I’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.
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.
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.
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