Time to Act

November 21, 2022

You cannot think your way into an eating disorder, nor can you think your way out of it. The progression of the illness, as well as the recovery process, requires action.

Thanks to years of dedicated research in the field and the study of treatment outcomes, it has been shown that eating disorders are a result of multi-dimensional factors, including both genetic and environmental. Often, there are deep, underlying emotional issues at play in their development, which need to be addressed in a therapeutic setting in order to maintain long term recovery. The term “eating disorder” itself is fundamentally inadequate to describe the depth of bio-psycho-social factors underlying a disordered relationship with food and body image. It is far from just about food.

One of the most challenging, but rewarding parts of my healing process was unearthing wounds in my past that were influencing my behaviors with food and weight control. Once I stepped out of denial, I found true joy in the process of self-discovery, self-expression, and learning how to talk about and express parts of my inner self which the eating disorder had help keep dormant for years. Talk therapy, journaling, and other expressive forms helped my mind begin to heal some of the deep emotional battles which had triggered the eating disorder in the first place.

I will add one, big, “however,” here, and it is a hard truth I learned in my own recovery journey.

That work alone was not enough. I also needed to act, beyond cooperating in the room of my therapist and working on my inner life. I needed to also address the food and the behaviors around it. I needed to act. This is where the “rubber meets the road;” in the beginning, the very “not fun” part of eating disorder recovery.

In truth, eating disorders are not all about food, but they also ARE about food. In order for the relationship with it to be healed, the foundation beings with the brain and emotions, but that must lead to actual change in behaviors around food.

I found myself thinking the biggest part of my recovery process was going to take place in the therapy room, when in reality, facing my plate was JUST as important. In fact, it was absolutely essential in order to get my brain to keep functioning properly as the therapy work got harder and more intense. The collaboration of talk therapy, expressive therapies, and weight restoration or the increased normalization of one’s relationship with food must happen together. One cannot “talk therapy” their way out of an eating disorder.

This process takes a tremendous amount of support; from a treatment team, family, and friends. Whether addressed in a residential or outpatient setting, healing one’s relationship with food takes time, but getting adequate nutrition is essential for therapy to work. It takes an absolute leap of faith that life on the other side of the eating disorder is going to be better than life in it. It takes tremendous courage to act: to take the initial risks and face the fear of honoring hunger and fullness cues, learning how to eat intuitively, and beginning to strip away the ritualistic and moralistic thinking around food. It takes tremendous effort, but it must be done.

I had a “good cop” and “bad cop” as a part of my treatment team – my therapist, the one I felt most comfortable with, my primary care eating disorder specialist, the one who kept me accountable in regard to weight, vitals, and calorie intake. At the beginning, I hated her. I’ve grown to love her, and whenever I see her now, years later at conferences, meetings, or events, she is the one who I hold the most gratitude for; for encouraging me to act, despite my fear. To keep pushing me outside my comfort zone. She and my dietitian kept nudging me toward action and away from solely addressing my thoughts. Now, years later, I see how what was painful, frustrating, and terrifying at the beginning – action – change in behavior – lead to the deepest change.

I know how hard addressing the actual food can be. It can take years. The behaviors, influenced by thoughts, emotions, and mindset, can rear their head years later. But in the end, we didn’t think our way into these illnesses, and won’t think our way out of them. This is why I hold such tremendous and profound respect and admiration for all those, all of us, who have managed to work through recovery, because this disease is a battle of the mind AND the body. It requires continual effort engaging both the emotions and the actions. But the two go together, and on the other side is a kind of freedom that, I promise you, you may never have believed was possible. So, take that next step. Jump off the cliff. Believe. You’re not alone, and you have a team of cheerleaders supporting you all the way.

Kirsten Müller-Daubermann is an international speaker, mental health advocate and digital media strategist. She serves as the Community Relations Specialist for Timberline Knolls and as Founder and President of the Kirsten Haglund Foundation. She served as Miss America 2008. Kirsten is also the host of “Honest Talk,” Timberline Knolls’ Instagram LIVE interview series @timberlinetoday. Kirsten studied musical theatre performance at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM), and graduated from Emory University with a B.A. in Political Science. She is currently based in Zürich, Switzerland. For more information about Timberline Knolls, please visit: timberlineknolls.com.