Battling a Regenerating Hydra

A reflection by Lindsey

This week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Recognizing that it’s important for those who live with the effects of an eating disorder to share their stories, we wanted to use our individual reflection pieces this week to talk about our experiences with eating disorders. Sarah first developed bulimia at 12 and has been living with its effects even as Sarah has achieved a solid amount of recovery. I began supporting Sarah in recovery almost immediately after our friendship began. In today’s post, I share a reflection about supporting someone recovering from an eating disorder.

Update: you can read Sarah’s reflection here.


Sarah and I began our friendship talking on the phone. We were incredibly nerdy Ph.D. students intrigued by one another’s work, incurably capable of geeking out regarding various academic and spiritual topics, and immensely grateful to be able to talk with another person who seemed to “get” why various tough issues we faced in life were legitimate struggles. And really, you can strike “were” out of that last sentence because every aspect of it holds true to this day. As we started to settle into a conversational routine, eventually we migrated toward G-Chat so we could communicate as we worked on our academic projects. Online chatting with a friend can open up a new degree of vulnerability. In our first G-Chat together, Sarah opened up about being in recovery from bulimia.

Offering a listening ear is the first step of supporting someone in recovery from an eating disorder. Everyone’s experience of an eating disorder is different. While people with eating disorders might share a common set of symptoms, the reasons why they have developed the symptoms in the first place are as varied as the world’s ecosystems. Though there are many and varied types of eating disorders, most people understand these in three broad categories: anorexia (restricting food), bulimia (binge eating and purging), and binge eating disorder (binge eating without purging). Generally, I’ve learned to think of eating disorders as being characterized by disordered eating in the extreme. The broad eating disorder categories clue me in on what sort of patterns I might want to watch out for on a reasonably regular basis. It has been essential that I learn to listen when Sarah tells me how specific symptoms have manifested over the course of Sarah’s life. Just when I think I’m able to predict why something may have happened, I realize that there is even more nuance to Sarah’s story.

From my limited experience, eating disorder symptoms appear to emerge from two main roots–at least where Sarah is concerned. I’m offering my perspective because I think there’s a popular perception that the genesis of an eating disorder is easily explained. As I’ve gotten to know people seeking recovery, it seems that many can move between addressing two different kinds of root concerns. Again, what I’m about to describe needs to be interpreted in light of my initial point that listening is essential when you’re trying to support someone in recovery from an eating disorder–no two people are exactly alike. I’m also trying to discuss this issue from my perspective as a person providing support. When you don’t deal with an issue firsthand, it’s easy to say things that are incredibly hurtful and ignorant. I hope that sharing my perception of the roots of Sarah’s eating disorder will help other support people on their journeys.

In the beginning of my efforts at supporting Sarah, one key thing for me to realize was that trauma can lie at the root of an eating disorder. Towards this end, an individual develops eating disorder symptoms as maladaptive coping strategies for managing something distressing that is going on in his or her universe. Eating disorder symptoms may make a person feel powerful, in control, hidden, intelligent, skilled, resourceful, or any number of other positive attributes. Trauma can throw everything off-balance because a person is desperately trying to regain some sense of normal. For some trauma survivors, using eating disorder symptoms offers a way to make the trauma more bearable. I think it’s essential for support people to realize that the kinds of trauma that might lie underneath a person’s eating disorder can be incredibly varied. I have had to learn that I know nothing about Sarah’s trauma except what Sarah chooses to share with me. I cannot guess, I cannot assume, and when Sarah does feel like sharing I cannot make demands that Sarah disclose all details at once. I regularly ask for God’s help in being a safe person with whom Sarah can be vulnerable and a prayerful person as I try to intercede for Christ to aid Sarah in the midst of recovery.

Another thing I’ve had to learn to cope with is that sometimes it seems there is no easy way for a support person to describe why person might be likely to engage in eating disorder symptoms. My personal shorthand for this absolutely confounding nature of an eating disorder is “boredom” and I know there are a lot of problems with trying to suggest that word as a root cause for eating disorder behaviors. What I’m trying to capture is that I’ve observed eating disorder behaviors can produce their own sort of thrill, present their own sort of risks, and take advantage of a person’s fantastic ability to strategize and problem-solve. As an engineer, I know I personally take an odd sense of pride in being able to discuss the physics of any random object at the drop of the hat. I envisage some sort of similar pride if a person has managed to figure out which foods produce the best highs when purging. Behaviors themselves can produce a thrill. Purging and other means of manipulating one’s body can affect a person’s brain chemistry. Sometimes the thrill might be figuring out how to continue in behaviors after normal routes to those behaviors have closed or the body starts showing signs that it can no longer keep up with the symptoms. When an eating disorder develops a mind of its own, sufferers need to be connected with an appropriate level of care by trained professionals. There’s only so much a support person can do.

But I’d also like to note that Sarah’s working on recovery has helped me with my own relationship with food. It’s never been exceptionally problematic, but like most young adults, I can sometimes forget that Sour Patch Kids and Diet Coke are not the healthiest of snacks. I’ve learned how to pack my lunch as Sarah has shared meal planning resources from different dieticians. I have developed a taste for fish as Sarah’s high protein need means we eat protein in virtually every meal and snack. Sarah has even managed to turn me on to the idea of “Breakfast” and I have no idea how that happened. We can laugh about our various food quirks, appreciating them as a part of being human. We have decided that fish tastes better when the sauce is baked on, peas can only be tackled successfully with a spoon, and it’s totally okay to use your tongue to get the last bit of hummus still on the plate. Eating together is a great joy. I honestly look forward to every meal. We have restaurants we love, cupcakeries that are “our” cupcakeries, and a multiplicity of late night dinner options.

I’ve come to see recovery from an eating disorder as battling a constantly regenerating hydra. Just when you think that you’ve cut off one head, it can spurt afresh from a new spot. If I can be so bold, I think the only way to slay an eating disorder effectively is to slash off the heads and then try to address the root issues as expediently as possible. The existence of ever-regenerating heads means that you often have to “rinse and repeat.” It can be easy to get bogged down. Even if a person has had a very long time free from engaging in behaviors, he or she can still be staring the hydra in the face minute-by-minute. You can’t look only at the externals when you want to declare victory.

As a support person, I’m struck by the persistent nature of the regenerating hydra heads. I know Sarah works hard to address the roots and to resist any symptoms. I regard myself as Sarah’s biggest cheerleader while knowing full well it is Sarah’s recovery, not mine. Nonetheless, the eating disorder can throw curveballs. During a meal, Sarah might grab my hand in a way that says, “I need your support right now.” When we’re in a grocery store, Sarah might ask me to pick up some items that are down a surprisingly hard aisle. I might get a phone call where Sarah says, “Please talk to me so I can stay present on my drive home.” I never know exactly what Sarah might need at a given moment, but we’ve talked at length about what I’m willing to do in order to support Sarah. We’ve also identified other “go-to” folks when Sarah needs the kind of support that someone else is better suited to provide.

Helping someone beat an eating disorder means listening, encouraging him or her as he or she does the hard work to slay the hydra, knowing your own boundaries for supporting him or her in stopping active behaviors, being patient, and continuing in hope. Eventually, the hydric nemesis will be no more. Freedom is possible, but gosh, it’s a really, really, really hard fight.

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