By Jenni Schaefer
A friend of mine struggled with alcohol, and although it was hard, he ultimately decided to “leave the tiger in its cage.” This is a popular analogy to describe recovery from substance use disorder.
But healing from an eating disorder means taking the tiger out of its cage, several times a day, every single day: We eat. Unlike alcohol and opioids, food is required for survival. So is movement, yet exercise is a compulsion for many with eating disorders.
To heal, those of us with eating disorders must seek balance. This means that, unlike my friend who is “in recovery” maintaining abstinence from alcohol — tiger in its cage — we are “recovered,” maintaining a relationship with that which used to control us. So we must pet the tiger.
How do we pet the tiger? Here are some ways:
- I listen to my hunger-fullness cues. Am I hungry? Am I getting full? Am I craving pizza, or vegetables? I pay attention to my body signals in order to know what and when to eat. If I counted calories and fat grams instead, or labeled certain foods as “good” and others as “bad,” this might feed the tiger, making it stronger, more aggressive, harder to pet.
- I don’t monitor my weight. It’s not that I can’t know my weight. At times, I hear my weight at doctor appointments, and it doesn’t bother me, not anymore. But I don’t track my weight. If I decided to step on a bathroom scale each day, I would be feeding the tiger, opening up a window of opportunity for eating-disordered thoughts to emerge and then fester.
- I view exercise simply as movement. I enjoy gardening, which involves walking around my yard, carrying pots and rocks, digging. This counts as exercise. If I adhered to a rigid definition of exercise (I must go to the gym), and started following rigid rules (I must run every day), then once again, I would be feeding the tiger.
- I focus on what I like about my body. When I look in the mirror, I purposefully draw my attention to what I like about myself, like a pink streak in my hair. If instead I sought out perceived flaws and checked them daily, then, you guessed it: I would be feeding the tiger, making it more difficult to maintain a balanced perspective on body image.
- I monitor my anxiety, perfectionism, and obsessive-compulsiveness. Petting the tiger doesn’t just relate to food, exercise, and body image. To maintain freedom from my eating disorder, I pay attention to my level of anxiety. I notice when perfectionism and obsessive-compulsiveness creep in. I use skills to ground myself, like placing a weighted blanket on my lap, paying attention to my breathe, and praying to a higher power.
When I say that I am “recovered” from an eating disorder, this doesn’t mean that I am recovered for life. I still have struggles. But now, I can get to the root of my problems instead of trying to binge, purge, and restrict them away. I don’t even get the urge to engage in eating-disordered behaviors anymore.
I realize that comparing the recovery process to petting a tiger might make healing seem impossible and out of reach. But it is because of the extraordinary resilience and dedication required to heal, that we can ultimately experience a growth that many people never get the chance to develop.
Healing can even force us to build better relationships with food and our bodies than those of people who have never had eating disorders. And, after fighting so hard to make peace with that which used to control us, other challenges in life just don’t seem so difficult. We have already befriended a tiger.
About Senior Fellow Jenni Schaefer
Meadows Senior Fellow and advocate for our specialty eating disorders program, The Meadows Ranch, Jenni Schaefer is the bestselling author of Life Without Ed, Almost Anorexic, and Goodbye Ed, Hello Me. Her newest release, Facing the Invisible Monster: How I Came Back from Trauma and How You Can Too is scheduled for release in January 2024.
Schaefer graduated summa cum laude from Texas A&M University with a degree in biochemistry, and she knows firsthand the devastating consequences of an eating disorder. Since recovering from her own eating disorder, she has carried her message of self-acceptance and triumph over adversity to the public. A sought-after speaker on addiction and food disorders, relationships, depression, and career, Jenni has appeared on Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, TODAY, and Entertainment Tonight, as well as in print in Cosmopolitan and The New York Times.
For more information, visit JenniSchaefer.com.