“How are you? How was school? How was your date? How are you feeling?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. Fine. I don’t know.”
This probably sounds familiar if you have a teenager. They learn, consciously or unconsciously, that if they “don’t know,” adults will leave them alone. This phrase not only becomes an escape from adults, but sometimes even an escape from themselves.
For teenagers with eating disorders, “knowing” can be painful and overwhelming. If she knows that she wants to go to a different restaurant than the guy she likes, he might not like her anymore. If he knows that he is disappointed Dad didn’t make it to his game, then it might mean Dad doesn’t love him. If she knows that what her friend said behind her back really hurt, she might lose her friend. In these situations, it can feel safer to “not know.”
All teens struggle at times with self-esteem and self-worth. For teens with eating disorders, particularly, experiencing disappointment, fear, loss, and rejection can be terrifying and personally devastating. Thus, the need to escape from what they “know” becomes part of the perpetuating cycle of the eating disorder. Many clients have said that their eating disorder helps to numb them to these experiences.
Part of our work at the Center for Discovery is to simultaneously draw out what they know (but have denied knowing) of their experiences, while also equipping them with skills and a community of peers and staff to help them cope with what comes up. They have learned to rely on their eating disorder to resolve or erase these experiences, but their self-esteem and self-worth is also lost in the process. We hope that, as they work out these experiences and the overwhelming emotions attached to them, they will experience being cared for, listened to, respected, encouraged and empowered.