Eating disorders can be understood as an addiction process addiction whereby the person is “caught in a compulsive pattern that seeks to establish self-worth in the face of worthlessness” (Firman & Gila 1997).
A Search for Wholeness
The person suffering from an eating disorder has an insatiable need and a deep craving for an unknown missing of ‘something’ (Grof 1993). They search to fill the void, their suffering, their loneliness. They search for love, for connection, for acceptance. They search for relief from the tyrannical and oppressive inner ‘critic’, ‘saboteur’, ‘perfectionist’ and the high expectations they have of themselves. They search for their identity in the perfect body. They form their sense of self from the distorted messages they acquire through super-skinny, airbrushed celebrities in the media. The predicament is that they keep searching in all the wrong places. For people who suffer with food addiction, no amount of food will ever fill them, so they eat more to soothe their pain, to punish themselves, and to reach for the love they so desperately long for. Benson (2002) beautifully describes of those suffering this crisis: “a terrible conflict which centres around longing to love and be loved, while being afraid to love and dreading being unlovable.” They lack self-love and will — their life energy is trapped in a downward spiral dictated by their eating disorder. What they really crave for is for wholeness, spiritual awakening, and to give rise to their true identity; none of which can be satisfied or discovered on the physical level.
Many people suffering from eating disorders (ED) such as anorexia, have a desperate need for some sense of control in their life. I don’t mean ‘control freak’, I mean existential control, which is but an awareness of our given limitations. They cannot seem to control their anxiety about their life in another way. Subsequently they box themselves into a hellish corner, until it is the eating disorder that is controlling them.
As the eating disorder, gets more alluring and attractive, promising them to take care of things, when the fragility of being alive seems all too daunting, the ED can provide them what they need most: relief from anxiety, numbing of pain, companionship, a new and seemingly better identity, fulfillment, safety, existence, or non-existence. Hunger is manipulated and so becomes meaningless in relation to food, but meaningful in every other way. I choose. I do not choose. I fill. I empty. I am good. I am bad. This 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 the development of eating disorders.
Freedom, for some, may seem shapeless and uncontrolled, and therefore, provoking fear and anxiety. What is the meaning of life? Such question, can lead to an existential crisis. The ED comes in and promises to bring form and safety, although, a false sense of it. And here comes the double paradox. ED delivers the false sense of control that actually is out of control. It creates a lack of awareness of our real limits or responsibility, and so, the hole deepens and widens. Therapy provides a container that is wholesome and safe. It gives the space for individuals to become more aware of what their true freedom and real limitations are. It offers a place to explore and understand the symbolization and significance of the ED in their lives.