporated many obvious physical aspects of living, but also spiritual, mental, and emotional.
    Deborah, I liked that you mentioned the importance of “developing healthy emotional coping skills.” I too, believe this is key to addiction recovery.
    From you last statement “I was living in the moment, dealing with what came my way, feeling the emotional impact without being overwhelmed or paralyzed, without interest in abusing food but with great interest in taking good care of myself. And that is what recovery is all about!” I wholeheartedly agree and would like to add, that this is a strong indication of healthy emotional intelligence. In my graduate studies I am researching the need of emotional intelligence in addiction recovery, and how such intelligence can be obtained and/or increased. For example, I think the companionship of animals has the potential to increase emotional intelligence and thus help with addiction recovery.

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