By Maira B.
Admitting I had an eating disorder was hard. But seeking the right treatment was even harder.
My first therapy session was in a cold unfriendly office, and while I tried to make sense of why I was there in the first place, my therapist only looked up at me momentarily before proceeding to scribble away her observations on her notepad. That one hour was probably the longest, most uncomfortable hour of my life.
Needless to say, the idea of conventional treatment had me running for the hills. And as a South Asian it gets worse.
Majority of the treatments available for eating disorders have been tested on a Caucasian population. Only recently have psychologists and psychiatrists begun to conduct studies on a multicultural population set. So as parents and as treatment seekers, we must question if the therapist understands the impact of our culture and traditional values on our psyches—whether they will be able to relate to the unique family dynamics and provide culturally sensitive treatments.
But this is not to say that conventional treatments are the be all and end all. I discovered a sea of alternative therapies that consist of painting, imagination and talking—all in warm, safe environments—ideal for fostering a healthy recovery.
To begin, I need to stress that eating disorders are not just about food! So for all you moms and dads who think that if you force feed your child she will get better, think again.
It is due to the complex nature of eating disorders that talk therapy remains the most integral part of the recovery process. There is an array of overlapping, convoluted emotions hidden and buried under the façade of an eating disorder. In order to work through those feelings and thoughts we need someone to make sense of it—a guide. This therapeutic guidance can be provided by an Ayurvedic practitioner, Traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, acupuncturist, counselor, social worker, or even your religious leader. With the right intentions and experience, these healers can be very effective therapists. After all, the focus should be placed upon finding a guide that is genuinely vested in your recovery; someone you can trust and relate to in order for the healing to begin.
As you may or may not know, the unconscious mind is the driving force of an eating disorder, for there it harbours all the self-punishing thoughts that feed the disease. Guided imagery, a promising new alternative, is an effective way to reach under the conscious thinking. We all know our imaginations can be very potent at times, but I bet you never thought that it might have healing properties! Imagery is used as a tool to extract insights and feelings associated with past experiences. In this case, the eating disordered individual produces visualization in the form of a story. The story may sound something like this: She is walking through a beautiful meadow on a bright sunny day but as she walks through she spots a dark house with dark clouds looming over it. The emergence of the dark house depicts her fears deep rooted in her unconscious. As she explores the story with her guide she begins to gain strength and confidence in her ability to be aware of her feelings.
Ayurveda, my personal favourite, is translated as the science of life, and has proven to be very effective. This system is designed to contribute to a way of life rather than just a treatment. It operates on the principle that the mind and body are interconnected. Emotional and mental symptoms are just as important as physical ailments. If we alleviate one, we alleviate the other, and vice versa. It is a completely natural system, offering herbal remedies to counter imbalances, detoxification, diet, meditation, and a variety of other techniques to improve mental and emotional habits. The central philosophy is to enable people, in our case the eating disordered individual, to grasp how we become ill. It is due to this central theme Ayurvedic therapists make excellent guides for talk therapy. For the physical manifestations of the eating disordered behaviour, remedies are made from natural, non-toxic substances with no side effects, and a vital emphasis on diet.
Art can have profound healing effects; this mode remains one of most popular for many eating disordered individuals. When suffering from an eating disorder, the predominant obsession is to control your actions and suppress your fears and emotions. Art therapy works to assuage both the obsession and compulsion. It provides a creative outlet to unleash those feelings, to lash out on the blank canvas with vibrant paint that depicts the anger and sadness, or to simply create. It can also provide the individual with a safe haven, a distraction away from self-punishing thoughts.
Finally I’d like to illustrate the benefits of nutritional therapy, a way to get the body used to small portions of food. Whether you are anorexic or bulimic the point is to get used to food staying in your system. This supplementary therapy highlights the effects of certain foods and minerals on the mind and bodily functions. For example, coriander, a highly aromatic herb, can be used in the case of anorexia to stimulate appetite. Zinc supports internal enzyme activity and has an important role in immunity, brain functioning, and protein synthesis.
Finding the best treatment is not an easy task. It is a trial and error process that requires time and patience. But it is important to know that there is more than one solution out there. Talk to your child, be open-minded and approachable, and find the one that fits your child’s needs as well as your family’s.