Thursday, 20 November 2008

Eating disorders — hungry for Love

A wonderful Tuesday in Aylesbury, at The International Eating Disorders Centre with Andrew Blyth, the local Vicar. Dr James Clarke was a local GP, who has led the project over many years, taking a fresh approach (for the UK) to Anorexia, Bulimia, and overeating. In the early days he took his inspiration from Isaiah 58 with its stirring call to “Loose the fetters of injustice, swap every yoke, set free those who are bound!”

If the problem is people not eating, common sense says all you do is make them eat and they’re sorted. Right? Wrong. Why are people’s eating patterns cursing them? How is that impacted by the personal context? If the eating disorder is basically a symptom as well as cause there’s no more point trying to manage it behaviourally, manipulating symptoms, than there would be treating a cold by taping up your nose. Of course anorectics need to eat more, but they won’t do it until they want to do it, and they won’t want to do it until they believe they’re worth it. The approach here is holistic and progressive, and based on people working together intensively with a range of professionals — psychologists, art therapists, dietitians, spiritual and community counsellors, in an an integrated programme which tries to create a safe space within which people can painfully but truthfully engage with what’s driving their thing in the first place.

Much of the morning was spent with a group of people struggling with Anorexia. There was a strong feeling in the room that this is often portrayed as being all about gormless teenage girls wanting to be supermodels (the “size zero debate”). Nobody in the room fitted this stereotype. Anorexia affects men, too. Indeed anorexia often afflicts caring mature people who set a high standard. There’s a fine line between what athletes and dancers put themselves through in training (scarily impressive) and the rigours of anorexia (life threatening), with associated highs, lows, and hardships along the way. And, of course, eating disorders include a variety of conditions, including much more prevalent overeating, said to affect about one in four of the population at any time.

Two people at the centre spoke of it as a place they’d found unconditional love, and that was what stoked up their courage to press on and beat their disorder, so that world class professional help actually had something to go on. Like all compulsive behaviour there is an addictive dimension that has to be acknowledged and lived through meal by meal for what it is.

There was amazing, down to earth honesty all round, especially in those having a bad day. There’s so much pretending and low grade social hypocrisy around our lives — a whole system that builds up around the compulsion and makes it seem unbeatable. This is often fuelled by the unreflective, collusive, evasive and gormless comments from freinds and family. It takes incredible courage to step out of all that, and face the problem down for where it is and what it is.

I found the IEDC a really positive place to be. Afterwards there was a reception at the Royal Buckinghamshire Hospital (the first civilian hospital building designed to the specifications of former Buckinghamshire resident Florence Nightingale). There Suz Hemming, a gifted dancer, took us through her story in dance. I’ll post her poem tomorrow, when I’ve got it scanned, but here are her words about how Art therapy had helped her, as someone who thinks kinetically and was trapped in an exercise and undereating compulsion:
Until I had put some distance between my feelings about my body, about myself, and my life, I carried too much weight mentally. Once I began to unpack that weight, I had a way of eopneing up to the people around me. I could develop conversations in therapy from something I had drawn or written in a “safe” way. I could fine space inside of myself to begin exploring the issues I’d poured out onto paper, a bit at a time, page by page, without trying to take on the big issue as a whole.

My artwork kept me still during the early stages of my recovery when I was told I wasn’t allowed to exercise. It trasfixed me and kept me sane during the time when my safety net of obsessive over-exercise was taken from me, allowing me to begin weight restoration. I’d draw and paint after meals instead of exercising. I’d get angry with the paper, cry at it, I’d try to draw through the panic attacks, I’d keep pressing deeper through the feelings, because the stronger the fear became, the stronger my artwork became. The stronger my voice became.
Oh, and it does take time. This is no fluffy bunny before and after story. The struggle goes on, but now Suz has got a reason to keep going, and the trends are good. I am immensely proud that this extraordinary place should have grown from a network of Christians in the town, Roger Axtell of Anorexia Bulimia Care UK, Dr James Clarke, and be surrounded by the love and prayers of a network in various churches, including Holy Trinity Walton, a growing and engaged Evangelical parish where it has especially close links. Its strapline is “Passion for Life.” They certainly need that here — clinical excellence goes with personal engagement — but the key is the fountainhead of all Christianity, unconditional love.


Anonymous said...

But Alan, what did you have for lunch?

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Big hug from one of the prayer supporters!

Bur seriously the reception was held at the RBH not IECD partly because you can't put on social dos around food in this context. They tell me they're trying to work out how to do an alpha course with social elements that would do the same for participants as having a meal if having a meal is something that can't be done. Food for thought!

Anonymous said...


IEDC is doing some fine work. I wonder what they do to distinguish anorexia/other eating disorders from autism spectrum disorders - in which certain foods may be very difficult to eat because of sensory issues - taste, texture, smell, etc..or the person is unable to manage food intake sensibly because they are unable to work out how much food is enough, or what to cook for themselves and when.
Lots of scientific interest in this at present, as they're realising how many women with an autism spectrum disorder are misdiagnosed as anorexic.

The whole subject is certainly something to bear in mind when we're offering any event with food as a central focus.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks, Ann for another dimension to this issue. I can see how inappropriate such a misdiagnosis would be, and how potentially abusive any attempt at behaviourist treatment based on such a misdiagnosis... I don't know the answer. I will follow it up, when I have opportunity (unfortunately James Clarke lives in Devon these days, so I am unlikely to run into him soon, but I may have an opportunity to see Roger again soon.

Roger Axtell said...

Hi Alan

Suz and I are both happy to talk to Church Youth Groups etc about the effects of ED's on young people's lives

Anorexia and Bulimia Care are updating the website so will post details when live

If folk want to contact me I can be reached at

Unknown said...

A splendid, positive piece Alan. You might have noticed my post on a related topic yesterday What's going on with eating disorders is clearly complex. I'm grateful for the work of the IEDC and others. I am sure this is an area where Christians can do a great deal, not only through pastoral support but in nurturing a life-giving and positive spirituality.

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