Restor(y)ing the imagination (thoughts on overcoming an eating disorder)

Just some ideas that have been simmering in my brain . . .

It’s not enough to merely kill an addiction; there are always ten more possible addictions to replace the one that just died. We have to take a different approach. We have to “restory” the imagination, so that we can absorb a different story about ourselves and be changed. And that story must work not just on a cognitive level, but on an imaginative/aesthetic level.

I’ll try to explain what I mean by that. First let me say that I am indebted to James K.A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom for much of this thinking, though I’m applying his ideas in a different sphere.

 We tell ourselves stories in order to live. —Joan Didion

Our need for stories is built in. Stories mean on a level that escapes our abilities to articulate why they mean so much to us. (How can I possibly express why Les Miserables or Moby-Dick moved me the point of changing my life?) And stories are more than the ones printed on a page; they are ones that we tell ourselves, through our participation in them, day after day, year after year, through things that go far beyond words. Think advertisements, shopping, the mall. Think the tailgate party, the stadium, the football game. Think anything that we participate in, repetitively, that sends us a message (a story) that we absorb without realizing it. In absorbing it, we are changed.

What does this have to do with addictions? Well, what are addictions but destructive stories that we tell ourselves? For example, when I was bulimic, there was a story that I was telling myself. It wasn’t really in words, though my obsessive thoughts about food and weight played a huge role. But my body was participating in this story, too, and at a deeper level. The narrative my body and mind were participating in was this: I am worthless if I’m fat. I’m such a bad person, I don’t deserve to eat.

You can see this story played out at any women’s gathering. Someone will inevitably bring up how she’s trying to lose weight, how she was “so bad” this past weekend because she ate what she wanted to eat. Someone else will chime in about how she’s trying to be “good” and watch what she eats and exercise. Etc. (Interesting how the food we eat becomes the barometer for our morality, isn’t it? And honestly, I think some of the women participate in this type of dialogue because it’s “expected” of them rather than from a deep-rooted conviction that they’re fat.)

Through sheer will, I could stop the binge-purge cycle. But without a different, grace-filled story to take the place of it, I was vulnerable to a new disorder: anorexia. (It could’ve been any number of different addictions: cutting, sexual promiscuity, drug abuse, etc.) It also wasn’t enough to have other people speak the truth to me (though that was helpful).

I had to participate in a new story, one where food wasn’t morally good or bad, one where my worth wasn’t dependent on weight, one where grace covered every single thing I did.

In other words, I had to re-story my imagination.

The new story evolved over several years.

One major step forward was when I stopped seeing food as morally “good” or “bad” but as a way to nourish my body and enjoy others’ hospitality. I tutored a Korean lady in English for a few years, and on several occasions, she invited me to her house for lunch. For a calorie-conscious control freak like me, this was hard at first. But eventually, I saw her desire to show love to me through food, and I enjoyed whatever she made for me. (I still don’t know what some of it was, but it was delicious!)

Another thing that made a huge difference was being with people who didn’t obsess over their weight or food. This is an ongoing thing. In my social circle, I’ve learned who tends to obsess over their weight and who doesn’t. I try to stick closer to those who don’t obsess over it. I’ve learned the hard way that even reading a friend’s Facebook update bemoaning her “bad” eating habits or how “fat” she is will take me back to my eating-disordered days. (Another good reason for me to stay away from Facebook!)

Of course, like any transforming story, I am still in the process of participating in it. These were just some of my thoughts on it; I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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10 thoughts on “Restor(y)ing the imagination (thoughts on overcoming an eating disorder)

  1. Food as a barometer for morality – I’ve never thought of it that way, Laura, but you’re so right about what a perverted way that is to look at something God gave us for pleasure and nourishment. It’s a good example of how story can get in, both figuratively and literally, under our skin.

    I’ve found too that changing a destructive cycle or habit requires finding something else to take it’s place. It reminds me of what Jesus said about driving out one demon only to see a whole gang of them return to take up residence. It takes Jesus and what he has done for us to fill us so that the destructive tendencies do not have a foothold.

    Tim

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    1. I actually got the idea about food as a barometer for morality from a secular book I read when I was battling bulimia. The author talked about having dinner with a friend who continually said how “bad” she was being for eating “sinfully delicious” food; the author (can’t remember her name) was in no way a Christian in her outlook, but her story stuck in my head.

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  2. As a writer, I like that way of looking at it–writing a new “story” of how I’m going to look at food. I have begun a new faith-based system called Thin Within which teaches that we often use food to try to fill another need–our need for God. When we learn to listen to the natural, God-given signals for hunger, we begin to eat when we are truly hungry and stop eating when we are satisfied–not full, which is over eating.

    When we realize that we don’t have the strength to overcome destructive habits by ourselves and give control to our Lord is when we lose the desire for these things and find peace. I learned that when I finally quit smoking for good 3 1/2 years ago, and I’m learning it again with my issues with food. I pray you find peace as well.

    Blessings,
    Diane

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    1. Have you ever read Intuitive Eating? I went through that book a couple years ago and found a lot of great insights about appetite and eating. It sounds like your program touches on much the same issues, but through a faith-based focus.

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    2. Sounds like a good program, Diane. I still have some issues with food, but that’s because I’m starting to suspect that I have gluten intolerance or something similar. (Not a good time of the year to discover that I have to eat gluten-free!)

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  3. I think all addictions amount to us trying to fill a spiritual emptiness with material things; and it cannot be done. Our need for God gets mixed up with food, drink, drugs, sex etc etc, and often we don’t know this, we just pursue what is empty and ultimately unfulfilling. Of course, we need food to survive and exist, so this can be a problem. The wealthy Western countries are literally awash with food, supermarkets full of it, and the capitalist system most countries operate under dictate that we should consume at all costs, even to the cost of our health, need and commonsense. Americans, Brits, and many other advanced and wealthy nations consume too much to the detriment of our health and general well-being.

    Sometimes we need to fulfil our need before greed. Thank you for sharing something so personal. I’m struggling with weight loss myself and it’s a losing battle at the moment. And soon it’s Christmas…!

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    1. Good observations, Tim. I hear radio commercials (on my Christian station) about the food crisis across the world, how people don’t have enough money to buy the food they need and are starving to death, and then I look around at food crisis closer to home (an overabundance of unhealthy food, supersized meals, etc.), and I’m struck by how ironic and sad it is that I spent so long willingly choosing to starve myself and do the binge/purge cycle.

      Best of luck with the weight loss. I can’t say that I truly understand, but I know that it must be difficult, particularly at Christmas.

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