by Grace Elizabeth Cline
Note: This post originally appeared on Coming Out of The Exodus and has been cross-posted with permission.
Arguably the most annoying phrase a person with a restrictive eating disorder hears. I have been told this phrase numerous times by several different people, who all received an eye roll from me in response.
In eighth grade, my friends said it to me as they watched me eyeball almost scornfully the pizza on my plate. This was after I’d already developed an eating disorder but before I knew I had one and I looked at them jealously wondering why I was experiencing such extreme turmoil from looking at a slice of pizza and they weren’t.
Later that same year, I saw a therapist who not only said that same thing but also told me that I could lose weight by “just cutting out all foods except for fruits and vegetables” (clearly not the best therapist for a pre-teen girl).
I think both of my parents blurted it out to me at least once in their anger and frustration when I was my most stubborn.
I hate this phrase as much as the next person with an eating disorder. “Just eat” implies that there is no war going on in a persons head and no “real” reason why they shouldn’t eat. And while someone with a restrictive eating disorder may not have obvious reasons for not eating, they are suffering from something indescribable in their head that is shouting profanities and telling lies like, “you are most powerful and better off when you don’t eat”. If the solution to curing eating disorders was to just eat than there would be no treatment centers and a failing dieting industry.
I hated hearing “just eat” up until I heard the recovery author and speaker Jenni Schaefer give a new perspective on it during a speech she gave at an Eating Recovery Center event last year. To a crowd of people with eating disorders and families of people with eating disorders, Jenni said something like, “sometimes the solution is to just eat”. Knowing that Jenni herself once had an eating disorder, I was a little taken aback to hear her say this. But she went on to explain that sometimes the best way to get through a restricting urge is to eat and then sit through the uncomfortableness of being full. Doing that may not feel right the first several times, but eventually (as long as you have outside support), you may start to realize that it is okay to eat and that in fact you feel better emotionally and physically after you eat.
And Jenni does have a point. In my intro to psychology class last year we learned about something called cognitive dissonance, which was something I’d never heard of before. As soon as we learned about it, I finally got something about my eating disorder that I had never fully understood before. What I finally understood was why sometimes I felt as if I couldn’t even physically pick up food and bring it to my mouth. That even though there were no physical barriers to eating, the mental turmoil I was experiencing was blocking me from simply picking up and taking a bite of food. Cognitive dissonance is when there is a lack of harmony between your thoughts or beliefs and your actions. Typically, people want to create harmony between the two and so they act on things according to their beliefs but when cognitive dissonance occurs, someone is not acting according to their beliefs. An example would be someone smoking even when they know that smoking causes cancer. How this relates to restrictive eating disorders is this: someone will start to hear a tiny voice in their head that says “don’t eat”. They continue to eat despite this but the voice keeps growing louder. The voice says “don’t eat”, they eat, and then they experience the uncomfortableness associated with cognitive dissonance of not acting on their thoughts so in order to reduce this uncomfortableness, they begin to listen to the voice so that their behavior begins to match up with their thoughts.
And what is the best way to “cure” cognitive dissonance? To change either your thoughts or your actions so that they align with one another. And in terms of cognitive dissonance associated with a restrictive eating disorder, the only real solution to stopping both the cognitive dissonance and the eating disorder is to match the belief with the action and not the other way around. Because with an eating disorder, even if you match up the actions with the thoughts (i.e. restricting with the thought of not eating), the discomfort and dissatisfaction never goes away and tends to grow stronger with each action.
What needs to happen at some point in the recovery of restrictive eating disorders is an ability to eat normal sized meals and not do anything to counteract them (purging, exercising, laxative use, etc.) And this is why at any treatment center you go to across the world, one of the first things you have to do is follow a meal plan, because although eating disorders are never just about food, you do have to deal with food in order to fully tackle your eating disorder.
But unfortunately, even when I break it down like this, treatment and recovery is never this easy. Had I not gone to treatment, I would’ve never been able to sit through a normal portioned meal without doing behaviors. If I had read this back when I was 13 or 14, before I started treatment, I would’ve understood the concepts and why they made sense but I would’ve never been able to sit through a meal on my own without doing behaviors (and nor would I have wanted to).
This idea of “just eating” has only been helpful to me as someone who is further along in recovery, as someone who still struggles constantly but who will probably (and hopefully) never need a treatment center again. I still have urges all the time. In fact, I’ve been experiencing them like crazy over this past month as I’ve been getting ready for my second year of college and going through some changes in my personal life. I have acted on behaviors this past month. A lot more than I have in a long time. But things are different now than they were awhile ago because 3 or 4 years ago I would not know what to do after I started experiencing urges and/or acting on behaviors. Today, even though I am struggling, I know in my wise mind what I need to do in order to get back on the right track. And what I need to do is go through the motions, pull on my meal plan (which I haven’t used in awhile), and “just eat”. I know that I may feel guilty or bad afterwards but eventually I will get back to where I need to be. I will feel happier and have more energy and I won’t struggle with my ED as much, because the more I engage it, the stronger it becomes and likewise, the less I engage, the weaker it becomes.
“Just eat” never feels good to hear and the majority of times, it comes from someone who is ignorant. But look at it from a new perspective, because the best way to begin the process of recovery is to slowly begin disobeying your eating disorder by receiving help from a therapist and/or other mental health professional.