Bringing Presence to Eating Disorders: Author Joanna Poppink

(NOTE: This is part 2 of a 3-part series on author Joanna Poppink and her book, Healing Your Hungry Heart, which directly addresses the eating disorder epidemic in the United States in a most personal way – and offers insight and steps to achieve recovery and lead a happy, fulfilling life. It is available through Amazon.com and at many fine booksellers.)

Healing Your Hungry Heart author Joanna Poppink

Healing Your Hungry Heart author Joanna Poppink

WordJourneys.com: You weave together patient stories, before-and-afters, and personal experiences in Healing Your Hungry Heart to address inner and outer aspects of eating disorders, how they affect lives, and find lasting solutions. Why does this method of writing connects so well with readers?

Joanna Poppink: When I was in the midst of writing Healing Your Hungry Heart, I thought of all the people I’ve worked with in my practice and all the questions I’ve been asked over the course of my career.  I wanted my book to give information and direction, and my publisher gave me a page limit. As I was writing, I realized that I was trying to jam too much information into the book and was leaving out the personal stories.  So I wrote on Facebook and asked my followers, “What would you rather have, more information and less stories or less information and more stories?”

The response was immediate and unanimous:  more stories.  So I rethought the structure of my book and wrote with the stories.  The stories tell more than I know I’m writing.  Sometimes just a little detail in someone’s personal story triggers a powerful response in the reader that can make a difference in whether or not they will proceed to their own recovery work. Stories give hope. Stories show that people aren’t alone in their illness. They give examples of the effort required to turn their lives toward a new direction. They give the reader a place to identify.

I wanted to give as many examples as possible so readers could find parts of themselves in at least one story.  Sometimes that’s all it takes to get motivated for recovery work.

WJ.com: What do you feel are some of the societal and internal reasons for HHHthe eating disorder problem we have in our country? What is the common experience in the person with these disorders?

Joanna Poppink: A few things:

• Isolation. A secret self that is merciless in self-condemnation. The harsh self-criticism covers a vast territory that includes and goes beyond body shape and size.

The mind divides lived experience, so that when the person is in one world, the other doesn’t exist and vice versa. Splitting can be mild or severe.  It’s a protective device so the mind doesn’t have to know what it cannot tolerate.

• Magical thinking.  All troubles will go away if: she has a beautiful body (beauty based on current impossible standards); achieving perfection (in body, grades, career, work, any task).

• Treating herself as a thing, an object that doesn’t feel or shouldn’t feel and is desperately lost and frightened when she does feel. This tragic state allows her to invite and accept abuse and exploitation in her life. The rule is, she shouldn’t feel any pain or discomfort; if she does, it’s her fault.  She is her own abuser blaming the victim who is also herself.

And under it all, if she can get near the experience, is a terrible despair.

WJ.com: What are the main warning signs of an eating disorder?

JP. A number of things: eating for emotional reasons and not hunger; eating too little, getting too thin and focused on perfection in all things; eating large amounts of food in secret; throwing up or using laxatives as a way to get rid of calories consumed; exercising to an extreme in order to get rid of calories consumed and to lose weight, even when thin; feeling out of control when eating and continue to eat when no longer hungry or continuing to starve when very hungry; and harsh self-criticism about weight, shape and always needing to weigh less no matter what the weight.

WJ.com: When people want to recover, what are some of the first mis-steps they take? And why are they mis-steps?

JP: People can decide they want to stop their eating disorder behavior but have little or no appreciation of what recovery work looks like. They still think it’s about stopping the behavior. So mis-steps involve diets, Appetite control pills, eating every other day projects, eating one meal a day, eliminating certain foods, taking on an all-consuming project so they are distracted from their eating disorder behaviors, and more.  None work.

More serious mis-steps involve taking up a different destructive behavior like drinking alcohol, taking drugs or become promiscuous. To the person with an eating disorder who lives with constant self-criticism, sometimes nothing destructive or dangerous seems worse than the eating disorder behavior. But, as you can imagine, these behaviors only had more trouble to her life and do not address recovery at all.

WJ.com: Mindfulness is a big part of your life, your practice, and Healing Your Hungry Heart. What are the principles of mindfulness especially apropos for dealing with and recovering from eating disorders? How did this work for you personally?

JP: Developing a mindful attitude and approach to living requires you to be aware of the present moment.  Eating disorders are designed to remove you from that.  To be aware and mindful of your immediate and genuine experience is often intolerable to a person with an eating disorder.

To sit quietly and let herself be aware of her feelings in one living and real moment is to let her inner experience come through.  She can’t bear that.  And yet, to be able to be real in the present moment is to be able to be free to be your true self and live in the world as it is.  This allows you to make realistic decisions, to honestly appraise your situation and make wise choices, to know what you genuinely feel and move away from what is negative and move toward what you care about.

The approach to the present moment for a person with an eating disorder needs to be gradual. Being present for a few seconds may be enough in the beginning.  She needs to learn that she can survive her own feelings.

Mindfulness continues to work for me personally.  I can take a short or long time for a mindfulness experience, like watching a hummingbird in detail in my garden

or pausing while shopping to feel the ground under my feet and attend to what I see, feel, hear, smell.

WJ.com: Can you speak briefly about the exercises you’ve incorporated into Healing Your Hungry Heart?

JP: The exercises build gradually on each other, taking the reader slowly and gently into a longer and deeper experience of her own present moment.  The exercises build the reader’s strength, because she knows she did the earlier step, which gives her a more solid base to take the next.

(PART 3 of the Joanna Poppink interview will post on Friday, Dec. 20)

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