By Kathryn Cortese, LCSW, ACSW, CEDS
Do! No, don’t! You should! How could you? What were you thinking?! Why?
Distinct commands and nagging, repetitive questions are serious factors that maintain the rules of an eating disorder. They are punitive, destructive, and squelch the self out of individuals. Recognizing them in action and their precursors can open the door to what life could be like without them.
These eating disorder rules come in various forms, can stay the same, morph into others, and shift within a moment. If you have, have had, or spent time with someone with an eating disorder, you’re familiar with the rules. Some dictate eating. For example, a decree may be issued in the morning that only certain foods in certain amounts can be eaten. Those who know this mandate are familiar with its grip and the consequences if they deviate from the plan. Holding the line and adhering to the rule may bring some sense of pride, but that’s usually temporary.
The eating disorder will find a way to undermine the individual with a more strict version of the day and/or remind the person that they are still not good enough. If the rule is broken, a cognitive and emotional onslaught is likely to occur that would shake anyone to their core. Take a moment and walk yourself through this paragraph. Now, please imagine how much of one’s day, one’s mind, one’s self has focused on and attended to the imperatives of these particular rules.
Shift gears to body image rules. Imagine the harassment and insults one takes when in the relentless pursuit of the thin ideal and its steady companions, body dissatisfaction and body hatred. The rules in this department require a particular size, shape, and look which are unattainable. Body dissatisfaction becomes omnipresent both consciously and unconsciously, and demands that outfits are relentlessly tried on and discarded while they are coupled with shame inducing comments directed at specific body parts or the body as a whole. Do you know the myth of Sisyphus? Sisyphus is punished because he cheated death twice. Zeus responds by determining Sisyphus will spend eternity pushing a boulder up a hill and as soon as his efforts actually get this huge rock close to the top of the hill, the rock rolls back down, rendering his travail both labor-intensive and pointless. Sadly, body image rules are a Sisyphean task, designed to drain the individual of their worth, while serving as a convenient distraction to actually living. Living life on life’s terms is far from easy. As works in progress, we humans have lots to learn to help us navigate the challenges that inevitably present themselves. Colluding with the thin ideal robs a person of time and the opportunities to learn as one goes, so that when a concern does present itself, one can recognize they have acquired the skills and experience to help one make decisions in their best interest.
What about exercise rules? You know them. They are unyielding and insist upon total compliance. The following is a real life example. As you read it, please think about the level of emotional distress, time absorbed by the planning and enactment, physical exhaustion, and the denial of any joy that this incident could have provided. Imagine you are a 15 year-old student. Your high school singing group has been honored and is chosen to perform in Washington, D.C. for some dignitaries. A chartered bus will be at school for a 5:30 am departure. Your thoughts are panicked and play out like this. How can I exercise on the treadmill for my 1 1/2 hours if I’m with the singing group all day? We won’t get home until [10:00] or 10:30 pm. — I know, I’ll get up at [3:30] and start on the treadmill. No, wait, my mother will lose her mind if I do this. Maybe I can be really quiet and she won’t know. OK, but if I start at [3:30] and finish at [5:00], that’s a problem because I still have to shower and get to school. What if I start at [3:10]? Maybe that will work. And on, and on, and on.
Sadly, there is no room for the fun of a high school bus trip, the pleasure of singing with your group, the delight of being selected, and the carefree nature of missing a school day. Without following the exercise rules, there is no opening for meaning or purpose in the day.
Please notice how much of life and its treasures are thwarted by any type of eating disorder rule. These rules eat up the time for you to become the real you! This time is a gift that presents every day, no matter how old you are. If you are saddled with an eating disorder, you may struggle to see beyond it and what your life could be like, what would fill your thoughts, and what range of emotions might be yours. That’s okay. There are people who can help you find that place where you can feel safe to make these discoveries, smile at seagulls, breathe in the air of a fresh flower, and get a sense of what next steps you’d like to take in your life that have nothing to do with an eating disorder. You truly deserve the chance to find your place so you can say good-bye to the confines of eating disorder rules and truly develop your personhood!
About the author:
Kathryn Cortese, LCSW, ACSW, CEDS has worked as a clinician in the eating disorders field since 1989. She has provided psychotherapy to individuals, families, and groups in in-patient and out-patient settings and in her own private practice, all specializing in the treatment of eating disorders. Kathy now serves as president and editor-in-chief of the Gürze/Salucore Eating Disorders Resource Catalogue. She is the host of the podcast series, ED Matters, and provides supervision to treatment professionals. Kathy has presented locally and nationally on various topics related to eating disorders and podcasting.