Lost and Found in the Forest of the Mind
Lost and Found in the Forest of the Mind
We crave to be loved, to be connected to our family and to feel at peace at home. When an eating disorder (ED) separates our mind from our body, “home” is no longer comfortable, and the disconnection drives us to meet our needs elsewhere. But this is never enough. By choosing to courageously listen to our own true voice, we can find everything we need to feel at peace, around and within us.
On the top of a hill sits a splendid and grand castle overlooking an expanse of lush, natural, and ancient trees. A small girl called Anna spends delightful hours in this natural habitat. The forest provides her with a beautiful place for free and sacred play.
When the sun starts to set, Anna knows she must return to her castle as Mother and Father will be expecting her. They don’t understand the beauty she can see. They warn her of the dangers being outdoor and want her to stay at home where she is encased in her room and not causing worry or concern.
Despite her best attempt to explain, Anna’s mother and father decide the forest is full of danger and forbid her to return, declaring their concerns of tangled and gloomy evil lurking behind every tree.
Father tells her the folklore tale of the wolf who lies in wait for children who do not follow the rules and traps them in his lair. He speaks of the loneliness Anna will feel, if trapped in the woods, and tells her of the children crying in the night, wishing to come home, and of the parents who have forgotten their naughty children and no longer miss them.
As the number of trapped children grows in size each day, the wolf decides who he will destroy. He never lets them go and grows in power with each conquest. “There is limited food in the forest,” Father says, and eating plump children gives the wolf a way to survive.
Anna peers out of the window, where a sliver of light peers through. She spends hours watching the trees in the distance, remembering the times she would twirl and spin until she fell onto the soft ground and would look upwards, through the canopy, to see blue sky above. She watches carefully for the wolf but all she can see is the open horizon and the sweet sound of nature reminding her of the world outside her ivory tower.
As the summer passes, so do the days and Anna enters puberty. Suddenly her arms and legs are gangly, and her body does not feel like her own. Anna knows her clothes are tight and no longer fit and the shame of this deprives her of the words to ask Mother for new clothes. If Anna is hungry between meals her mother tells her she is not and says, “Don’t be ridiculous,” with a sigh.As mealtimes come and go, this is the only time Mother has plenty of advice, “Drink lots of water before you eat”, “No carbohydrates after 5pm,” “Only eat half of your meal” and “Now you are older, you will need to watch what you eat”. Shehopes that one day, when she grows up, she can be pretty, thin, and tall like her mother with someone to love her. However, an incessant negative voice in her head tells her this will never be true.
Anna has learnt to eat when her parents are busy. She eats in secret and, while filled with guilt and shame, this is the only time she does not feel empty or so alone.
Looking out of her window at the forbidden forest, Anna feels sorrowful but the story of the wolf who eats plump children is a reminder that she cannot risk breaking her parents’ rules.
Mother and Father continue to misunderstand how Anna feels and as she grows, she feels more invisible at home. She remembers, with yearning, her connection to the opulent trees, the clear blue sky, free flying birds, squirrels, and rabbits that were her companions in the forest.
Dinner time comes and Anna sits alone as her parents are going to a ball. Her mother is wearing a magnificent gown and her diamond necklace sparkles like the stars. Her father swoops in and embraces his wife and winks at Anna, telling her, one day, she could be pretty like her mother. As they leave the house, silence falls, and Anna feels all alone. Without eating another bite, she returns to her room where she watches their carriage glide away.
Each time Mother and Father leave the house, silence falls, and Anna sits at the window watching and waiting to see the wolf appear. As she stares at her reflection in the glass window, the lure to disobey her parents is strong. Anna is tired of being told what she can and cannot do. One night, she glances out the window and is transported back to a time where her body and mind were free. As she hears the birds singing, she suddenly knowshow to take control, how to leave the castle, and the wolf will never know.
