Waxing Existential: Eating Disorders and Meaning Making
Long ago in my practice, I worked with a woman who was struggling with bulimia. She would binge and purge daily, a struggle that she didn’t want, but couldn’t see how she could stop. She was ashamed and demoralized.
One day, I put some clay in front of her and asked her to show me what her bulimia looked like. She began to model the clay, pulling it, smoothing it, hollowing it, transforming it into a binge, and then a purge. And then, she stopped. That was it. She had shown me what I had asked her to show me. I had witnessed her experience of a binge and purge in a sort of real time claymation. It was amazing. I could see it all so clearly. It was a symbolic manifestation of her experience. It portrayed both the contracting of a binge—the systematic filling—a pleasurable, comforting, numbing response to a life that felt chaotic, yielding to a violent explosion of expansive emptying, both angry and enlivening, as if to say “I’m still here!”
I have been working with eating disorders, disordered eating, and body image issues for almost 25 years. I have a history of binge eating disorder and yo-yo dieting myself, which brought me to this work those many years ago. There was a time when I thought eating disorders had nothing to do with food, and really they don’t. But they do also, because recovering from an eating disorder means that you need to make some sort of peace with food and eating in order to survive. I might say that eating disorders have everything to do with survival. The symbolic manifestations of an eating disorder are what separate the behavior from food. I connect survival to existence and existence to meaning and purpose, and we are off and running on how eating disorders are existentially symbolized. They are often about control, choice, anxiety, freedom and limitation, feeling worthy of existing in this world, and using the body as a vessel for meaning and worth.
One client I worked with several years ago was restricting her food, and became anorexic. She withered away to an emaciated frame. Sitting in my office one day in bulky sweats, barely able to function, I asked her to work with some paints. I took out finger paints and told her that we were going to make a mess. The semblance of control that took the form of anorexia was a desperate need for some sense of control in her life. I don't mean control freak, as we like to banter around in our modern day lingo. I mean existential control, which is but an awareness of our given limitations. She could not seem to control her anxiety about her life in another way, and she boxed herself into a hellish corner, until it was the eating disorder that was controlling her.
This is what happens, as the eating disorder, or ED, gets more alluring and attractive, promising to take care of things, when the fragility of being alive seems all too daunting. The ED can provide what the individual needs most: relief from anxiety, numbing of pain, a new and seemingly better identity, companionship, safety, fulfillment, existence, or non-existence. Hunger is manipulated so that it becomes meaningless in relation to food, yet meaningful in every other way. I fill. I empty. I choose. I do not choose. I am good. I am bad. The paradox of existential freedom and limitation, that we are really only as free as we are willing to see our limitations, plays a big role in eating disorders.
For a variety of reasons, freedom, for some, may seem amorphous and uncontrolled, and therefore, frightening and anxiety provoking. What is the meaning of life?—while a legitimate question, can lead to existential crisis. The ED comes in and promises to bring form and safety, albeit, a false sense of it. And then there’s the double paradox. Bear with me. ED provides the false sense of control that actually is out of control—a lack of awareness of real limits or responsibility, and therefore, the hole deepens and widens. Treatment provides a container that is wholesome and safe, and gives the space to become more aware of what true freedom and real limitations are. It offers a place to explore and understand the symbolization of the ED.
Back to my client and making a mess. ED hates a mess. We made a big mess to show ED that my client was taking back her messy life. For many people afflicted with eating disorders, bringing the symbolic manifestation of the disorder to life, so to speak, is a step towards understanding and recovery.
The stories are all unique, each experience of recovery an individualized process. Yet, there is familiarity. The self-hatred that makes her binge eat is the same self-hatred that makes her vomit or use laxatives, or go on a diet, or workout for two hours everyday, steal food because she’s too ashamed to buy it, makes her stay still and fearful, or numb and alone. The shame is too much for her to bear. She can feel it in every cell, in every decision today to eat “bad” foods, knowing that she is bad and must try harder. The self-loathing that found a solution in obeying ED’s protocol, fails this protocol daily. She can see that when she looks in the mirror, and see how ugly, fat, and weak she is.
She drew herself getting bigger and bigger and bigger and then exploding, all the bits and pieces of herself moving out and away and into the cosmos. She became a constellation. She was not of this earth anymore, and there was some peace in that notion. However, she then realized that what she wanted was not to be a constellation watching over the earth, but to live out loud on the earth, in her own life, in her own way. She discarded the old beliefs about herself, that came from a lifetime of not having a voice, being told that it wasn’t OK to express herself, that she was better seen and not heard, although she was never seen either. Now she didn't need food to fill her up or set her free. She could find and develop a sense of meaning with food, but not symbolized by food and the behaviors that the eating disorder dictated. She could use her voice and her heart, and find her creative soul. She would cultivate her passions, and curate her life as the work of art it really and truly is.
-- Sibel Golden