Ask Dr Knight

Finding Hope in Eating Disorder Recovery

"I Am Maris"

Have you ever lived through the dark tale of an eating disorder, or maybe known someone who has?

It is gut-wrenchingly painful, isolating, exhausting and suffocating. Many regard it as the cruellest, master villains of all mental illnesses. And there is good reason for that, given eating disorders has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Anorexia nervosa takes more lives than schizophrenia and bipolar combined, and people suffering are 7.5 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general public.

“It feels like you are all alone living as a prisoner in a genie bottle, and no one can hear you screaming”

Often to people with an eating disorder, it can feel like the whole world and everyone in it, is against you, and has given up on you. It feels like you are trapped in a tiny dark hole where the only voice you are hearing is the voice of the eating disorder telling you not to listen or believe anyone, that you are worthless, and need to punish yourself for being a bad person. The only way to solidarity, and to get others to love you, is to abide by the rules of the eating disorder. That is what you are told daily, over and over again. And day by day, a little more piece of you vanishes, until eventually the eating disorder takes over completely. And it is at this point when your soul is lost, and all faith in hope is gone.

The prevalence rates of eating disorders are exploding to numbers never seen before in history! The drop-out rates mid-treatment, and relapse rates post-treatment, indicate the current eating disorder treatments used in Australia are just not working as effectively as they need to. 

Over the last ten years I have conducted quite a lot of research in the area of eating disorders. I have had the privilege of sitting down with many young people between the ages of 13 to 26 who have lived the daily horror of fighting against an eating disorder. I learnt a lot from these young people. They opened my eyes to the anguish they live through, and the struggle in finding treatment that works. Of most surprise to me, was the number of young people who shared a similar story. Their story resonated a theme of no hope, and it was associated with primarily the fact they had experienced a poor outcome with either previous in-patient or out-patient eating disorder treatment in the past. This was largely associated with either: 

  1. A disconnect with the therapist, or not aligning with the values, ideas, strategies in the actual treatment – leading to dropping out of the program,
  2. Feeling traumatised by various components in the therapy, or while at hospital (e.g., being forced to be weighed every session), 
  3. Relapsing soon after the treatment had ended.

Research tells us a different story to the old narrative on strictly adhering to eating disorder treatment manuals. 

Working flexibly and collaboratively with clients, tailoring treatment to them as a unique individual, and meeting them where they’re at, may actually be the best way to improve treatment experience and outcomes (Robertson & Thornton, 2021).

Recently, I came across a true gem. A glimmer of hope for those who are suffering from an eating disorder, but may not resonate with the conventional ways of psychotherapy treatment, such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. As a psychologist, researcher, Body Balance Instructor and mother, I was moved to tears watching ‘I AM MARIS’ – A film by Laura VanZee Taylor. This movie is about a 17-year-old girl named Maris who is tormented by anxiety, depression and a life-threatening eating disorder.

I AM MARIS is a story about mental health. It bravely shows us that living through a mental illness such as an eating disorder is not a weakness, but rather a catalyst for building strength, self-love, and compassion. This movie depicts the reality that recovery from an eating disorder does not have to be brutal, ugly, forceful, dark and fuelled with fear. It shows us how recovery from an eating disorder while very serious, can also be beautiful, inspiring, and full of light. It also points out an important message ~ that an eating disorder is not the visual exterior of a person. The pain, hurt and suffering that has led to the eating disorder (the trauma), deep down in the internal core of a person, is where the focus of healing must occur.

This movie helps us understand that true healing from an eating disorder can only occur when the disconnect between the mind, body and soul reignites in a way that makes the person whole again.

Maris overcomes her battle with an eating disorder through the power of Yoga.

I AM MARIS captivates the viewer right from the first 5 minutes. It takes us on Maris’s journey from the deep pain underlying the eating disorder and her real struggle trying to fight it, especially with her pursuit for perfection and control. Something that underlies the disordered eating behaviours of most young eating disorder victims. In sheer desperation, we see Maris’s parents place her into therapy. It is here that she is admitted to hospital upon the finding that her blood pressure is so low that she could die in her sleep. However, Maris is more determined than ever to get out of hospital and lose the weight she has gained. It seems that Maris will never escape the master controller that is her eating disorder, and perhaps in may in fact end up taking her life.

And just when all hope was lost, Maris starts practising yoga and mindfulness. This is the pivotal moment she begins to heal her mind, body and spirit, and ultimately recover. At 16 years old, Maris becomes a licensed yoga instructor, and we witness how Maris not only heals herself, but how her story inspires the lives of so many others with eating disorder to find compassion for themselves again and live heroically towards healing.

If you are a young person currently struggling with an eating disorder, body-image dissatisfaction, anxiety and/or depression, or you are a parent to a loved one going through it, this is a must-watch film you will definitely resonate with. Yoga for eating disorders is a beautiful complimentary modality that can be used alongside other therapies to booster the effectiveness of recovery. It is important to recognise however, this may not be appropriate for all, and seeking guidance through your psychologist, GP, or psychiatrist will help you identify the suitability of it for you.

Most importantly, it will certainly give you that boost of hope to inspire your own journey to recovery.

Hi, I am Dr Alissa Knight

I have always been the psychologist who doesn’t quite fit the norm when it comes to what a psychologist should be like, speak like, act like. For one, I am far too outspoken! I come with huge amounts of energy and laughter, and I talk way too much! The stark silence approach just doesn’t do it for me. It is way too weird and uncomfortable. This doesn’t take away from my fierce dedication to all things science, evidence-based, and professional. I adhere to all guidelines. In fact, I am very by the book in that regard. But I like to weave the highest grade of  psychological evidence and research with the reality of life! Something that cannot always be dictated by a book. My view is that academic knowledge while powerfully insightful, can only give you half of the picture. Sometimes you need an understanding of “Street Smarts” to grasp the depth of a person and what they are going through. Being able to appreciate and see the world through this type of lens is what gives you that real ability to connect with people without judgement, and even more capacity to embrace diversity and equality. 

So that brings me to the purpose of my Blog ~ Ask Dr Knight

My intention with this blog is to keep it real! Give you everything I know on psychology (the stuff that actually works!)  Everyone deserves the chance to live without fear, without the weight of childhood trauma, pain, hurt, depression, anxiety, emotion dysregulation, non-stop racing thoughts, body dissatisfaction and constant dieting, perfectionist standards, and the crippling effects of a distorted social media world. There is a way out if it, and I am ready to show you how to get there. Ready .  Set  . Live!

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