Trigger Warning: Eating Disorders

This post was written by JKP author Annie Heiderscheit. Eating Disorders Awareness Week is February 26 – March 3, 2024 in order to increase public awareness about eating disorders to engage in efforts in supporting individuals and families affected by eating disorders.

In the process of working with individuals living with an eating disorder and their families for over 20 years, it was evident that an eating disorder is far more than the constellation of symptoms as diagnostic criteria indicate.

An eating disorder strives to erode and destroy the very essence of an individual. It works to tear down and rip to shreds any belief in oneself, stripping away one’s self-worth and humanity. This leads an individual to stop engaging in life-giving activities and endeavours and isolating from family and friends.

This process of narrowing one’s life by removing people and experiences of meaning from someone’s life leaves them vulnerable and at the mercy of the eating disorder. At its worst, one is simply a shell of a human being, vacant of emotion and meaning in their life.

Living with an eating disorder is a painful journey to live and to witness. Seeing someone’s life consumed by an eating disorder can create feelings of hopelessness at times, especially in the depth of the struggle. Every day around the world clinicians and therapists are walking the journey of treatment with individuals living with eating disorders and their families. This journey is a process of helping them experience glimpses of life without the eating disorder and finding the motivation to work toward recovery. Breathing life into someone that the eating disorder has tried to destroy can be daunting and challenging. This process can be enlightened by using creative arts.

It is important to understand that the purpose of engaging in the arts is not to develop as a professional artist. The purpose of the arts and the creative arts is to create more complete human beings who are critical thinkers, have curious minds, have compassion and empathy, and lead fulfilling lives. These are all elements that foster quality of life. Engaging in creative arts therapies like music therapy, allows individuals with eating disorders to engage with music in many ways.

As a music therapist, I select, design, and facilitate music experiences to address the therapeutic needs of the individual or a group of clients. This can include:

  • Listening to a song that relates to a therapeutic issue or using the song as a springboard to explore this issue.
  • Singing a song together that embodies or expresses a message that we need to hear or includes words that need to be expressed.
  • Composing a song that articulates and expresses what it is like to live with an eating disorder or the challenges of navigating treatment and recovery.
  • Improvising music to illustrate how it feels to battle the negative force of the eating disorder and then improvising it to what the strength to battle the eating disorder would sound like.

One of the many gifts of the creative arts is that there are a myriad of possibilities and ways to engage in using them therapeutically. The many ways to engage allow the creative arts therapist to create and shape therapeutic experiences that provide the possibility or chance that someone living with an eating disorder may:

  • Discover how the eating disorder has been controlling or negatively their quality of life
  • Determine they aren’t happy living with their eating disorder
  • Share they feel lonely because their life has been consumed by the eating disorder
  • Missed out on opportunities and experiences because of the eating disorder
  • Finally acknowledge their health is severely impacted by the eating disorder
  • Important relationships in their life are strained because of the eating disorder
  • Sacrificed life dreams because of the eating disorder
  • Discover their authentic voice and begin to feel empowered to use it
  • Find the strength to take a stand against the eating disorder
  • Begin to take small steps to reclaim their life
  • Discover how to use music to express difficulty and complex feelings
  • Use the creative arts to share how they are feeling with others
  • Begin to create playlists of music filled with songs with empowering messages
  • Discover they can work through challenging experiences

In my years of working with individuals in eating disorder treatment and their families, I have witnessed countless pivotal moments of change, courage, and resilience as they have leaned into creative arts experiences. I have also observed how therapeutic experiences with the creative arts within the context of eating disorder treatment have an impact long after the session.

A few years ago, I was driving to work at the university where I was teaching. I stopped to get a coffee on the way, but I stopped at a coffee shop that I normally do not go to as I was driving on a different route due to road construction. When I entered the coffee shop and stepped up to the counter to place my order the young woman behind the counter said, “Are you Annie? Annie the music therapist?”

I was taken aback for a moment and wondered if I had unknowingly left a name tag on my jacket, as I did not expect anyone here to know who I was. I answered, “Yes.”

She went on to say, “You were my music therapist during my eating disorder treatment and music therapy was so important to my recovery. Do you remember the song, Goodbye ED?”

I said, “Of course.” Goodbye ED was a song a group in the eating disorder intensive day treatment program wrote. The song tells the story of how their eating disorders developed, their process of engaging in treatment, and what they are doing to recover.

She went on to share, “I still have my recording of that song and I listen I still listen to it.” At the time of this encounter, it had been about 9 years since the group composed that song.

She also said, “I want you to know that I am doing well in my recovery, and I continue to use music in my daily life.”

I shared, “I am so proud of all your hard work, your recovery, and that you are living your best life.” I then stepped aside and waited for my coffee. When my name was called, I took my coffee and walked to my car. Tears came to my eyes as I felt the power of the interaction how privileged I felt to be a small part of her recovery journey, and how she continues to use music in her life.

If you are interested in learning more about how creative arts therapies are integrated into eating disorder treatment, you may find it helpful to explore, Creative Arts Therapies and Clients with Eating Disorders. Chapters include the work of music, art, dance, and drama therapists and how they use their arts modality to meet the needs of individuals and their families in eating disorder treatment.

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