Making Peace with Your Plate – Eating Disorder Recovery
Robyn Cruze, a recovered eating disorder survivor, and Espra Andrus, an LCSW, joined us to discuss Making Peace with Your Plate – Eating Disorder Recovery. Their book offers a unique format, in that each speaks from their own area of expertise. As you will note, this is also reflected in our interview.
Robyn, Espra suggests writing down one’s motivation for recovery, the decision to take back one’s life. After your eighteen-year struggle, what was your motivation?
I remember sitting on the bathroom floor, the very last time I was in eating disorder behavior, understanding that I had been back and forth from that place of hopelessness for eighteen years. The truth is, I knew that nothing had changed in all this time—accept maybe the location of my behavior—even when I promised myself, “This time it will be different!” I knew that it was not possible to be different without changing what I was doing. I knew what I was getting from the eating disorder behavior dictating my life, and ultimately, that was not what I wanted for myself. No one with an eating disorder wants to live that kind of life…we just believe that those are the cards we were dealt. Deep inside, however, I had a yearning; I wanted to have purpose and live up to my potential. I wanted to experience something so very different from the little world of just me and the eating disorder, the tiny box that had become my life. This realization trumped the eating disordered belief that if I changed, I would become everything the eating disorder said I would become—useless, a disgrace to my family, a loser…and the size of a house. This was the hardest obstacle for me, but when I looked back at my life from the bathroom floor, I understood that I already felt all those things while in my eating disorder, even as I loyally, frantically, carried out its demands. I was not, in fact, even getting what the eating disorder said I would get if I dedicated my every breathing moment to it. Instead it gave me an absurd illusion of safety that assisted me only in hiding from the world that scared me. But my life was calling me—living it was my biggest motivator!
Espra, if “Recovery Does Not Equal Fat,” as many with eating disorders fear, what is recovery?
Many of my clients with eating disorders have told me that they would rather endure the misery of living life in the painful clutches of an eating disorder than recover and spend their whole lives being miserable. This is their fear of how recovery will look. Many fear that recovery is about getting “fat,” and either being happy with a “disgusting” body or spending a lifetime without eating disorder behaviors, yet miserable and “fat.”
Recovery is none of this. Recovery from an eating disorder does include allowing the body, like the amazing machine that it is, to find its place of maximum fuel efficiency, which involves an adequate balance of taking in nutrition with spending that fuel for optimal physical, mental, emotional and spiritual performance.
Recovery means being able to find this place, even when it is separate from an individual’s and/or our society’s ideals about what size or shape makes a “desirable” body. The goal is to have a life that has meaning and purpose beyond attempts to force the body to fit into some size, shape or weight ideal. Recovery is having goals and dreams focused on life balance and quality of life built on values and intrinsic peace. Recovery means that thoughts of eating, not eating, calories, size and shape do not dictate thoughts, emotions or behavior…or, ultimately, one’s life.
Recovery means developing a relationship with the body where it is viewed as more than a size or shape. Although it is healthy to desire and engage in activities to help us feel and look beautiful, this is only one aspect of a healthy life. Life balance also includes appreciation for what the body can do and what it is meant for, a greater purpose than reducing it to a number. Recovery is a way to cope with emotions, thoughts and situations in life instead of coping by using food or controlling what goes into or stays in the body. It is finding and using the authentic power that comes from within.
Robyn, you write about learning you are human, a person with intense emotions. Where has this taken you?
As the National Recovery Advocate at Eating Recovery Center, I share about this a lot! When I speak with patients, I understand their fear of what they may find within themselves when the eating disorder behavior is not being acted out. This, for me, was one of the biggest obstacles to recovery. I didn’t want to feel. I truly believed that if I were to tap into all my feelings—years of feelings I had swept under a rug—I would either go insane or these feelings would actually kill me, because it felt that way! Those of us who have suffered from an eating disorder are thought to have temperamental traits that are harm-avoidant, highly sensitive and highly perseverant. In recovery, I needed to accept that these traits were not a judgment or a punishment, but simply part of being human.
The process of accepting my “humanness” was slow. The less I acted on eating disorder behaviors, the more the intense emotions came through—the overwhelming fears, the anxiety and panic, the depression, and the sense of not knowing who I was and what I had to really offer the world. For me, this is where the rubber hit the road in my recovery; it was the thing that really made the difference in whether my recovery was going to be full or impaired. No matter how hurt or trapped I felt in the eating disorder behavior, I knew what it was giving me—the emotions it provoked were familiar. But this new world, and the feelings I was capable of, were things I had to commit to exploring with what felt like no safety net. I see the desire to want to skip this process in the patients I talk to. But as I say to them, if we sit with this and begin to question and become aware of our feelings, we will get through them. Once through, we discover that they will not harm us. In fact, the more we commit to discovering who we really are, the less we need to hide in our eating disorder.
That doesn’t mean that, even today, I don’t experience intense emotions. It means that I know that they are feelings and that they will pass, as long as I acknowledge them and allow myself to feel them. I am no longer scared of myself in the way that I used to be. I still ask for help, if emotions feel overwhelming, but I deal with them instead of trying to run from them—I feel empowered by honoring feelings now—who knew!
