Eating disorders… as language

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And the meaning of food and food-sharing as a bonding mechanism in humans – or food as attachment…

We humans bond over/by/with food. From infancy to the grave – food and food-sharing is in the center in our lives and in between people. All our holidays center around food and food-sharing, as well as birthdays, funerals, weddings – every ritual ceremony that mark a transition in life. Also new jobs, a baby on its way, an engagement, a published book – everything celebrates with food and food-sharing. We have food-places we go to; we watch programs on how to cook, we buy books with instructions, magazines with glossy pictures of food. In many cultures, the first thing that happens when you step into a home is that you will be served something edible and, in many cultures, it is seen as a great insult when you don’t accept (more) food.

So, what happens when a human starts to restrict his/her food intake? Refuses to take part in the bonding rituals of going to cafés, restaurants, dinner parties, business lunches? What happens in the individual? In the others that this individual has relationships with? Meets in different circumstances?

How important is food and the way we share or do not share food in telling how we attach to each other? What attachment patterns we have? How we build and maintain relationships?

How important is food – our relationship to food in our communication? What, when, how, with whom, how much – we eat – are behaviors. And behaviors are – as always – language.

At whom is the food restriction aimed at? Someone on the outside? Inside? An internalized “outsider”?

Eating "disordered" behaviors are language. Since food and food-sharing is such a basic and important factor – when someone is restricting food – it is a silent scream. Is everyone who is restricting food screaming about the same thing? No. Of course not. But they are all screaming about something that is very important to them, they are using their own means of survival, risking it – to be heard.
Do they know they are silently screaming? Maybe. Some. Not all. I do think most can feel it.

This is why many eating disorder treatments does not work (does not show sustainable results). They only deal with the screaming. They are often very focused on behavior modification. To stop the screaming. Understandably. People die if they don’t eat. And screaming is nasty – it disturbs people. But I would say – when treatment teams focus on the eating (non-eating – that is the screaming, the symptoms) – they join in in the persons fears. It is not a grounded approach. When treatment teams focus as much on the weight as the anorexic person – when they join in in the madness of counting calories and kilos (pounds, stones) – and measuring BMI – they are still only dealing with the symptoms, the screaming – not the cause of the screaming (not eating/restrictive eating).

To be anorexic is to fight. And what does the anorexic treatments often engage in? They fight back. This can go on for years and years. Nobody asks what the fighting is about. The only important thing is that he anorexic person eats (and yes – at times it is a question about life and death – and then – there might not be any other thing to do than to keep the person alive, by engaging in the fight).

As I see it – anorexia is a proxy. It is a coping strategy, it is a “instead”. Not eating, having rigid eating or selective, restrictive eating habits – is very provocative – for the people who meet anorexics. But it is a screaming.

What are anorexics screaming? That is highly individual – but it is often a protective scream and also serve the purpose as the classical “screaming for help”.

The longer someone has had anorexia – the more ingrained it becomes as a language. And it takes on its own life as an anorexic voice. The screaming somehow ends up outside the person – lives its own life.

To give that way of speaking – screaming – up, to use another voice, another way of communicating – is very scary. It means no one will any longer understand the severity of what you are trying to communicate.

Giving up anorexia becomes like silencing yourself and trusting that your other means of speaking will suffice.

It sounds like a contradiction – but anorexic people are fighting for their lives – by being anorexic. Take that away – and they become (feel) mute.

Anorexia – or any effort of a “mental solution” to a an often worldly problem (when you need an internal solution to a problem that often lays outside of you) – is “just” language. The danger with anorexia is that you at times are competing with the clock. People die from it before they find an alternative way of voicing themselves.

As I see it anorexia can be screaming about feelings of not fitting in, about unreasonable demands put on one, about bullying, about feelings of not being seen, of not being good enough – and often about trauma. Something happened to me – and I need to scream about it…

Anorexia – is again – as I see it – not a disease – a disorder. It is a syndrome. It is an expression. The reason behind it – differs from person to person. But the screaming is there, and the fear of not being heard, of not being taken seriously, whatever pain the screaming comes from.

And yes – I do think we humans – as also being animals – so highly oriented around food and food-sharing – to not eat – is to step outside – almost outside of humanity. It is a statement – on some level – that says – I do not belong here – in “humanity”, or perhaps asking the question – do I belong here?

The sad part is that the longer a person is anorexic – they further away they often come from knowing the original reason as to why they scream, as to why they need to make that statement.

Treatments and the anorexic person cooperate in making it about the language, about the scream – the symptom – not the content. It is like focusing on the pitch of the voice – instead of the content of what is being said, what is being communicated, the feelings behind it, the reason for the screaming – in the first place.

Some heavy thoughts a Saturday evening. So many suffers from restrictive eating – restricting themselves, keeping themselves away from their own lives – and there is very little good help to find.

As in trauma treatment – I think the question necessary is – what are you trying to say? What story are you telling? Howe can we help you find your voice? The words you need? To express what you need to express – in a way that make sense also to your surrounding? – but most importantly – to yourself?

In this somewhat seemingly random text – I am throwing out some ideas and stuff that moves around in my head… working myself through layers of thoughts – to see how and if they are connected – and to what…

Text and pictures are copyright protected © Katarina Lundgren, Live the Change 2020

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Wednesday, 10 August 2022

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