Saturday, August 9, 2014

Avoidance isn't the answer. It's time to bear hunt.

Recovery is a tricky thing. You may be making progress with your eating—whether you are working to overcome binge eating, anorexia or bulimia—but may be fooled into believing that you’ve truly normalized  your relationship with food. It may feel like you’ve largely recovered; you’ve started to include ice cream (but only when you’re out, never keeping it in the house). And your binge frequency is close to zero. And surely you who’ve been restricting deserve credit for eating more than you used to—at least of the foods you deem good for you.

But consider this:

No, avoidance isn't the answer.

  • Is it really recovery when the only way you feel in control is to fill your days with so much activity (no, not even physical activity) that you don't get to sit with your feelings? You work long hours waitressing, take on extra shifts or extend your work hours only to avoid being with yourself. You struggle to allow yourself to feel hungry—fearing you're not trustworthy to respond correctly. You equally fear fullness, that satisfying feeling of truly getting enough. Would you allow your best friend to carry on this way?
  • Is it really recovery when you stop binging, only to restrict your food intake? You stick around family or friends because you know you'd never binge in their presence, but you also struggle to eat enough when they're around—and even when they’re not. If your child see-sawed between binge eating and restricting her food intake, would you say “that's just fine”?
It doesn't have to be so scary.
  • Is it truly changing your relationship with food when your solution for managing chocolate cake—or your favorite flavor ice cream or bread or peanut butter—is to simply never have it around? You forbid yourself access—just for now, until you meet your weight goal, or maybe believing you’ll resist these for the rest of your life. Would you suggest this to your parent, or would you hope that life could be much better for them?
  • Are you really recovering when the only way to nourish yourself (yes, I know some of you struggle with this loaded expression which implies self care in its fullest sense) is by keeping everything the same, limiting your food choices to just a few "safe" foods? Or, by weighing and measuring all of your food? No, not just for now, but forever? What would you say to your partner if he or she kept to the same restricted allowance, an even number of items to be comfortably ritually consumed, day after day after day?
Time to start living again.
  • How normal is your eating if you rely on counting your calories, or your points a la weight watchers? Or if you can't release yourself from exercising when your intake exceeds your ideal or your self-prescribed amount?

Can you truly recover? Absolutely!

Full recovery requires feeling—not avoidance of hunger and fullness. Detaching yourself from these physical sensations, like avoidance of all feelings—sadness, disappointment, fear, hopelessness—only prolongs your suffering (while admittedly for a moment it seems like the only way to get through). Avoiding feeling by numbing out with your eating or your not eating, serves a purpose. But let’s not forget that you lose out on life’s positive emotions and experiences, too.

It requires “Going on a bear hunt” so to speak—a reference to Rosen and Oxenbury’s children’s book I loved to read when my kids were very young.

"We're going to catch a big one. / What a beautiful day! / We're not scared. / Oh-oh! Grass! / Long, wavy grass. / We can't go over it. / We can't go under it. / Oh, no! / We've got to go through it!" The family skids down a grassy slope, swishes across a river, sludges through mud and, of course, finally sees the bear…”

It takes trudging through all the uncomfortable challenges—with support, of course—in order to get past your fears. Like the very young kids, you might (at first) run away when you face the bear. But with some work (perhaps there needs to be a part 2 to this classic), you’ll be embracing it and feeling all the better for it.

There’s more to life than yearning for foods you enjoy yet avoid, or regretting the little you did eat. Or struggling after a binge—an inevitable consequence of days, weeks or a lifetime of rigid diet rules, of avoiding eating enough.

You deserve better. Really you do.  I don’t mean to minimize any progress you’ve made. I simply want to urge caution to be on guard for those sneaky eating disordered thoughts and actions. So please consider reaching out to take the next step to push through—to change your thoughts, your feelings and your eating. Push through the tall grasses and the mud. And conquer the bear.

Oh, and please share your thoughts with us!



  1. You are right that the habits you mention in this post don't sound much like recovery, although I do have to say that some of them could be steps in the right direction, right? If I used to restrict my intake to very little and now I eat more, and more regularly but it is the same "safe" foods day after day, is it still progress? It feels like it is. I hope it is.

    1. While that certainly is progress, stopping there, or being "partially recovered" essentially becomes non-recovered

  2. I feel the same, as if my progress is being minimized even though I eat more of my meal plan now. I know it's not fully recovered; but why isn't it good enough if my health is no longer in danger? Don't get me wrong, I'd love full recovery, but I don't know if that's achievable for me.

  3. I understand all that you are saying. And you are right, I wouldn't wish any of this on my worst enemy. But how do you continue to work through recovery when the emotions you start feeling are unable to be expressed. When you leave sessions wanting to cry but are in so much pain physically because you can't. And all that you know to make the Hate towards yourself go away is restrict / or binge. It it possible to feel those emotions normally after
    15+ years of not knowing how. Because even though I want to, I just can't allow them to surface

    1. Great question. The first thing is to acknowledge that this recovery process isn't pain free; check out this post: which might be helpful. I'd advise you get some supports in place--a good therapist will be essential! thanks for reading.