Dianna Chillo, LCSW-R
The Life Plate
Originally published for Project HEAL as a member of Project HEAL's Healer Circle
One of the aspects of eating disorder work that I have found so interesting are the parallels between one’s eating disorder symptoms and the way they manifest these symptoms in other areas of their life. For example, I often find that people I’m treating with anorexia, who struggle with food restriction, will also struggle to have close relationships. Their worlds are generally very small and consist of few people and if they did have more connections, those connections start to fade as the eating disorder progresses. With clients I’ve treated with bulimia, who struggle with binging and purging, I have found that they frequently exhibit themes of talking on too much, followed by feeling overwhelmed and then shutting down. For example, saying yes to everything at work but then feeling burnt out and falling into isolation because it’s all just too much. These are just thumbnails of how eating disorders can manifest in a person’s world. It’s clearly more complicated than I’m stating, and each person’s struggles and recovery journeys are unique to them.
Ultimately, an eating disorder disconnects a person from the self. The use of eating disorder symptoms, as well as the preoccupation with weight, body image, food, calories and body checking, are all ways in which a person detaches from themselves. Due to prolonged active use of symptoms, a person becomes physically compromised on many levels but is also no longer in touch with their hunger and fullness cues. Their ability to recognize what they need to nourish their bodies is like a switch that’s been turned off. Similarly, they also become detached from what emotionally nourishes them.
An eating disorder not only lies to a person about their food and physical self but also their worthiness in terms of emotions, relationships and overall self-worth.
The recovery process with eating disorders requires a multidimensional approach. From a physical standpoint, clients in recovery are learning to break the cycle of their eating disorder symptoms by slowly integrating food in a way that is right for their treatment. They are mainly doing this with a registered dietician, who specializes in this work. The goal is to help them challenge their fears around food without being coerced by their eating disorder voice. This enables them to relearn learn their body’s hunger cues, by challenging these deceptive voices. Learning that all foods fit in a healthy diet and becoming intuitive with one’s hunger is the end goal.
This is a long process that is not linear, but once a person can get to this place, making choices on what to put on their food plate is based on their intuitive hungers, wants and needs.
While providing treatment to clients, I work in collaboration with their registered dietician. As they begin exploring their “food plate”, I’m also talking to them about their “Life Plate.” I use this analogy with clients to parallel the process of becoming intuitive in their eating as well as their lives. This in turn helps them begin to explore what really nourishes them emotionally and offers sustenance in their life. We discuss which relationships and interests feed them emotionally. We also examine what it means to set healthy boundaries that feel right for them in all of their relationships. Finding their voice, connecting to their emotions and learning to communicate how they feel are all part of the process. Just as a person in recovery begins to rediscover what tastes good and what hunger and fullness feels like, they are also rediscovering life.
Eating disorders keep people trapped in a world of darkness that is restricted yet takes up all of the space on their life plate. It’s been my experience that when people begin to heal, they rediscover who they are. This allows less room for the evils of eating disorders and makes room for the goodness that life has to offer. It’s truly an amazing process to be a part of. I’ve watched a sophomore in high school, whose world became so small as her anorexia took over, paralyzed by anxiety at the thought of being around friends. Eventually she relished the idea of going out on Friday nights, she got a job, went to prom and is now in her second semester away at college. I’ve been with a young woman, who for years battled with bulimia and struggled to sustain relationships, school and work. This same young woman is now working full time in a job she loves and has decided to go back to college. From moms who throughout recovery re-define who they are in addition to be a wife and mother, to men who have shared that they never thought in a million years they’d have a life without their eating disorder. These are all real experiences and it’s the reason why this work is so fulfilling for me.
Eating disorder or not, it’s important for all of us to pause and pay attention to what truly nourishes us physically, emotionally and mentally. Our food plates don’t stay the same and neither do our life plates. Of course, some things may remain consistent and there certainly are necessities or “have to’s” for overall nourishment. However, in other ways it’s important to expose ourselves to new things and think about what really fulfills and helps sustain us. So, I ask you, what’s on your life plate?