The following article is an excerpt from Anna Palmer’s book, Coming Home: Healing From an Eating Disorder by Finding Beauty in Imperfection. May the words here grant you deeper permission to come home to the fullness of yourself, humanness, divinity, and all. Welcome home.
Chapter 16. Integration of Healing: The Choice to Change; New Life Awaits You
None of the therapists I worked with could make me change my behaviors. That was not their job, after all. It was mine. No healer I ever saw could heal me. That was not their job either. It was mine.
I had seen over ten therapists, if not more, by the time I decided that healing was my responsibility. I could learn tools to cope and better support myself in times of stress and challenge, but at the end of the day, I was accountable to no one but myself.
It was me and me alone I was affecting by these behaviors. My friends, family, and quality of life were just the unfortunate, collateral damage of the Eating Disorder (ED). But, at the end of the day, the ED was mine to take accountability for. I couldn’t change the past or rewrite my development of an ED no matter how many times I rehashed my story in therapy. No amount of talking was going to change it.
The only thing I could do was move forward. I could decide to do different. I could decide to make small choices each day in the direction of healing. I could take a leap of faith in the direction of my fears.
I needed to choose a different path if I wanted different results. And, I couldn’t reinforce being sick while trying to recover. I could not continue to manipulate my body or weight with a self-imposed diet while working toward recovery.
And, I also knew I couldn’t stay living in the same place that had contributed to being sick. I needed to move out my parents’ home again, gain independence, start my career as a massage therapist, and move away from the town I grew up in.
I needed a fresh start. I needed vast distance between the person I was and the person I needed to become. I needed to separate my sick self from my healing self for the time being and give myself a fighting chance to heal—for real.
It wouldn’t be easy; I knew that. My fears were loud, but my renowned courage and faith in myself was growing in volume. I began to believe that if habit and practice created the dysfunction and behaviors in the first place, so too could a different habit re-wire and re-pattern a new behavior of health and healing.
I had endured many relapses (almost too many to count) in my prior attempts to recover. Many of my therapists would say, “Relapse is a part of recovery.” We are imperfect humans and having slip-ups is absolutely a part of the learning and recovering curve. But, relapse doesn’t have to be an ongoing part of recovery.
“Expected” relapse, in a way, kept the door open to the ED behaviors for me. I needed to close the door once and for all. That was the only way I knew it would work for me long term. I needed to re-train my brain that purging was not an option. This was step one, and also the biggest step.
The “expected” ED relapses almost gave me an out (a get-out-of-jail-free card), an excuse to continue living with the bulimia. I had tried and failed my first ever “cold turkey” approach while working with one therapist in college. I tried then to stop altogether, “cold turkey,” as they say, and for a short time it worked. But, eventually (without other coping tools to rely upon and when emotions still felt unsafe and overwhelming to feel), I was white knuckling my way through it and eventually succumbed to the pressure of it all.
I felt more confident this time though, with nearly eight years under my belt of deeper wisdom, practiced coping skills, greater emotional courage and strength to withstand discomfort, and also having started to address the underlying emotions. I had growing faith in myself to recover—for real this time.
Perhaps, this was a placebo effect in action; the belief in the effectiveness of an intervention, medicine, or healing modality that paves the way for healing to happen. I had never truly believed I could fully recover prior to this, so perhaps my belief in myself was the missing link and secret to effective recovery.
It was the perfect storm of factors lending themselves to my sustained recovery this time. As I was embarking on a newfound career path of massage therapy, I felt I had to prioritize my health above all else if I wanted to help others. I had seen the repercussions of purging on my dental health and also on my mental and spiritual well-being as I explored deeper healing with plant medicine. And, I started to believe in myself again. Even though I was fearful, I accepted a new job offer in a city away from my hometown.
All of these things combined alchemized into the healing balm I needed. I was ready to build a sturdy foundation beneath my feet. I was afraid, but my growing courage and the support of friends and family affirmed that I could do this. I felt this was the leap of faith I needed to take. So, with much fear and growing faith, I took the leap.
I moved to a brand-new city, accepted a job as a massage therapist, and moved in with roommates again (an old male friend from college and his two male friends). I knew this time I needed to make a clean-cut boundary with the bulimia.
At the age of 26, after nearly a decade of living with bulimia, I said goodbye, so long old friend Bulimia and its associated behaviors. It was like a toxic relationship that you just have to cut out of your life in order to move on and heal.
I was not willing to compromise yet another living situation as I had done with previous roommates (stealing food, binging, and purging in the bathroom, secrecy, lies, shame, etc.). This was an opportunity for a clean-cut brand-new beginning for me.
Purging was also no longer an option. It was a habit I could only break by creating a new habit (not purging). My new living circumstances did not lend themselves to any leniency on that front. I had to be black and white about it and create a firm boundary for myself.