Espra, can you please address working with instead of against our emotions, especially as this relates to recovery?
As a general rule, individuals who suffer with eating disorders tend to be strong, committed and capable individuals. So when they decide on recovery, they immediately stop eating disorder behaviors, and are able to sustain this for one week, two weeks, maybe four weeks, based on sheer willpower alone, only to fall back into eating disorder behaviors and feel like a failure. Although willpower is essential to recovery, such control alone will only take the process so far before it falls apart.
Recovery involves working with the emotions that play a part in the eating disorder. Emotions are instinctive, full body experiences that are hard-wired into our biology. We cannot suppress uncomfortable emotions without suppressing desirable ones as well. In order to reach long-term recovery, it is important to understand emotions and work with them. They are essential to balanced, healthy lives, as they communicate information to ourselves and to others. The emotional process helps us participate fully in life, in our own experiences and in connecting with others.
Robyn, you openly discuss “running from my truth,” and the challenging feelings that accompanied your time in Europe. How did your decision to tell your truth start changes in you?
Something powerful happens when we stop running from our truth. When we stop running, we can begin to see our truth—and it is that truth that acts as a foundation to our recovery. We can begin to build a life from our truth. Here we get to discover all that makes us, our passions, purpose and power. I am all the power I gave the eating disorder!
The dilemma is not wanting to own what we find. But our truth is just the beginning. It is a place from which a new life that is rich and honest can grow. I have found that the more I own my truth, the less internal turmoil I experience. This story of mine, that once shamed me, is now used to bring others hope and awareness of mental illness and the recovery process. This story of mine is filled with both vulnerability and great strength. This story of mine is not my truth. My truth is that part inside of me that, when I am quiet, will tell me, without judgment or fear, what the next best thing for me to do is. My truth is my ally and the compass pointing to a fulfilling life. I am grateful for the relationship I have with it today.
Espra, shame in the experience of an eating disorder can be so crippling – your thoughts?
Shame is painful. Our instinctive nature is to recoil from pain. Eating disorders often develop as a way to recoil from painful feelings of shame. Eating disorder behaviors can be very effective at distracting from emotional pain and creating powerful neurochemical processes that numb or allow disconnection from pain…for a short time.
The problem is that when we engage in behaviors that violate our core values (our authentic self), it creates more shame. Since eating disorders typically involve secrecy and hiding, the very conditions in which shame grows best, it begins to compound the shame that was initially present. This increase in shame necessitates more eating disorder behavior in the attempt to keep the rebound shame at bay. The cycle is brutal and lethal. So, eating disorders can be very effective at bringing quick relief through numbing or disconnection from the pain of shame in the short term, before they proceed to take away everything in the long term.
Robyn and Espra – There is such power, beauty and courage in self-discovery. Can you each please speak to how this relates to connection in relationships and living life?
Robyn: I remember one day, back when I was still in the eating disorder, I was doing group therapy. We had just finished an exercise wherein someone had to be in our personal space. I felt vulnerable and exposed. After the exercise, I sat in my chair unable to stop crying. Embarrassed, I asked the group to please not look at me. The therapist asked the group to provide feedback. One young man told me that my vulnerability made it easier for him to connect with me. I truly tried very hard to not allow people to see who I really am. I had taken on a belief that if people knew who I really was, they would use it against me. I have found that when I fully allow myself to show up in my truth, I allow others to do the same—and this makes for a very rich connection with others.
Espra: Dr. Brené Brown, shame researcher and teacher, says that our urge is to disconnect when we are afraid that we will be viewed as defective or flawed, thus unworthy of love and connection. Inherent in our fundamental human nature, in our very survival, is the need for connection with others.
When we show up in our own lives, as terrifying as it can be, we discover our preferences, likes and values, and can build connections with others based on this foundation, which we call the authentic self. We begin to build a faith that we can cope with difficulties, setbacks, dissapointments and painful emotions. This faith in ourselves is a cornerstone to both recovery and creating a life of value, meaning and connection…a life that feels worth living.
Today, I will allow myself to take
part in the world around me.
Life is worth my attention.
I am worth the world!
– Making Peace with your Plate
About the authors:
Australian born, Ms. Cruze struggled with an eating disorder for over a decade. Now fully recovered for over ten years, Ms. Cruze is a Speaker, Coach, Published Co-Author of Making Peace with Your Plate (CRP) with Espra Andrus, LCSW and the National Recovery Advocate at Eating Recovery Center and partner programs. Ms. Cruze has a Master’s degree in Solo Performance from Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and has worked as a professional actor in film, TV and theater across Australia and the United Kingdom. She is an avid writer on topics such as body image healing and eating disorder recovery. Ms. Cruze is also the author of a children’s affirmation book, Lovely Dreams. She lives in Colorado with her husband and two daughters.
Espra Andrus, LCSW holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work from University of Texas, Arlington and has worked as a clinical therapist for 25 years. She has worked with those suffering with eating disorders and trauma for almost 20 years. Espra maintains a private practice in southern Utah where she provides individual therapy, consultation and professional training for eating disorder treatment, trauma treatment, and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. She regularly facilitates The Daring Way™ shame resilience education and trainings, based on the research of Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW.