About secrets, food, shame and letting go through writing
Do you love eating food? Today, I love food. For 40 years, however, every meal was an ordeal, sandwiched between layers of anxiety and guilt. My diaries are a testimony to this difficult, hellish time. Year after year, diary after diary became full to overflowing with copious rules and contracts, on what to eat and how to behave, in a desperate effort to gain brief relief. But relief was only ever temporary, for rules that emanate from a mind that is dominated by, and a prisoner to, an eating disorder, are doomed to fail. No amount of self-harming behavior is ever enough.
Therefore, during an eating disorder, while the diary can serve as a trusted confidant at a time of extreme isolation, a haven in which to attempt to make sense of a tortuous, misunderstanding world, without a trusted mentor the diary also can become embroiled with—and become a servant of—the eating disorder; a secret within a secret.
Thus, without direction, the more I attempted to sort and control mental chaos in my diary, the more irrational I became in relation to real or perceived distressing events. However, the good news is that gradually, when I began recovery work with therapeutic guidance, the diary evolved from a form of survival and managing tool to a method for building and strengthening healthy self.
Years later, I began to reflect and wonder if others had felt the same as me. Had they found diary-writing helpful as a survival and coping tool, and had they turned their diary writing into a self-healing tool? To test the waters, I wrote a blog and invited diary-writers with experience of an eating disorder to get in touch. The response was amazingly positive and led to a PhD and the writing of my book Using Writing as a Therapy for Eating Disorders _ The Diary Healer. In this book, diary writers discuss how writing has helped them to come to terms with and rise above their experiences of shame and stigma.
It is important to note that while I chose to use diaries to write about eating disorders, you could just as easily use diaries to write about what it is like being a stay-at-home mother, or a working mother, or a farmer, or airline pilot, or a lawn bowler. The possibilities for themes are endless, and the benefits in undertaking this narrative project are extensive and impressive. Whether you decide to maintain privacy, beyond sharing with a trusted writing mentor, or share your story in the public sphere, the process can bring unexpected rewards in healthy self-knowledge and healthy self-awareness.
For instance, drawing on my diaries in writing letters to trusted members of my treatment team helped me to edge forward in recovery, providing an avenue for connecting with people I trusted, even when I didn’t know which way was “forward.” From this tenuous leap of faith towards others who did not judge or criticize and were very, very patient, I began slowly to trust and connect with true “me.” With encouragement, I began to read through earlier diaries, to reflect on them and address the layers of issues within. This involved re-visiting painful and traumatic times, to release and re-story memories too difficult to process otherwise. Digging through and addressing layers of suppressed emotion was a prerequisite for escaping the eating disorder’s grip and constructing a safe base of self-belief. I made notes of specific thoughts and feelings, between appointments, to discuss at my next visit.
The path was not always rosy. There were great personal relationship losses and, upon healing, not all could be retrieved. Going forward required a total re-make; a reintegration of various frayed or lost strands of the true “me.”
To conclude, the essence of diary writing is about being a friend with your healthy or true self. In this way, the diary is like a trusted, best friend, who knows all about you and loves you anyway. In people who develop an eating disorder, avoidance may kick in and lead to layers of deceit, not only with friends and family, but also with your diary. With guidance from a writing mentor, however, the diary can become a reflective, exploratory and healing tool, and help you to discover or re-discover parts of true self. Therefore, besides providing a safe place to store and “let go” of emotion, the diary can serve as a personal trainer.