It’s Not About Food – Part 1

It’s Not About Food
by Ashley Boyer

As seen in Brio Magazine in July 2007.

Fallen Angel.

Ghost.

The Grinch.

Lucifer.

Ursula.

These are the names girls have given their eating disorders. It’s all part of the healing process that goes on at Canopy Cove, an eating disorder treatment center in Tallahassee, Florida.

Last December, I spent two days at Canopy Cove to speak with some of the teen girls. My heart broke as I heard stories about the devastating effects of eating disorders (5 to 10 million people have eating disorders, which account for 500,000 deaths each year). For most of the girls at Canopy Cove, they’re simply out of options. The time they spend in treatment is literally their last hope.

During my stay in Florida, I was privileged to meet several girls who battled an eating disorder and are on the other side now – healed and healthy! They honestly and openly shared their struggles with me. Although I can’t use their real names or show you pictures of their beautiful smiling faces, I can let you listen in on what they shared. This month you’ll hear from Melissa,* and next month you’ll hear more stories. But before we begin, here’s a little background on eating disorders and the therapy girls receive at Canopy Cove.

Food and Fear

Dr. Lynda Brogdon, Canopy Cove’s founder and Psychological Director, told me what it’s like to have an eating disorder. She described her worst fear: a rattlesnake. Then she described her favorite meal: her mom’s mashed potatoes and pot roast.

“I’ll imagine my mom’s great meal in front of me, and I’ll put that rattlesnake coiled up on my plate. I’m assured that the moment I touch it, it’s going to turn into mashed potatoes. Then I take a bite, and the snake is still there, but on my fork is the mashed potatoes. Now I’m going to eat that and enjoy it while watching the snake coiled up in a strike position.”

For a girl battling an eating disorder, her fears are attached to food. But an eating disorder really isn’t about food at all. It’s about feelings of unacceptance and disapproval.

“Those feelings get the eating disorder going,” Dr. Brogdon says. “If someone thinks she can be more approved of or more acceptable, then the control measure is to binge or to over-exercise. The relationship with food is just a manifestation of those feelings.”

Dr. Brogdon teaches girls to separate themselves from their eating disorder. She encourages her patients to name their eating disorder to help recognize that it’s an identifiable character that’s separate from them when it takes control.

Dr. Brogdon described a family counseling session where a girl’s mom asked what she should do about the family’s tradition of baking Christmas cookies in regard to her daughter’s eating disorder. The eating disorder “said,” “Well, I hope you’re not baking cookies.”

“We had to work through the issue of whether the eating disorder gets to rule everybody’s life.” Dr. Brogdon said. “So when the daughter separated from her eating disorder, she could say, ‘Mom, I really want you to make cookies; that’s part of Christmas.’ But the eating disorder sees joy, and it never, ever wants joy attached. So we had to work through what element of that situation did the eating disorder not like, and it was joy.”

Dr. Brogdon also uses horses as part of the recovery process. Canopy Cove has three horses on the property, and sometimes therapy sessions are conducted with them. An eating disorder deadens the senses, so getting out in nature helps the girls shift their focus of for their eating disorder. Girls will bring a lunch with them to the barn, where the peaceful scenery and the calming presence of the horses help relieve the anxiety that comes with eating an actual meal.

I Want the Perfect Body
Eighteen-year-old Melissa* knows all too well about anxiety and eating. The staff at Canopy Cove refer to her as their “miracle patient” because of how entrenched she was in her eating disorder. Listen in as she bravely shares her struggle with anorexia.

“I became aware of my eating disorder when I was 14. I was unhappy with my weight, so I started eating healthy and exercising. I lost a couple of pounds, so I thought, This is easy. Maybe I could lose a couple more. I started cutting back on my food intake and kept eating less and less. I became a vegetarian so I could eliminate meat and eat a salad and not feel bad. I started exercising to the point where one time I blacked out. I kept losing weight, and I didn’t acknowledge that I had a problem.

“I didn’t go into this thinking, OK, I want an eating disorder. I didn’t ask for it, it just came. But I’ve always been a perfectionist; I wanted to do well in school and please my parents and this kind of perfectionist attitude drove me to have the perfect body. The eating disorder was a like a comfort; it was the only time in my life I had control. I could determine my food intake.

