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Emily’s Story: Reframing Anorexia

Posted on Feb 15, 2007 by

The thread this week (which, again, may or may not be apparent) is how looking at something in a different way can shift things. And perhaps one of the clearest instances I’ve seen of this shift happened with Emily, a young woman with anorexia who I’ve written about here before. She had severe anorexia, weighed only fifty-two pounds when I began seeing her. And she had, when I first began to see her, a definite point of view toward her body. She viewed her body as the problem—disgusting actually—a stance that only became accentuated after a meal. Her stomach would protrude a bit after a meal—and she would see and feel this protrusion as disgusting.

The body was seen as the problem. The body, in her point of view, was disgusting.
And the antidote?

It began with horses. Or some part of the antidote began with horses. Horses helped her reframe the story of her own body.

It started like this. Emily began to imagine a safe place where she could experience healing. She imagined herself at a barn among horses. Then, with time—and this was a surprise to me—something I didn’t foresee—she began to realize that it was easier to have a stomach when she imagined herself being around the horses. She felt freer among the horses. She felt free to eat a meal and have a small pouch of a stomach afterward. She didn’t feel so disgusted by her own stomach—so disgusted by her own body. And all of this had something to do with the fact that she felt the horses weren’t judging her. It had something to do with taking a respite, for a while, from human eyes.

It wasn’t that all human eyes that looked at her body looked upon it with judgment—but some did—and some had in the past. She’d had some shaming experiences as a child and into her teen years. And, perhaps because of this history, it seemed, at least for the time being, all human eyes were suspect. All human eyes put her at risk.

But the horses’ eyes. She felt safer with them.

This went on for a while, imagining herself at the barn among the horses. And as she practiced imagining herself the way the horses saw her she began to imagine that her pouch of a stomach could be a kind of pregnancy. The pouch she’d once perceived as ugly and shameful began to transform when she began to see it from a new point of view. She didn’t think she was literally pregnant. It wasn’t delusional like that. It was subtler, and more in the imaginal realm. She told me that she could sometimes hold onto the thought that the pouch of her stomach was a pregnancy, and inside it she was carrying some new kind of life, and, sometimes, she told me, this made her feel something like hope.

A pregnancy. New life.

She was beginning to imagine her body as nurturing—as potentially good. And it was one of those moments—I can remember thinking this—it was a moment that had the potential to change things. If the body is potentially good, then maybe, just maybe, it would be okay to nourish that body, to feed it, to offer it sustenance.

The moment, if truth be told, was just a glimpse really. The glimpse came and it went. But it also held this potentially life-altering point of view: the body as good.

And it began, like Einstein began, with the question of what if. What if things are not the way that they seem to be, or not only the way that they seem to be? What if the way one has tended to look at the world—and one’s body—is not the only way to see it? What happens if the frame of reference gets shifted?

And what might happen if one were able to do this in writing?