May 30, 2017

It's Not What You Eat, It's What Is Eating You

This week, we conclude our series with Adena Bank Lees, and she wraps up her series by sharing a bit about how she overcame her struggles with binge eating, distorted body image, and more.


“It is not what and/or how you are eating, it is what is eating you.” Hearing this changed my life. I began to explore the emotions connected to my compulsive eating behaviors and beliefs about food and body image. From there I learned about how these behaviors and beliefs were related to the sexual abuse I experienced as a child and how they served to manage, control and/or express the feelings I had about the abuse.

I realized that restricting and starving, shut down anger and sexual feelings for a while. Binging and purging only temporarily relieved the rage, shame, guilt, and loneliness I felt. Being fat, thin or somewhere in between didn’t cure the fact that I had been covertly and overtly sexually abused. No food behavior or body size protected me from comments, stares, or advances.

“Three balanced meals a day with two snacks is what your body needs to be healthy.” When I heard this from the nutritionist I reluctantly hired, I almost fell out of my seat. Parts of me entrenched in the eating disordered behaviors screamed inside my head, “You want me to eat that much food? Are you kidding me? My body doesn’t NEED all that! You don’t know what you are talking about!” What came out of my mouth was, ”Oh, that’s a lot. How do I do that?” The part of me that was desperate showed up because she knew what I had been doing was definitely not working. This part of me wanted freedom from food and body image obsession and compulsion.

In the days and months that followed, I continued working with my therapist, attended 12 step meetings focused on food recovery, and practiced the discipline of the food plan suggested. It included servings of protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats, vegetables and fruit. I limited my intake of processed foods. 

Emotions definitely surfaced and it was critical for me to have the guidance and support in learning new skills to deal with them. I began to breathe deeply, practiced what I was taught about feelings being like waves, lasting only 30-90 seconds. I rode the waves, sometimes with myself and other times with another person present, even if it was by phone. The parts of me that protected me from memories and difficult feelings by using food in unhealthy ways, began to settle and not be so prominent. I was replacing them and their “survival” skills with the “thriving” skills mentioned above. I journaled, got out in nature, and focused on having fun.

It has been years since I have engaged in drastic food or body obsession and compulsive behaviors. “Healthy choices” is my motto when it comes to food. I travel a great deal and treasure the flexibility I have cultivated. I am now comfortable with what I eat no matter where I am.

Feeling free around my food and body image is a gift I receive moment to moment, meal to meal and day to day. I do not take it for granted. I am certain that if I cease to adhere to the guidelines of my food plan or cease to pay attention to my emotional and spiritual life, I will be back in prison very quickly.

Each and every one of us has the right to determine what is best for them. That is the beauty of recovery from childhood sexual abuse. You have choices today. If you are struggling or simply curious about how food and food behaviors impacts your healing and ability to thrive, I support you in getting professional guidance, always paying attention to your intuition about what is right and not right for you. Enjoy the ride!


Adena Bank Lees, LCSW, LISAC, BCETS, CP, is an internationally recognized speaker, author, trainer and consultant, providing a fresh and important look at addiction treatment, traumatic stress and recovery. She has been providing premiere clinical and consulting services for over 25 years. Adena is a licensed clinical social worker, licensed independent substance abuse counselor, board certified expert in traumatic stress, and a certified psychodramatist. She is the author of “The 12 Healing Steps for Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse; A Practical Guide” and is currently penning an educational memoir on covert emotional incest due out in late 2017. Most importantly, Adena is a thriver, enjoying travel, hiking in the Arizona desert, and filling her days with laughter.

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