Eating Disorders are Like Compost: Trash to Treasure

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Okay, okay. I’m going to get a little corny this week. After the coldest, longest winter Boston has seen in a while, I’m feeling positively giddy about Spring. So, forgive me the gardening metaphor, but I think it works. This week I was digging around in my compost bin. I dug through layers of leaves, weeds, and scraps of food to get down to the nutritional gold: gorgeous, mineral-rich soil. Organic gardening is my dirty little hobby, and I enjoy seeing the miracles that come from layering goat manure from a friend’s backyard farm with compost made from egg shells, fruit peels, and wilted lettuce leaves from the previous couple of years.

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I was deep into my digging, feeling my connection to the earth and how good it felt to use my body to connect with it, when the theme for this blog post came to me. Here I was, taking all the food scraps that would normally be thrown into the trash and mixing them with other backyard trash (leaves, grass clippings, weeds). With the help of rain, insects, and heat, what once was trash becomes treasure. The end result, with time, is extremely healthy, rich soil that makes my garden grow. The vegetables and herbs that my daughters and I grow from tiny seeds in our sunny front yard each year come out of that rich soil. They are fed and nourished and flourish because I put my old banana peels and raked-up leaves to work for them. The food scraps go back to the earth and, in turn, feed the next year’s crop of food. The cycle continues. How cool is that…?

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It got me thinking, as I was digging through the kinda gross layers of not-quite-composted food to get to the good stuff on the bottom, that eating disorders are like this. (Bear with me here…) My clients with disordered and disregulated eating have a lot they struggle with. There is the food, weight, and body image issues — and there is all of the other struggles that go on underneath these (like trauma, shame, depression, anxiety, low-self-esteem, self-judgement  — to name a few). Working through one’s relationship with food and body, when those relationships have become challenged, is truly hard work. My clients do this hard work; it is not usually fun. But the outcome of doing this work is so worth it. Repairing your relationship with food, learning to love and accept your body and your Self, working through the issues that brought you to use food emotionally… it’s quite an amazing journey. In the process, you get to know yourself intimately, heal some wounds, and discover how to truly take good care of your body, mind, and spirit.

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Clients who have done their recovery work and really embrace their lives often write to me about what a gift their eating disorder was, in the end. Of course, they couldn’t see that when they were in the throes of it. Digging through the non-quite-composted layers in my bin, I encountered biting ants (ouch) and smelly things. However, with time and patience, those icky layers will become earthy gold: soil that produces new blossoms, ripe fruits. Sometimes we just have to dig through the muck to get to the gold. Sometimes we have to examine the parts of ourselves that we don’t like, the parts of ourselves that have been hurt or challenged or hidden. In recovery, we allow ourselves to be nourished with not only good food, but good company. We learn to water and feed and tend to ourselves in a way that allows us to realize our full potentials and give to others around us. In recovery, we take a dark time in our lives and grow from it.

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My clients are doing this every day. If I hadn’t had my eating disorder decades ago, I might not be doing this work that I love and that helps others find their own paths to wellness, healing, and hope. If you are hanging out in the icky layers of the compost bin (and we all have our moments with the worms, no matter how far along in our growth we think we are), know that it’s worth digging deeper and giving yourself time to get to the earthy, rich soil within. It’s worth getting dirty and getting grounded. Working through to that bottom layer brings the outcomes of good soil: creativity, growth, and ripe, luscious fruit.

(I hope my metaphor worked for you. If it didn’t, you can just toss it in your compost bin and compose your own.)