The Gift of Pain

Susan Dean Landry, MCP, NCC, LPC

There is a rare but real disease in which the afflicted person lacks the capacity to feel physical pain.  Initially, that almost sounds like a blessing; however, imagine not knowing that your hand is on a hot stove, only to learn later that you have third-degree burns.  Pain is a signal that something is wrong.  It is necessary for our protection in this world. 

Similarly, emotional pain is an essential indicator that something is amiss and needs to be addressed.  The thought of being immune to emotional suffering is understandably attractive; in fact, many of the solutions to which we turn in the midst of troublesome circumstances are an attempt to remain “comfortably numb.”  These might include substance abuse, eating disorders, workaholism, etc.  Even self-injury is a way to give emotions an outlet, or to mediate inner turmoil.  People find ways to avoid feeling negative emotions, but in doing so, they fail to move through the healing process.  They also make it impossible to feel joy. 

Fear, anger, sadness, loneliness…these emotions hurt!  We want to ignore them and suppress them.  Yet these are signals that something is wrong in our environment, and they motivate us to choose appropriate behavior.  A healthy fear of a would-be attacker prompts one to fight or flee.  Righteous anger towards a child abuser urges one to seek justice. Mourning a loss allows one to be comforted. Experiencing loneliness moves one to seek companionship rather than keep people at a distance out of a fear of rejection.

Experiencing physical pain may lead one to seek necessary medical care.  It would be foolish to ignore the clear warning signs of a heart attack.  In the same way, a person experiencing emotional suffering is wise to ask for help.  It has been said that we become “strong at the broken places.” We cannot merely “get over” painful circumstances; instead, we must go through them in order to heal.  Allow a counselor to help you sort through your feelings, identify them, determine if they are rooted in false beliefs, and learn to express and respond to them in a healthy way. 

Intuitively Eating Mechanically

In the world of eating disorders recovery, “Intuitive Eating” is the latest craze.  I’m not knocking it, but I have my issues with it. 

I teach people in the beginning stages of recovery that there is a continuum of compulsive eating (characterized by dieting, bingeing, purging, starving, over-exercising) and at the other end of that is intuitive eating (characterized by eating when you’re hungry; stopping when you’re full; having balance, moderation, and variety.)  

To get from that point to the goal of intuitive eating, there must be a practice of mechanical eating.  If people could just intuitively eat, they would not have an eating disorder!   This stage may last a long time. During this stage, you are training your brain to re-connect with your body—to communicate effectively, because the eating disorder has halted that communication.  

So I was thinking about this concept in relation to my own recovery, in which I have been for some 20 years.  I eat intuitively, meaning that I do not follow a strict food plan, nor do I have to meet with a dietitian, nor do I starve or binge or purge.  I honor my hunger signals and cravings. 

However, to maintain my health and wellbeing, and not jeopardize my recovery, I mainly eat mechanically!  For me, this means eating three meals a day and a couple of snacks. However, I’m not militant about it. If I’ve exercised or moved more on a certain day and find myself hungrier than usual, then I’m going to break out of routine and eat something different!  Maybe I’m craving chocolate. Cravings are usually there for a reason. In the beginning of recovery, it’s nearly impossible to “safely” or “comfortably” consume chocolate. (again, if one could do that, one would not have an eating disorder.) 

Everybody’s body is different, and everyone’s nutritional needs vary.  Honoring those differences is key to recovery. I teach and preach and practice that one person’s recovery may not “look like” someone else’s recovery.  The important thing to ensure is that there is freedom, joy, pleasure, and health in the food choices made every day. 

Susan Dean Landry, LPC

Launching into Recovery

By Susan Dean Landry, LPC

Much has been accomplished to promote awareness and prevention of eating disorders in recent years, and there is still work to be done in this area. Assuming that prevention efforts have failed, someone in the midst of a full-blown case of anorexia, bulimia or binge-eating disorder needs an idea of what treatment involves. It is tailored to the individual, with nutritional counseling and medical evaluations, while also focusing on emotional and spiritual needs.

Therapy may address trauma resolution, assertiveness training, relationship issues, and body image concerns. As clients learn new solutions to life’s difficulties, they replace destructive eating patterns with more satisfying coping skills. Self-esteem improves as one recognizes his or her value as a unique and worthwhile individual.

When you’re in bondage to an eating disorder, you are blind to the truth that something exists beyond this life you’re living. Even when it feels like bondage, at least disordered eating behaviors are predictable and seemingly controllable…and preferable to life’s harsh realities. I want clients to know that they need not become complacent, settling for the comfort of their disorder. This tendency is especially true when recovery seems too difficult or even impossible. Together, we must find something that is more important and more appealing than the eating disorder. He or she must discover or re-discover a passion, a talent, a purpose.

As clients move away from the imprisonment of the ED, they must move towards something. That might mean a career, a relationship, or starting a family. These things cannot co-exist with an active eating disorder. Desperately clinging to the security of anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, orthorexia, or any combination of these makes it impossible to have truly intimate relationships with others, or to passionately pursue one’s dreams and talents. May those in need of recovery find the courage to launch into the treatment process. Dare to move out of your comfort zone into the unfamiliar, and may you be amazed with what life has in store for you!