Dear Dr. C,
I am a 53 year old woman and I have had an eating disorder since I was in high school. Don’t tell me to go into therapy because I have already done that for many years. I’ve talked about my childhood until I’m blue in the face! I’ve done all the “alphabet” therapies: CBT, EFT, EMDR, etc. etc. My doctor has given me anti-depressants, but they didn’t help. Even though I don’t throw up any more, I still think about food about a million times a day. Recently I gained 5 pounds that I just can’t lose. I hate myself so much for gaining the weight that I have purged and taken laxatives recently. But, at my age, it is physically difficult for me to purge any more. I am frustrated and hate myself. I don’t even know what you could say but anything will help.
It seems to me that the eating disorder is the symptom, not the problem. It’s your self-loathing that is the problem and the over-eating and purging are a way to divert your attention from it.
This self-loathing is more than just a question of self-esteem or self-confidence. It is actually part of the human condition. We all live from a mistaken belief we are unworthy – not good enough, smart enough, thin enough, loved enough. We can all fill in the blank with some way we are lacking.
Because we don’t realize our true Nature, we feel ashamed of who we are and we spend a good part of our lives looking for someone or something to make us change our minds. In your case, the focus is on your body. You are over-identified with your body to the extent that you think your self-worth depends on how much you weigh. You need a bigger perspective, dear Desperate. The world is so much more than 5 pounds gained or lost!
From my perspective, what you have is a spiritual problem, one that has its roots in the illusion that you (and others) are separate from each other and separate from the Oneness of Life. Or, as one meditation teacher put it: “God dwells within you AS you.” In other words, once we realize our true nature, we can let go of the self criticism. Does the hummingbird have anxiety because its beak is too long? Does a flower complain because it’s petals fall? Each manifestation of Life, even you and our extra 5 pounds, is just fine the way it was created.
When I was living in an ashram in India, one of the teachings we were given was from the tradition of Kashmir Shaivism. According to this ancient non-dual philosophy at the very foundation of our illusion of separation is a sense of imperfection and limitation. In Sanskrit it’s called the anava mala. This impurity lives, so to speak, in the heart chakra. The transformative journey is the purification of this illusion and it requires us to feel the feelings we have – pleasant and unpleasant. We can’t say to our heart: Oh, just feel the good feelings – love, happiness, contentment- but please don’t feel the bad ones – anger, shame, guilt, sadness. The heart feels. Period. When we limit our capacity to feel, we limit our capacity to love and be loved. The over-eating keeps you from feeling your unpleasant feelings. Unfortunately, at the same time, it limits your capacity to enjoy Life.
In a sense, the anava mala is both the problem and the solution. While it is at the root of our humanness and gives rise to the sense of separation, on the plus side, it gives us the motivation to search for completeness. As we walk a journey of Transformation, little by little we purify the anava mala and realize the Oneness more and more.
This can all sound very esoteric. What does it look like in daily life?
Feelings are the first sign that the anava mala is asking for attention. I remember a time when I had a wee altercation with a notary public. I felt angry at how she treated me. Really, really, angry. It took all my will power not to react and to just go and be with the feelings. When I was talking with a friend about the incident, I heard myself say: She was treating me like I was stupid! Bingo! There it was. In the baggage of my own sense of unworthiness, I realized that I believed I’m not smart enough!
Now, if you asked for my conscious standpoint, I’d have told you I’ve got a strong mind and I’m pretty intelligent. I’ve even got the data to prove it: in a class for the gifted in elementary school, a straight-A average as a doctoral student, numerous awards and publications. But my unconscious standpoint is that I believe I’m stupid. (Pretty stupid, huh?)
As long as this aspect of feeling unworthy was unconscious, it had a hold on me. For one thing, it led me to try and prove I wasn’t stupid! (Hence the 4.0 grade point average!) It also gave me a real impatience when other people didn’t get something as quickly as I thought they “should”. When the judgment I had for myself was unconscious, I projected it outside and had judgment for that very same thing in others.
The crux of your eating disorder is your self judgment, Desperate. As a starting point, I suggest you have a look at the book Eating in the Light of the Moon: How Women Can Transform Their Relationship with Food Through Myths, Metaphors, and Storytelling by Anita Johnston.
I know you have had a lot of counselling. Perhaps the sessions could be a foundation for some deeper psychotherapy and a journey of transformation. If you can find someone who can guide you and walk that journey with you, it could be of great help. I know a number of people with eating disorders in my private therapy practice here in Victoria have had good success with dream work and a deeper approach.
I wish you all the best on your journey to heal.