Between now and next week, draw a picture of your experience of having an eating disorder,” I request - a standard therapeutic assignment. My client’s are some of the brightest, most artistic, lovely creatures in the universe. Although incredibly unique individuals they often return with similar images - themselves imprisoned...
Their visual interpretations, the same but different, resonate so deeply. They transport me to a time when I resided in similar confines. We get curious together about what it’s like to be so trapped - the confusion of feeling simultaneously suffocated and safe. I encourage them to imagine what’s on the other side of those prison bars. Who holds the key to the lock? What’s our escape plan? Whose help will they need to get the hell out of there?
I share with my client’s a story about a gorgeous white tiger named, Mohini who was a gift to President Eisenhower in the 60’s. I originally heard about Mohini, which translates as Enchantress, from one of my favorite author’s and meditation teacher’s, Tara Brach, PhD.
Mohini spent many years in a cage at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. Her days consisted of pacing the perimeter of her cramped 12X12 foot cage, while the staff worked hard to create a natural habitat for her. The habitat was on several lush acres with trees, hills and a pond. With great excitement, Mohini was released into the habitat. Sadly, she made her home a 12X12 corner, where she paced the perimeter, much like in the cage, all the remaining years of her life. She never explored the vast expansive habitat available to her. She must have grown so accustomed to living in a cage, that anything else must have felt unsafe to her.
Every time I hear this story, it makes my heart hurt. I’ve been caged by my eating disorder and now I treat others trapped as well. Although I don’t actively have to work for my recovery on a daily basis anymore, any time something hard or uncomfortable comes up my default mode is to say, “Oh but look, there’s that cage you could run back to for safety.” I’ve come to know this voice intimately, the voice of ED as we often refer to it. Now, I’m able to say, “Hmm. You’re still here, even after all of these years. Ugh, I’m so over you! So quick to make yourself heard when I am vulnerable. Thanks for the offer, but I’m gonna pass.” It’s harder work to stay outside of the cage in many ways, you have to “feel and deal,” as I say to my client’s. But the payoff is massive and worth it.
My client’s are able to see themselves in Mohini as well. I ask them consider what might keep them bound to the corner of their lives, tethered to their eating disorder. I see it in their eyes that in spite of how much it might stretch them to embark on the journey of the unknown, they deeply want it for themselves. I ask them, “If you weren’t so scared, what would you feel?” Unanimously, the response is, “EXCITED!!!”
For those of us who are recovered, I think the metaphor of being imprisoned continues to show up in our lives, not in the sense that we are entangled with our eating disorder, but simply the way we limit ourselves based on our belief system.
I look at my own life and know for certain that I’m not fully taking advantage of the possibilities that exist for me. I’m not in the 12x12 corner any more, but oh how I love to hover around what feels familiar. I vowed to myself that this year I would get very vulnerable, which means I’m going to need to get uncomfortable and stretch myself in effort to explore. This will require me to lean into the calling of my heart. This calling, whispered and woven into my being that year after year shows up, yet, I deny out of fear. I get scared, much like in my recovery days. I allow the loud demands in my life to over shadow the quiet calling.
Although my office, where I do individual therapy, is not a prison, in fact, it’s a gorgeous space where my client’s transform, it does not fully capture all the ways I am meant to help others heal from their eating disorder. I know this deep in the marrow of my bones, yet a decade into this work, it’s safe for me, it’s familiar, and honestly, if I weren’t scared of seeming prideful, I would share that I’m really good at this work. However, to spend too much of my time in that space, limits other parts of me that are pleading with me, “let’s go check out the pond!”
Here’s the pattern – a soft whisper late into the night, “You need to write a book.” And then a steady, quiet flow of energy passes through me that says, “Invest in this endeavor, you’ve always wanted to write a book, you come from a long line of women who write, so write!” And then, like a tidal wave that old voice comes crashing down on me, “you’re not smart enough, what would you even write about, who would want to read anything you have to say anyway, it’s all already been said before.” My small self agrees, “Of course, of course, you’re right.” A brief period of sadness washes over me, and then I put the next load of laundry in, obsess about our kitchen cabinets needing to be repainted and carry on with the demands of a family and a private practice.
I share this with you because I want you to know, you aren’t alone. WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER. I genuinely believe this. I think our best bet, is to find a tribe of other brave souls who are willing to venture out towards the pond. These individuals, much like you and I, may be unsure of the way, but are willing and open to follow their hearts and course correct as needed. I don’t believe we were meant to do any of this big scary, exciting stuff alone.
So, I guess I’m wondering - what would it take for you to expand beyond whatever confines you? Even just for moments of your day? Maybe you could draw a picture of a day in your life where you went on the adventures that call to your heart. Or, take a field trip in your mind to the pond. Sit there for awhile and ‘feast on your life,’ as Derek Walcott says in his famous poem, Love after Love.