Therapy and Anorexia
Lily held the vividly decorated mask she had made against her face and wept. "I made it look too strong-- I hate it-- I'm not allowed to be this powerful". She had cut some of her own long hair to decorate the mask, and had shaped some of it into a thick and sensual mustache. I asked her why she put a mustache on this face that she described as "the bad part of me". She continued to sob. "Only the men and boys in my family were allowed to be powerful. I was invisible. My mother died invisible. How could I betray her by being powerful?"
Lily had been depriving herself of food for the past two years. I had been working with her for six months and had just given her an art therapy project which involved creating a mask portraying the part of her persona that might emerge were she to begin eating again.
Her anorexia began after she had finished college, several months into her first job. It started with her desire to lose ten pounds before buying a professional wardrobe. After she had lost the ten pounds she began to further restrict her food intake, and was pleased with her continued weight loss. Gradually it took on a life of its own as she began to obsessively count calories until she was down to 85 pounds. She left her job because she felt to weak to concentrate, and was rapidly depleting her savings while continuing to focus on losing the last five pounds that would provide the perfection that lay just beyond her grasp.
As she continued to weep through the mask, I asked her to talk to her mother about starvation. "I'm starving for you mom. Don't you even appreciate it? See, you'll never lose me because I'm too weak to go anywhere. I won't betray you by being too powerful like Daddy. I'm too tired to work. I won't show you up by having a career. Don't cry Mom, I won't leave you."
Lily took the mask off and looked at me in amazement. "Is that why I'm starving myself? To be loyal to my mother?" She stroked the mustache she had shaped from her own hair. "I'm confused. I feel powerful when I don't eat, like I have total self control. But now I'm too weak to function in the world."
I asked her if she could imagine what her mother might say if she saw the mask that Lily had created. Lily held the mask on her lap and touched the brightly painted swirls that wove through the garland of leaves encircling the perimeter of the face. "She'd say, you look so radiant, like you did when you were a little girl, and you jumped through the pile of autumn leaves. I'm so proud of you for being the first one in our family to go to college. I wish I got to live to be at your graduation. I would have told you in person how proud I am." As Lily's tears fell on the mask, she rubbed them into the mustache and then smiled up at me. "I'm hungry."
One of the challenges of overcoming eating disorders is to allow oneself to experience the emotions that food and weight obsessions tend to suppress. Art therapy is a tool that can help access these hidden feelings. Mask making is just one of a wide variety of art therapy techniques that I utilize. Together my clients and I discover the art mediums that resonate for them, and we use the artwork as a jumping off point for our explorations into all aspects of eating disorders.
Previous art experience is not necessary.