Lauren Grunebaum, L.C.S.W.

Lauren Grunebaum L.C.S.W.

Starving at the Banquet

My Reaction to The New York Times Article: In Fighting Anorexia, Recovery Is Elusive

Will starving give me a sense of meaning and connection? The answer is no.

Posted Apr 28, 2011

On Tuesday April 25th "The New York Times" published an article "In Fighting Anorexia, Recovery is Elusive." As a woman who suffered from anorexia for many years and now as a psychotherapist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, I agree with much of what was written and would like to elaborate on it in more detail.

This article, written by Abby Ellin, questioned whether an individual with anorexia is ever "recovered" or is always "in recovery," similar to the model used in alcoholism where the individual is always in recovery. As the article points out, there is no consensus about this among professionals in the field of eating disorders. There is not even agreement about the definition of recovery, itself.

I created and now lead an interactive psychoeducational program in schools and for parent groups. Whether I am running a group with adolescents or with adults, I am frequently asked these two questions. Is it possible to fully recover from anorexia or bulimia? Do I consider myself recovered?

In agreement with the newspaper article, I tell the group participants that among experts there are different opinions about full recovery. I add that often the less time an individual has suffered from anorexia, the greater the chance of a better recovery, free from the rigidity of the illness.

I then speak for myself and from my own experience. I tell them that my anorexia began when I was 18 years old. I suffered from this illness for the first half of my adult life. Anorexia is an illness that starved me in every area of my life, physiologically, psychologically, educationally, and in my relationships with friends and family,I used the illness to express my feeleings and to cope with stress. It was my security blanket and even though I was tormented by it, I clung to it for dear life. It felt like my identity.

As anorexia had been the sole focus of my life for many years, I believe that it is something I will always have to guard against. I too use the term "Achilles' heel," which is used by one of the experts cited in the article. At times of great stress and anxiety there is a part of me that shouts, "If you just push this food away, then you will feel better. You will feel less anxious."

It is at these times that I now have the strength to challenge this part of me and not to follow it. I slow myself down and ask myself, "How will pushing the food to the side of my plate or skipping a meal help me to deal with this stressful situation? One has nothing to do with the other." I also ask myself if starving will give me a sense of meaning and connection, which is what I strive for in my life. The answer is no.

I also now know intellectually and experientially that restricting my food will only take me away from what I truly find meaningful and fulfilling in my life. The illness with all its deprivation isolates me from friends and family. It also creates an overwhelming sense of self-disconnection. If I were to act on this old destructive coping mechanism,how could I help my clients find healthier ways to express themselves and cope with stressful situations? How could I ask my clients to trust me if I was still depriving myself? I could not possibly be an effective and trust-worthy clinician.

For too many years anorexia gave me a feeling of control and power. Now it is caring for myself, connecting with others, and seeing my clients that helps me to find a sense of meaning, purpose, accomplishment, and self-efficacy. Whether I am "recovered" or "in recovery," I strive to help my clients find their own path towards lives that are meaningful and fulfilling.

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