In the past few weeks, many of my nutrition therapy clients have been talking about just how challenging this back-and-forth New England weather has been. We experienced several warm Indian Summer afternoons, crisp cold winds that made us hunt for our gloves, a surprise hurricane, and a snowstorm or two. Today it's back to 50 degrees and bright sunshine again. For those of us who need time to transition into change in order to feel settled, mother nature's bumpy road can feel challenging. I suppose the plant life becomes equally confused. Regardless, the autumn leaves drop and the spring flowers bloom. The cycle of life continues on, despite the not-so-smooth ebb and flow of the seasonal change. Recovery and growth are like that, and the path is rarely linear. In fact, I don't love those pediatric growth charts, even though I admit to finding them useful at times in my work. Although they are a great framework for noticing changes that are out of the ordinary in someone's growth and development, they give us the mistaken notion that growth is smooth. In reality, physical growth comes in spurts. I remember picking up my baby daughter years ago after a nap and saying, "Wow, did you just get longer in your sleep…?"
Our emotional growth is perhaps even more choppy, particularly during the teen years. This explains the mood swings and drama. I have been working with a young adult client in her twenties who is still going through the separation and individuation that is a part of adolescence because she is living with her parents. Her eating disorder, a major part of her teen years, had been a way to cope during this challenging time. Now she is learning to use other ways to cope with her strong emotions and her ambivalent desire to be in charge and independent. She is writing instead of binging and purging. She is crying and learning to tolerate the pain and hurt and angry feelings instead of harming her body. She is allowing herself to suffer, and seeing the value and maturity in tolerating and working through that suffering, instead of going around it with her eating disorder.
Eating disorders are satisfying to the young person who feels the chaos of change. They are black and white; there are good ways to eat and bad ways. Some of the very challenging work in recovery is deciding just how one feels about things. It's far easier if it's black and white, good and bad, right and wrong, and "this is just how it's done in our house." It's far more challenging to find the grey areas. My client has to non-judgmentally figure out how she really feels about religion, politics, food, sex, tattoos. She notices that some people might judge her, "How could you think about such a thing?!" while others will just kind of shrug off her question as if it's no big deal. It's confusing…
How do I really feel about this? Where do I stand? What is best for me? What do I want to eat right now? These are hard questions, and it can be easier to go back to the eating disorder to cope with the confusion and indecision that comes up. It's easier to go back to the diet as a focus than to face the bigger questions about ourselves and our purpose on this planet. If I just lose those 10 pounds, or cut out all the gluten and sugar, or become a vegetarian, then all will be well. We use food to distract us from the real struggles, whatever they may be. And in the process, we lose the pleasure of eating and the nurturing force that feeding ourselves can be.
Spring will bring green and Summer will bring harvest again, despite the erratic weather we're experiencing here in the Northeast right now. Similarly, our adult selves spring forth as a result of this challenge and chaos and questioning. Feeling our feelings and then letting them go, even the hard ones, often opens up space for change and possibility and clarity. From this suffering and confusion springs growth and recovery. My clients work through and learn from the challenges and traumas in their lives, instead of running from them or hiding behind the eating disorder. When they do this, they are like the trees that survive the winter and blossom fully in the springtime.