Fighting “The Negative Mind” of an Eating Disorder
by Priscilla Dean, Masters Intern
I have always felt deeply for those who suffer with an eating disorder. In my years of high school and college, I have come in contact with many close friends and extended family members who suffer from this horrendous illness. It seemed to be everywhere I looked. I had heard of a group of girls on a dorm floor at my school who would throw up together in the dorm bathroom after lunch. I would sit quietly in the dining hall while my dear friend picked at her food to make it look like she was eating, while I agonized about if and how I should say that I noticed. I would try not to stare at the scars on my friends’ arms as a result of their self-injurious behavior (I did not realize at the time that self-injury is often co-morbid with eating disorders).
Anorexia and bulimia silently imprisoned my friends and family members. No one knew how to talk about it. Those who did venture to say something often hindered in their own efforts to help, often driving the sufferer further way.
Through my education and in my time here at Stenzel Clinical, I did receive a much needed education about eating disorders and what treatments to use, depending on the severity of condition. I grabbed as many books and tools that were available to help me understand this often baffling illness.
One book in particular was incredibly insightful for my understanding: “The Secret Language of Eating Disorders“, by Peggy Claude-Pierre. This book helped me understand the myths surrounding eating disorders and what goes on in the mind of the afflicted sufferer. I wanted to share these with as many people as I could once I realized some of my own errors in thinking about eating disorders.
Here are a few of the myths cited in the book that most people (and even I did, at one point) assume are true of eating disorders:
“Anorexia is caused by distant, uncaring, demanding, or otherwise dysfunctional parents.” (p. 72)
Actually, the author finds this usually to be the opposite in the cases she treats at her in-patient clinic in Canada. Instead, she more often finds parents who are desperate to help their child overcome this illness. In fact, more often than not, the inward drive to control is more self-imposed than parent-imposed. I have found this to be true in the parents of clients who have struggled with disordered eating: the parents are not these dysfunctional, controlling people who drive their child to control their eating habits in a pathological fashion; they are usually very concerned and willing to learn about how to help their child get help. Obviously, there are exceptions in every case, but this author asserts that those who suffer with an eating disorder are usually plagued with a strong self-imposed inward drive to succeed and be perfect in all things. She also states that parenting flaws can certainly trigger disordered eating in young people, but there certainly is not a causal relationship between bad parenting and eating disorders.
“Anorexia is an unconscious attention-getting device, a cry for help”. (p.81)
I certainly was guilty of believing this one to be true. I was convinced that the people in my life were crying out for help and all they needed was for someone to notice their suffering in order to alleviate their pain. Unfortunately, the opposite is true for most people struggling with eating. They are desperate not to be noticed. They hide under baggy clothing, are often shy and unwilling to divulge personal information about their struggles.
“Anorexia can’t be cured; it can only be managed.” (p.87)
There are many people (therapists included) that feel that this is true. This author disagrees, arguing that if the goal is merely to “manage” the disorder, than this method is assenting to the existence in the individual. I believe that the struggle to resist the temptation to give in to the dreadful thoughts that plague the victim of an eating disorder can be lifelong, but to be doomed to suffer in an eating disorder state for the rest of the person’s life? I disagree. It is possible for healing to occur.
“Anorexia is a tool for control.” (p. 82)
I also fell for this one. In some ways, it certainly looks like the sufferer from the eating disorder is a “control-freak”, needing to have their eating under control to the minutest detail so they can control their world the best they can. This author disagrees. She acknowledges that while it looks like a battle to control their world, she feels that those who suffer from eating normally are feeling so powerless against their dark thoughts about themselves and who they are that they try and control the one thing that they feel they can: what they eat. These dark thoughts can be incredibly ugly and even surprising in their content: here are a few that she calls “The Negative Mind,” which is always in battle with the “Actual Mind,” which is the sufferer’s true self, the one that wants to get better.
The Negative Mind tells its sufferer:
Everyone HATES you.
You only cause trouble.
There’s nothing you can do right.
You are demanding, self, greedy, and mean.
You don’t deserve to live.
You should not eat because to eat is to live.
You’re fat, gross, and ugly.
You are a burden to society. (p. 38)
Some of these thoughts may be alarming to read and believe that these are actual thoughts that plague the eating disorder sufferer on a daily basis. However, every sufferer that I’ve come in contact with has agreed that these thoughts have tortured them at some point or another, and some to a great degree since their childhood. The extent as to how often these sufferers believe these thoughts or fight these thoughts is directly parallel to how severe their eating disorder is.
If someone you know struggles with eating, unconditional love and acceptance is the number one communicator that you care about them. They struggle with accepting themselves and accepting your love for them, so the “unconditional” part of that love is essentially important.
Urge them to get help. There are many compassionate counselors available here at Stenzel Clinical Services that are trained and willing to extend these often-isolated sufferers, such as myself (Priscilla Dean), Jennifer Stenzel, and Marty Dennen. Don’t let these victims suffer silently anymore.