Discovering a New Path to Happy
Camille Williams, LCPC, NCC
Eating disorder recovery starts with the realization that the relationships with food and body are not working to provide a functional and meaningful life. Preoccupation with food impacts the ability to concentrate and focus. Negative body image leads to increased isolation and loneliness. Behaviors with food result in extreme ups and downs with emotions that are intolerable. As behaviors increase the person moves further away from wellness in all aspects: physical, social, emotional, mental, occupational, and spiritual.
Eating disorders have a very different set of rules than the goals delineated in recovery. Most likely the rules of the eating disorder were outlined as a path to acceptance, love, and happiness, then had the inverse effect of resulting in a dysfunctional and hopeless existence. This realization can be a catalyst for change and inspire hope for a new way of living. However, getting into the recovery process and experiencing the extreme shifts in thinking about food can be terrifying and daunting.
What did the eating disorder say to do to be happy?
Unfortunately, our society also sends this distorted message that weight loss promises happiness too. However, has the pursuit of those things had the results that were anticipated and promised? Does the individual feel happier, more comfortable in body, accepted and loved by self and others?
The answer is almost always no, or else this person would not be seeking help. Turning to weight loss and thinness as the path of happiness results in: increased anxiety and guilt with food, increased body dissatisfaction (regardless of weight), and decreased time and energy for a social life, school, meaningful work, and activities.
So, exploration of what the path to happiness really looks like is vital in the recovery process. What about some of these to provide happiness, love, and acceptance?
- Positive experiences
- Meaningful relationships
- Passion in school and career ambitions
- Connection to self
- Enjoyable hobbies
In all of these things, food and body will still be a part of the experience in a way that is more interrogated and balanced. For example, the focus is on uncontrollable laughter with a good friend who is hilarious, not solely on the nachos you are sharing. Hours of the day are spent going to class or working in a meaningful career rather than spending hours at the gym or obsessing about food. This results in feeling intrigued and excited rather than depleted and exhausted. Food becomes a necessary part of life to provide energy and the body becomes the incredibly complex miracle where the journey is experienced.
Where obsession with weight loss and thinness once narrowed the individual’s experience of life, recovery opens the door to all that life has to offer. There are no longer restrictions with food or so much time each day being eaten up by behaviors. A person has choice to eat as desired and exercise in ways that feel good. There is now time and space for opportunities to travel, build deeper connections with others, try out a new hobby, and spend time getting to know authentic self.
Happiness is never attainable in the eating disorder. And as fear and shame are lifted from food and body, happiness is actually finally possible.
Camille Williams, LCPC, is an eating disorder therapist at Timberline Knolls residential treatment center and has worked with the eating disorder population since 2013. She provides group, individual, and exposure therapy to provide healing opportunities for those in the recovery process.