For the first time, Anna is no longer lonely or scared. She has purpose and personal goals. There is a relentless conversation in her head, and now she recognises it, she listens well. She knows the calories of any food ingested and knows what rules are set in stone. Her list of “bad” foods outweigh the “good” by far, but when she considers questioning this, the voice in her head becomes abusive so she shuts the questioning thoughts down swiftly. She cannot tolerate the idea she may fail.
Anna will not eat unless she first walks laps around her room. It is important to burn off more than eaten and when this is not possible, she has found ways to negotiate her intake by purging, restricting, diet pills and laxatives. She starts to feel more in control and knows she will soon be able to enter the forest in safety.
Anna stops gazing out the window each day, but the wolf is always present in her mind. She knows the pain of being trapped inside and the fear of failing is greater than the fable her father used to tell.
Mother and Father are proud as they comment on her size. When they say, “You look so healthy,” and, “Nowwe can see your pretty face” Anna feels seen. She has reached her goal. Mother wants to spend time with her, and Father invites Anna to attend a ball.
Once this would have been all Anna desired as all she ever wanted was their time. However, Anna has constant company now; the voice urging her on is very strong. Anna is dying from the inside out yet this price to pay, pushing her to be her best, does not matter while she believes she is chasing control, freedom, and ultimately success.
As the birds sing out to her, Anna knows the time has come and, without a glance backwards, she slips out of the tower that has held her tight. Anna knows she is not alone; the wolf is waiting to show her the way. No longer a worthy meal with no meat on her bones, Anna knows she is safe. The wolf, after all, has been with her in her head, for so long he would not possibly hurt her.
Deeper and deeper into the forest Anna dares to go. Her mother’s voice calling after her becomes distant. She focuses on the sun breaking through the branches of the tallest tress and follows the pinpricks of light.
Searching for the lush, natural, and ancient trees of her past, the clear blue sky, free flying birds, squirrels, and rabbits, Anna is looking for the beauty that has never left her mind. She knows there are delightful hours to frolic and be free but cannot see an opening to lay her head with a clear view to the blue sky above. Perhaps because Anna is older, and her bones are tired and weary, she craves a place to rest but everywhere she looks has rocks, stones and uneven shrubs that are not welcoming as she had dreamed.
Anna left home to be nurtured and wants to lie in the sunshine with the butterflies, birds, and rabbits yet so far, the only life she has found is the wolf who stands carefully by her side.
Days run together and Anna still cannot find a place to rest. She is convinced that because her parents never noticed her, the wolf had an easy time in becoming her friend. At first, he is kind, poses no threat and continues to lead her further from home. The wolf is loyal and clever and insists he knows what is best for Anna. She is willing to do anything to please him. To not eat, to not drink and to refuse to rest, are small sacrifices that show her appreciation for his care.
A small echo over the treetops late one day, alerts Anna to her mother’s voice; however, she is unsure if it is her imagination. In fear, Anna reaches out to the wolf for comfort only to be met with disrespect and scornful anger.
Anna feels chilled to the bone, and out of her depth, yet the wolf insists she keeps moving. Anna did not believe the folklore tale her father told, she was sure he was trying to scare her but perhaps he knew more about the wolf than he let on and Anna feels foolish for ignoring him. While the wolf does not want to eat her skin and bones, he remains determined to enforce her isolation. As darkness settles on the forest once again, Anna has not eaten in days; the wolf is non-negotiable.
In despair, Anna realises she is now trapped in the wolf’s lair. She feels the loneliness and wishes to go home because it seems the wolf’s plan is to still destroy her.
Now she is deep inside the bowels of the forest, where there are no whispering trees, no singing birds, and the bubbling brook does not speak its sweet lullabies, Anna wishes she could speak to Mother and Father. Instead of a warm bed and window to her dreams, Anna feels trapped in a nightmare where the cunning wolf has taken control. Anna has only ever wanted to be loved and she thought the forest could offer her this and now realizes that her parents may not have always listened, but they always tried to protect her. Even when they did not seem to see her, they did not seek to destroy her.
