Recovery from an eating disorder is a complex and confusing journey. My experience is that it is not a linear pathway where one jumps a hurdle and then leaves it behind – conquered.
The journey is best described as one of many twists and turns, when at times it seems that one is travelling in a backwards direction. The labyrinth is an ancient and mysterious archetype that is a useful metaphor for understanding the road to recovery from an eating disorder.
Anita Johnson in her book, Eating in the Light of the Moon, writes of women entering the labyrinth of recovery as they travel on a winding path to their centre and then exit with a new way of being in the world. For those unfamiliar with this ancient pattern with a purpose, here is a replica of The Chartres Labyrinth. Different from a maze (which has dead ends and false passages), the labyrinth has a single path that leads unerringly to the centre. It shows us that no time or effort is ever wasted; if we stay the course, every step, however circuitous, however many turns, however distant it seems, takes us closer to our goal.
It is a difficult task to determine the starting point of recovery. Is it that moment when you first seek help? Or that moment when you first recognise what others around you have been seeing? It maybe when you finally utter the word anorexia to a trusted friend as an explanation of what’s happening to you. Does the recovery journey begin at the point of hospitalisation when others intervene in an attempt to take control or your behaviour? Or could it be when those around you begin to relax a little and re-gain their faith in you? The truth is, there is no one instance that prompts recovery, it is all of these and more.
Recognition of the illness does not guarantee an end of denial but it is an important event in the journey. I recall the fear of recognition, which prompted the following response. However, denial and comforting behaviours persist well after this point and are difficult to combat. This is when the journey in the labyrinth takes a sharp turn, one that on the surface appears to be a backward step. Johnson refers to this in her book and says of recovery that it may appear to the sufferer that she is backsliding, that things are getting worse rather than better.
She may feel frustrated over not making her way as easily or as smoothly as she thinks she should, and become impatient with herself for not getting “better” as quickly as she had expected.
This process can be frustrating and confusing but the journey through the labyrinth is also one of discovery. One needs to allow the time for discovery to complete the journey. One such discovery is an understanding of the difference between hunger and starvation and why irrational and frightening thoughts, previously foreign to you, are possible.
The recovery and discovery requires patience and confidence both from within and from those around you. The patience to discover the true nourishment you seek and the confidence to regain your Self. It requires trust in yourself once more and an acceptance of the encouragement from those who support you.
The journey is your own to make but it is not necessarily always a solo journey. At times your spouse alongside you, or a friend who offers words of support accompanies you in the labyrinth. You must make the commitment to complete the journey and the support of a wise and empathetic counsellor is vital as you progress towards the centre of your being and then prepare for your exit from the labyrinth.
The beginning point of recovery then, may not be important. No doubt it will be different for each individual and I suspect their families would cite their own indicators of recovery. What are important are the journey and the discoveries one makes to form new understandings of themselves and the disorder. With this gained knowledge and appreciation of self the suffer will be able to exit the labyrinth, the journey completed!
Johnson writes that someone can fully recover from an eating disorder. Once recovered, she can go through the rest of her life without having to struggle with food, fat or dieting. Once she discovers that her urge to eat (or not) when she is not physically hungry (or is) is a signal of a different hunger she needs to address, she can begin to discover ways of feeding herself the nourishment she truly desires.
About the author
Jo Cook was 43 when diagnosed with an eating disorder, in 2004. She is married and has four children. Two boys aged 20 and 17 and two daughters aged 15 and 12.
Jo is a teacher and holds the position of the Director of the Centre for Excellence at the Hutchins School. After having some time on sick leave, Jo negotiated with her school to take leave for 2005. Through her illness, Jo unexpectedly became aware of the labyrinth as a tool for transformation and healing and in February of this year traveled to San Francisco to experience it for herself.
Coincidently, then reading Eating in the Light of the Moon by Anita Johnson, which addresses eating disorders in women using the labyrinth as the metaphor for growth and the journey to recovery. She now has in Hobart a 12m x 12m canvas replica of the Chartres Labyrinth and conducts workshops and reflective walks. It is transportable.
For further information on The Labyrinth as a Pathway to growth please feel free to contact JO at [email protected] or 0417143084.