“At home we never ate at the table, so I’d dish out my food, put it in a bag and throw it away. I fell into a habit, started making bad decisions and lied to my parents to get out of the house. I got grounded for that at the end of the school year and into the summer, so I didn’t have anything to do. All I had was my eating disorder.

“I’d take my mom’s Southern Living magazine and cut out recipes. I wouldn’t allow myself to eat food, so I’d take out the grocery section of the paper. I also started cooking, because that was the closest that I could come to eating food, to actually smell it and be around it.”

I Have a Problem
”I never revealed my sickness to my parents until my mom told me to pack up some food (for a trip we were taking to our cabin) and I picked out only stuff low in calories. I don’t know what made me do it; maybe it was God, but I sat down with my mom and told her I had a problem. ‘I can’t stop losing weight, and I don’t eat,’ I said.”

Melissa’s mom took her to a doctor, who recommended high-energy drinks to gain weight. That didn’t work, so she went to a nutritionist who understood eating disorders. She started keeping a food journal and slowly gained weight, but it wasn’t enough to be healthy. Melissa would water down her food, throw it away and fill up by drinking lots of water.

Her eating disorder was still a problem, so Melissa’s parents wouldn’t let her go to summer camp unless she started eating and gaining weight. Her eating disorder was so entrenched she just couldn’t do it. Melissa was severely underweight. She described feeling cold all the time and lying in bed under the covers, shivering and feeling dizzy.

Finally at the do-or-die point, Melissa came to Canopy Cove. “I knew why I was there, but my eating disorder wouldn’t let me cooperate at all. I’d hide my food, because my eating disorder didn’t want me to get the help I needed. There were months where I didn’t smile and didn’t laugh; it was such a horrible time for me. My eating disorder had been my comfort; it had been there for me, and I didn’t know what I would do without it. It was hard for me to let go.”

Melissa’s body began breaking down to sustain her because she wasn’t consuming enough calories. The nurse who took her blood pressure had to use the baby-size cuff because Melissa had lost so much weight.

“I remember every Tuesday was restaurant day at Canopy Cove. The first time my mom had to carry me to the car to go, because my eating disorder was so controlling and unwilling to cooperate. It was so hard not to make my own food, and I didn’t know exactly how many fat calories I was eating. But I actually allowed myself to enjoy the meal. I hadn’t had a high-calorie meal like that in a long time.”

The turning point came after about three months. Melissa remembers being at a standstill and deciding she had to help herself. A group of patients went to a graveyard and found the tombstone of a girl their age. A staff member asked them, “What would she give to be where you are and to be alive?” Melissa imagined her brother coming to her grave and putting flowers on it. That was when she decided she had to want to get better.

“Art therapy really helped, because it was a release of emotion without my even noticing. I was able to have fun, paint, draw and actually express myself. Equine (horse) therapy was also helpful, because taking care of someone other that myself taught me the value in taking care of myself.”

Melissa’s been out of treatment for three years. She graduated high school and is hoping to go to college and become a teacher. She says she still has to manage her eating disorder, but it’s not a problem, because she has tools to deal with it, thanks to Canopy Cove.

No Going Back
“I have such a good life that going back to my eating disorder just isn’t an option. I’ve seen the worst of the illness, and it’s not something I want to go back to. I’m still grateful for (the experience), because if it weren’t for my eating disorder, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I love who I am now, and I love my life. I’ve been at such a low point. I’ve seen the worst of the worst, where I’ve wanted to die, and because of that, I’m able to appreciate things more fully.”

Melissa has some advice for readers who might be struggling with an eating disorder: “God never gives you more than you can handle. He knows you can get through and are strong enough to really persevere. An eating disorder only chooses the best. It only goes to the strongest, because they’re the people who are able to get through. You’re not alone; there is help. If it’s possible for me to get through this, it’s possible for anyone!”

Be sure to check back next month as we hear more firsthand stories about overcoming an eating disorder.

*names have been changed to protect confidentiality.