Recovery Can Feel a Lot Like Skydiving

People skydivingI’m a big fan of analogies and metaphors. When I think about eating disorders and recovery, analogies and metaphors often form in my mind, and I use them to describe and explain the process of the development of and recovery from a disordered relationship with food and the body. I’ve developed quite a supply of them, but I’ve never written them down—until now.

Here are some of the analogies that I’ve created over the years. I hope you find them helpful.

Video Game
Recovery is like playing a video game. In a video game, you start out with little experience or skill, and you eventually build skill and gain experience until you master the first level. You might “die” several times before you can play it well enough to master that level. Eventually, you do master the level. It becomes familiar and navigable, and you move up to the next level, which is much more difficult, filled with unfamiliar challenges. So you need to gain experience and build skill at this level, “dying” and trying again, until you’ve got it. And so it goes.

In the beginning stages of recovery, it’s important to keep life simple. When you’ve learned the skills and gained the experience needed to handle life without resorting to disordered behaviors, you’re ready to go on to the next level, such as taking on additional responsibilities or starting to date. Sometimes life throws you into a level that is several degrees above your skill level, and disordered thoughts and urges come flooding back. But those thoughts and urges don’t occur because you are inept or inadequate or a failure; they happen because the level of skill required to handle the situation outpaces the amount of experience and skill you have so far.

Often, disordered eating and exercise habits are efforts to fend off anxiety by creating a sense of control. Control of body weight, via control of food intake, exercise, and purging, offers reassurance, while overeating offers relief; both are antidotes to anxiety. Trying to live life while restricting food intake or spending hours in the gym or binging while hiding from others and perhaps inducing vomiting afterward are like driving a car with one foot on the gas and the other on the brake. You are likely to be safe. But it doesn’t get you very far.

The Coyote
I lived in southern California for many years, and illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America was an oft-discussed subject. I heard about impoverished people who would hire “coyotes,” men who would, for a fee, provide their clients passage across the border into the United States. It was a dangerous endeavor, and sometimes these coyotes would physically or sexually abuse their clients. Sometimes they would tell their clients, once they had crossed the border that the price was actually double what they had originally quoted and indenture the clients to work for them in slave-like circumstances, until the fee had been paid.

People often develop disordered eating and body concerns in adolescence, because they have not been given or acquired the tools and skills necessary to handle the challenges of this stage of development. Adolescence is the beginning of the rocky passage from childhood to adulthood. Eating disorders enable one to do the impossible: grow up chronologically while in an emotional and psychological holding pattern. Like a coyote, they give a person a means of making that transition across the border, but once across, they demand a very high price, enslaving the person who needed the coyote’s services.

Any process of personal growth and healing, be it recovery from eating disorders, addiction, or other mental and emotional issues, requires us periodically to let go of what we have or of what we know and sit with the anxiety that comes with being in uncharted territory. We come to points where we recognize that what we are doing or clinging to no longer serves us. We must let go of what we have that no longer works for us in order to make room for the better and healthier. We can’t wait until the newer and better are here to let go of the old—we must let go and hang out in the space in-between.

It’s like jumping out of an airplane and being in free fall, waiting for the parachute to open. With time and experience, it becomes not so much terrifying as it is exhilarating, and we let go more readily of the old and are more comfortable in the space between, as we wait to discover what comes next.

Related articles:
Cracking the Code: Understanding the Language of Disordered Eating
Binge Eating Disorder and Health at Every Size

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

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  • Traci

    May 14th, 2012 at 3:15 PM

    I really like all of your analogies, as I think that they are good for those of us who have never had to struggle with an issue such as drug use or disordered eating.

    I know that I will be the first to admit that with any addict I have thought before why don’t they just stop the poor behavior choices and get to a point in life where they are acting like adults and making better choices for themselves.

    I have never thought about the fact that that behavior is their norm, and to change it in a meaningful way they have to practice at it in the same way that any of us have to practice when we are trying something new.

    I hope that reading this helps me stay focused on this the next time that I meet someone who is struggling, and rather than judging, that I can extend a hand and offer support instead.

  • Dolly

    May 14th, 2012 at 5:02 PM

    if I were a recovering addict, I guess I could understand the comparison of this process to the freefall of skydiving.
    You might feel like you have no control, but you do when you make the right moves in the treatment process.

  • anna kate

    May 15th, 2012 at 3:47 PM

    This very issue is what I am dealing with right now, and it is so difficult to change the whole way that you think about food and how it impacta your life.
    My whole world revolved around food avoidance, and the ways that I could get around eating without having anyone really take notice.
    I never went to lunch with my co workers and tried not to eat anything around them for fear that they would see how little I ate. If they noticed they would always say something and I would be embarassed that they even noticed.
    I am having a pretty tough time because all of my counselors stress to me how important it is for me to take in some calories and put on a little weight, but don’t they understand that this is still the thing that most scares me?
    I don’t know if I’m ready for the big change that I need to make this happen. I want to get healthy, but I am not sure that deep down I can do what I need to do to make that a reality.

  • Bob Lofgren

    May 15th, 2012 at 5:06 PM

    A huge component of recovery that very few people remember is that it is going to be one step forward, two steps back. There is no right or wrong way to go through the recovery process except that it has to be individual and unique to you. What works for some does not work for others. Big deal. If you are really about making that change you try something else, and if you are honestly ready to make that change then eventually you will find something that feels comfortable and go with it. Yes it is a little like free falling in that you feel like you have no control- but in the end you do have that control, you know when to pull that string that will ease you safely to earth again. You just have to know when the time is right to accept that ultimately you are in control and that is a good thing.

  • Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    May 17th, 2012 at 12:51 PM

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments!

    Traci, I’m glad that my analogies helped you better understand the situation that an addict or disordered eater is in.

    Dolly, yes, if we follow instructions, jump and pull the ripcord as we’re taught, we should be fine– even though we’re falling through the sky! And we can’t open the parachute ourselves, just jump, watch the altimeter and pull the ripcord at the right time.

    Anna Kate,you said something important: that taking in calories and putting on weight scares you the most. The problem here is the fear, and the fact that something that is good for you has become scary. The key is not letting the fear be in charge. You can and must feel the fear, and then, in order to recover, you can and must do the opposite of what you want to do in reaction to the fear. Doing the scary thing (eating the food your brain and body need) won’t hurt you, but doing the safe thing will. It’s like staying in an airplane that is going to crash instead of putting on a parachute and jumping out.
    Jumping out of an airplane is scary, but with the proper guidance and support, you’ll be fine.

    Bob, I agree with you that recovery is unique to the individual and each person has to find what works for them.

  • J

    May 23rd, 2012 at 7:05 PM

    This is such a great post and it really resonates with where I am at the moment. Thank you, it was just what I needed to hear this morning!

  • Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    May 24th, 2012 at 10:50 AM

    J, I’m very glad it was such a help to you. Thanks for saying so!

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