Once upon a time, I thought parenthood was a fairly straightforward and linear process. I thought if the child was slow at something like completing potty training or letting go of their pacifier, it was basically because the parent wasn’t doing what they were supposed to be doing, usually according to the timeline some expert had written in a book.
Eighteen years ago I also thought recovery from an eating disorder would be a straightforward journey. If I could just get a handle on the food-thing, and the body-thing, that would be the end of it. Poof! Everything all better! (More on that later.)
Then I had a child that was unbelievably attached to his pacifier. If there were a pacifier anywhere within a two-block radius, he would find it. No matter if it was waaaaaaay under a couch or say, a monster truck, he would find it and it would be in his mouth before anyone had time to say, “Wait (let me at least rinse it off…)!” Other children choose the breast, the bottle, potty training, sleeping through the night, talking… to take their own sweet time in learning or letting go of. And, as every parent discovers, the way to make this holding on stronger is to fight for control. (Have you ever tried to force a toddler to poop in the potty? As Dr Phil would say “How’s that working for you?”)
So all this to say, my child chose to hang onto the pacifier. Or, as he named it “nukey” (nooh-key). As a parent and Psychologist, I went through all kinds of fretting over whether I was teaching stuffing/”pacifying” his feelings, ruining his teeth, delaying his speech, ruining future capacity to empathize due to blunted affect (I’m not kidding- there is research on this), etc… I made space for him to cry or have angry feelings in transition times. I consulted Pediatricians, Developmental Psychologists, and Dentists. (They all had different opinions). I was ready to be the one to initiate letting-go-of-nukey process many times. My husband said, “Nobody goes to college with their pacifier.” I believed this around nobody going to college in diapers. However, I really wasn’t sure it was gong to happen with nukey. I thought, you know our child MIGHT actually bring his to college.
One day my boy woke up and, in the middle of playing, said, “I’m ready to say bye to nukey.”
I said ‘What?!”
He repeated himself.
I asked him if he knew that would mean: all the nukies would go away and he wouldn’t ever have them again. We talked about the binky fairy bringing his nukies to new babies.
He said he understood. He then proceeded to say how he needed a box. We decorated it. We put all of his nukies in the box. We wrote a letter. And then we left the box for the binky fairy and went to bed without any nuksies.
I was ready for meltdowns. I was ready for the fall out. I was ready to pull out the one I had hidden in reserve. But there was no need; he was ready to let it go. He was ready to let it go, and so he did (which, for the record, is what the Developmental Psychologist said). Life soon rushed in with new challenges and opportunities.
So what the heck does all this have to do with eating disorder recovery?
Early in my recovery from an eating disorder seventeen years ago I thought I needed my eating disorder and other obstacles (depression, darkness, isolation, loneliness) to be “deep” and “creative.” I was literally and emotionally trapped in the myth of the starving (and restricting and bingeing and purging) artist. And yet very few paintings emerged when I was in the midst of my eating disorder. Nonetheless, I continued to hang on. I held on even as I was trying to let go. I held on for as long as I needed to hold on. And then, when I was ready, (with my own support team ready with metaphorical binky fairy boxes) I let go. I didn’t need it anymore. I had other tools. Not surprisingly, that year was my most prolific period of painting. This healing expression led me directly into pursuing a Master’s degree with a focus in art-as-healing and beginning to assist others in their recovery process. Later I was called to earn a doctorate in Clinical Psychology. Though my plan (with the eating disorder) was to be a suffering artist, that was not the plan life called me to live my way into. When I lived my way into letting go of “this food-and body thing,” being a suffering artist was no longer the goal. Assisting others in letting go of the suffering was. My eating disorder actually led me directly INTO the freedom of recovery and living a depthful and creative life of meaning. But not in the way I had originally planned.
What’s in the way IS the way
I often work with my clients on what purpose their eating disorder is serving. Until that need is met, they’re usually not ready to let go. If the eating disorder is helping manage anxiety, other tools need to be added and practiced. If it is postponing grief, or helping comfort loneliness, grief and loneliness need to be allowed in. If it is helping in a scary or difficult transition (adolescence, motherhood, loss of relationship, marriage or divorce), other ways to walk into and through the unknown of becoming this new person need to be welcomed. I once had a client use the metaphor of her eating disorder being a “blankie,” a comfort blanket that had grown thorns and barbs. It started out as comforting and then turned into something that repeatedly harmed her, even as she turned to it for comfort. Facing the loneliness she had been avoiding was no longer as painful as holding onto the “comfort” of the eating disorder.
As you begin to look at what goals, intentions, visions you have for 2015, I would encourage you to invite creating WITH your obstacles on the way to letting them go. What obstacles would you like to “go away”? Invite support for letting go of the obstacles and consider “What’s in the way IS the way.” Miracles await. As Carl Jung has been quoted as saying “God enters through the wound.”
Or as Glenda the Good Witch (the adult version of the binky fairy?) said to Dorothy in the Wizard of oz when she asked “Why didn’t you tell me all I had to do was click my heels three times and say there’s no place like home?”
Glenda responded “Because you wouldn’t have believed me.”
(As always, the purpose of this blog is to be inspirational toward recovery, and not serve as psychological treatment.)