By Kristina Lainson, PhD candidate
We know that living with anorexia can be really hard. What we know less about, is how people cope in that situation. This is the question posed by my PhD research project. I am asking how adults living with anorexia over a number of years cope. What do people do or know that’s useful for managing the daily challenges and getting by? What helps maintain connections to what’s important or valued in life beyond anorexia? Talking about everyday efforts and moments of coping is important, because this is part of the wider story of living with anorexia. When told, stories of living with challenge are never neutral. Depending on what gets included and what gets left out, the way that stories of hard times are told can either help or hinder us. Highlighting even the smallest ways of coping can illuminate valuable knowledge, bring forth new possibilities, and pave the way for change.
Stories through generations
My interest in stories of coping began in my childhood. I grew up in a multi-generation household where stories of getting through difficult times were frequently shared. I experienced these stories, passed down like family heirlooms, as an honorable and treasured part of my heritage. Stories of wartime, loss, economic and social change. Hard times endured, but always recounted in ways that illuminated creativity, brought forth resourcefulness, supported dignity and demonstrated human connection. My family had been rural folk and when their livelihoods were eroded by the industrial revolution they had to adapt to change that didn’t serve them well. One great-grandmother became a seamstress. As her children slept, she would spend the evenings making beautiful gowns to be worn in a very different context than the small house in which she sewed. The other skillfully built a life for herself and my infant grandfather after my great-grandfather was killed as a young man in a mining disaster. My grandmothers, true to their generation, unravelled sweaters to knit new garments as their children grew taller. Knitting patterns were stylishly adjusted to ensure the wool went further, along with other resource-stretching tactics of surviving wartime constraints. Not every effort was a success of course – coffee substitutes made from roasted carrots were not pleasant! But even these stories were told, interspersed with fondness and humour, accentuating commitments to dearly held values at times of change and seemingly overwhelming challenge.
Listening to stories in counselling
And so perhaps it was inevitable I would be drawn to work with a counselling approach that allowed me to listen to people’s stories in ways that make them stronger. Something I witnessed in my young life, and then later in my work as a therapist with adults living with anorexia, has been the importance of listening not only for what is difficult in a person’s life, but also for how they respond to, or cope with, those difficulties.
Stories about living with anorexia
Now as a researcher I’m interested in the stories of adults who have lived, or continue to live, with anorexia. Anorexia is still commonly understood to be a young person’s problem, but living with anorexia as an adult has its own challenges, which can be different to those faced by younger people. Supports for adults living with anorexia can be lacking, and there’s a need to better understand the experience of adults if we are to improve the help we offer. Unfortunately, there is often a shortage of hope in conversations about living with anorexia as an adult, and yet hope is an important component of recovery. Stories of coping can contribute to hope.
In search of the less well-told stories
What often gets missed when any of us speak of hard times are the less well-told stories of how we got through those hard times. Talking about our everyday efforts to cope is important, because those efforts speak of who we are beyond the difficulties we face. The things we do in order to stay connected to what we value in life speak up against the challenges we face. However small or insignificant our actions may seem, they speak of an identity and a commitment beyond those challenges. Beyond problems. Beyond anorexia.
Stories of “getting by” when recovery seems out of reach
Sometimes sharing stories of coping can help create movement in a person’s life, towards recovery or reclaiming life from anorexia. Other times recovery is too big a word to even contemplate, and focussing on making things just a little bit better for now seems a more realistic possibility. But even in the most difficult times, there are always stories that can be told of small and meaningful actions taken as part of coping. Of getting by. Sometimes, when we’re really struggling with something, it can be very hard to believe these hopeful stories exist; they are invisible to us. But they’re there, and can come to light when asked the right questions.
Coping stories give hope and a glimpse of possibilities
What I believe, and what my research is based on, is that through stories of coping and getting by we can renew hope, and envision fresh possibilities. Hope because these stories offer insights that can ultimately support change. Possibilities because these more hopeful stories, however insignificant they might seem, are glimpses through a window into a world of knowledge. Knowledge that can be personally helpful as well as being helpful to others, connected by a shared experience of enduring anorexia.
“Maybe we are not here to see each other, but to see each other through.”
Your invitation to participate in this research:
If you would like more information about this project, or if you are interested in taking part by completing an anonymous online survey please follow the link below. You can also volunteer for a confidential interview.
You can take part:
The project has approval from the University of Melbourne Behavioural and Social Sciences Human Ethics Sub-Committee.
About Kristina: I am a PhD researcher at the University of Melbourne. I’m also a mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend, student, teacher, and narrative therapist. I have extensive experience of working with adults expressing concerns about eating and its effects on their bodies, and have been published on this subject in the International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work. As an eager explorer and student, I have traveled and studied widely and now call Aotearoa New Zealand my home. I am privileged to share my life and experiences with wonderful people. I care tremendously about people and the planet we all share.
You can contact Kristina at: email@example.com