It felt harsh at first, but it was truly in the name of love and self-preservation that I did so—happily. I learned that boundaries can be loving.
I have learned that along with grace, kindness, and a lot of permission in recovery comes the need to set strong boundaries. We have to be able to say “No” to the addictive behaviors that temporarily soothe but harm us in the long run. Boundaries are the wise parent within us, reparenting the child within.
Only you will know the intention behind your choice to resort to ED behaviors. A piece of cake can be just a piece of cake. Or, it can be a whole cake when perhaps we aren’t listening to our underlying needs. Saying “no” is—and can be—an act of self-love, as much as saying “yes” can be.
Prior to this reparenting of self, I had learned that my “no” translated to “no” to enjoyment of life. It was a means of control and withholding from myself. And, I learned that my “yes” was a way to get what I wanted, right now (through binging and purging). The Inner Child in me needed permission, allowance, and also firm loving boundaries.
With bulimia, the need to binge feels so strong that you almost throw a tantrum when you can’t get the food or underlying need met. I always thought this meant I was doing it “wrong” if I didn’t give in to the urge, but when I did, I felt immense guilt. It was a lose-lose situation.
With time, I learned it was okay to feel upset and uncomfortable when I didn’t get what I thought I wanted. I had used food to fill a need for comfort and love to soothe the discomfort within because it was a way to feed my Inner Child.
Somewhere along the line, I learned that it wasn’t love I needed because that felt too unsafe and precarious, so I filled in the gap with the next best thing: sweets. Sweets were much “safer” to give to the self than fleeting, conditional love, which I learned came with mostly pain and loss.
ED and food (and our relationship to both) can be giant metaphors and teachers of how to nourish the body and spirit. Food (or lack thereof) serves as a metaphor for our underlying needs for love, comfort, self-care, pleasure, rest, etc. We may see that we are emotionally in need of love or comfort, or perhaps that we need some time to go within or need to rest and to just be with our internal world.
Setting a firm boundary with the bulimia and saying “no” to purging was the only way to discover my emotional needs beneath the urge to binge and purge. I decided that no matter what it took, I would have to figure out other ways to find sweetness. I would need to figure out how else to soothe myself and allow my feelings to be without this behavior (and actually practice the many practices of somatic, self-care I had learned).
Early on in my real recovery, when intense feelings and urges to binge arose, I made myself sit with these previously “unbearable” feelings and just survived my way through them. It wasn’t easy to do this at first, but over time it got easier.
Recovery (healing) is not a destination, but a road that continues for the rest of your life. An ongoing journey of discovery and growth. Maybe, some individuals (like my sister) fully recover and never look back or have any lingering obsessive thoughts about food, exercise, or their bodies. For others (like myself), it may be a more gradual process of cessation of ED behaviors and slower letting go of associated thoughts around body image, food, and exercise. Neither is right or wrong. It is a process of deep unwinding and letting go. It is a journey of learning to care for and be deeply compassionate toward the wounded self.
The magic happens, though, when we start to make different choices. I was finally doing the deeper work within my feelings and myself. Long-awaited internal and external shifts began to occur with much effort to start, but more effortlessly over time. I was finding out who I was buried beneath years of shame, perfectionism, fear of failure, deep self-doubt, and insecurity. I was discovering my authentic Self for maybe the first time ever.
Read part one of this series: Coming Home: On Healing from an Eating Disorder.
Read part two of this series: How Eating Disorders are a way of Coping with Emotions & the Effects of Traumatic Events.
Read part three of this series: Hello Bulimia, My Secret Friend: When Food Becomes Survival & the Body the Enemy.
Read part four of this series: The Real Toxin: The Harm of our Fat-Phobic Culture.
Read part five of this series: How Eating Disorders Feed on the Insecure Self.
Read part six of this series: What Sparked my Healing Journey from an Eating Disorder.
Read part seven of this series: The Dark Side of Religion: On Religious Trauma & Body Shame.
Read part eight of this series: When Lines Blur: Journey into the Heart of an Empath.
Read part nine of this series: Spiritual Bypassing Won’t Heal You—but This Will.
Read part ten of this series: Shadow Work, the Unintegrated Ego & How to Reclaim our Wholeness.
Read part eleven of this series: The Seat of Addiction: Trauma, Emotions & the “I am not Enough” Club.
Read part twelve of this series: The Body Holds the Key: We Heal as we Feel.
Read part thirteen of this series: Reconnecting to the Divine Feminine Essence of Life.
Read part fourteen of this series: Myths of Perfectionism & Why we Need to Back the F*ck Off.
Read part fifteen of this series: Astrology & Plant Medicine: a Healing Journey “Off the Beaten Path.”