Another day passes of no food passing her lips and, with her body wasting away, Anna knows she needs help to heal from the outside in and hopes, if she can escape the clutches of the wolf, Mother and Father will still love her and welcome her back to the castle.
Anna is wise beyond her years and despite her loneliness and pain, she follows her heart, one step at a time, never stopping despite incessant arguing with the wolf within. One day, as if in a dream, far on the horizon she sees her castle.
The wolf is reminding her of the days she spent alone in her room, gazing from the window overlooking the trees. However, now Anna is on the outside, looking in and she wants to be there so badly that, although in the distance, she feels it may be within reach.
The lure to disobey the wolf is strong. Anna is tired of being told what she can and cannot do. The forest did not offer her the lush, ancient trees or a beautiful place to be free. Anna now knows her father was right and is aware that staying with the wolf will destroy her.
The wolf seemed kind and caring, until she saw he was not, and then he preyed on her fragile thinking.
When Anna stops and listens well, she can hear the wolf in her ear as well as the chirps of birds and the voices of Mother and Father. Anna takes one step at a time, feeling both pleasure and pain as she reaches out to her parents. They open their arms to embrace her.
Fathers’ folklore tale was correct in that once the wolf has a hold, he will never let go but he was wrong that Mother and Father would forget her.
Anna has learnt that bravely taking the risk to walk backwards to move forward has influenced the outcome. Her parents have not abandoned her at all.
Being home in the castle is not easy, and Anna is so tired that most days she can’t get out of bed. She can feel her body is unwell and her thinking is unclear. While she drifts in and out of sleep, she has Mother and Father’s full attention but not the way she wanted it to be.
The wolf has stayed with her and never leaves her alone. Even now, in her castle, he is in her bedroom. He is within her. He is constantly lurking around, and Anna tries to ignore his pleas. Anna tells Mother and Father of the commotion in her head as the noises compete for space.
While Anna still feels unsafe in the castle and lost from her time in the forest, Mother and Father are so happy to have her home, they stay by her side and listen to her fears. Even after all of this, Anna longs for the forest, to see the trees and feel the sun on her face as she looks towards the sky. She knows the wolf is waiting for a moment to speak.
Time with Mother, time with Father and time to rest, Anna hugs these moments. Self-compassion and time to heal is the only way for her to become complete.
Anna knows that lying still, waiting for others to notice her, leaves too much time to think. Encouraged by her parents, she open the windows of her room wide, the birds, squirrels and butterflies enter and share her room. She reaches out her hands and welcomes them. Soon, Anna sits up and sees that beauty is within.
The time she takes to observe the butterflies, talk to the birds and smell the flowers leaves less time for the wolf to consume space and air and tell her what to do.
With her parents and forest friends, Anna no longer feels alone. It does not matter what she needs, or where she goes. When the wolf sneaks into her private space, Anna reaches out, and tells others he is there.
When her parents are away from the castle, Anna has the sun, the flowers, and the trees at her fingertips and is careful about the parts of the forest she wants to let in. She is brave enough to have ventured out to see the world and now, instead of wishing for what she does not have, she feels secure enough to ask for what she needs. Rather than follow the wolf without question, Anna chooses to take time to heal from the outside in, and from the inside out. She grows stronger as she interacts more with those parts of the forest that serve her well.
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About Karen Louise
Growing up, all I ever wanted was a large family and the white picket fence dream. Born and bred in Australia, I work full time in a high-profile job and have four children. As a high functioning professional and mother with a diagnosis of a severe and enduring eating disorder, life has thrown more challenges my way than seems fair. As I reach a crossroad in my life, I realise I want to live authentically, with purpose. Writing allows me to give voice to the battles that lie within in the hope my skills and hard-won experience will help move me in a direction of Eating Disorder and Trauma recovery and allow me to create changes in the eating disorder advocacy and eating disorder education world.