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Winter Creeper Vine: Unraveling the Mystery of Disordered Eating

Updated: Mar 4

In December, I was looking out over my yard and noticed that one of my trees still had beautiful, dark red leaves. This was confusing because it looked like the same kind of tree as the one next to it that did not have any leaves. I inspected and found a vine stuck to the back of the trunk that was almost as big as the trunk itself! It had its own, beautiful branches and leaves, giving the appearance of a tree. It looked as though the vine was heavy enough to gradually pushing the tree over. I inspected nearby stumps and found the same fine all over the trees that had fallen sometime before I bought the property. I then walked around and found that most of the trees in the yard (and my neighbors’ yards) had this vine on them. The vine clings to trees with hairy fibers with a strength that makes it very difficult to remove. I decided to clear it from my trees because I didn’t want them to have the same fate as the stumps in the yard. This was quite a

task. The root system of the vine wraps around the trunks just under the ground and it also shoots out across the grass, rooting almost continuously as it goes, looking for more trees to climb. Pulling it out of the ground is hard work, and it feels almost futile because one can hear the snap that means a piece remains in the ground. That guarantees the vine will grow back. One large oak tree even had the vine growing out of its trunk near the ground, suggesting the vine came up inside the trunk of the tree and then poked out to start climbing the tree on the outside of the bark. I took it one tree at a time, removing as much as I could, and cutting anything I couldn’t pull. In my small yard, I can keep a close watch and continue pulling it as it tries to climb my trees again.


I spent time with this vine, so it was on my mind and I started to notice it in my neighborhood and then on the trees in the forest where I hike. One of the trails I take goes through a part of the forest where the vine has completely taken over. The emotional tone of this part of the forest feels darker somehow. Almost like the ground can’t breathe. I stopped to look more carefully. I saw that the vine was on every single tree I could see. It covered the floor of the forest entirely, and everywhere were the vines, poking up into the air, looking for something to climb. I looked down at the ground and moved some of the leaves to reveal the tightly woven web of woody vines across the ground. I attempted to grab it and pull it up, but it was so tight it wouldn't move.


I took some photos of the vine and a friend of mine helped me identify it as winter creeper, or euonymus. It is highly invasive, which means it has no natural predator in the area. It kills native plants, shrubs, and trees. It creates a heavy, woven mat of a groundcover that denies sunlight to the native species, chokes out shrubs, and it eventually pulls trees down under its weight. Even the healthiest, strongest tree can buckle under winter creeper’s weight. It might take a while, but it will happen if the vine is not cleared, systematically and with intention.


Disordered eating is similar, metaphorically, to winter creeper. It invades a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior aggressively and predictably, changing the “landscape” of that person’s experience of life – covering over the person’s essential nature, choking out the authentic expression of that person’s unique light. The forest that is overtaken by winter creeper looks like any other forest overtaken by winter creeper. The uniqueness of the person is camouflaged as the behaviors intensify. They become a shell of themselves, and take on the qualities of the disorder as an identity. Disordered means out of order…things are not arranged naturally.


It is common for people with disordered eating to think that their experience is unique. I remember when I was 20 and went to my first support group for people suffering with restrictive eating disorders. My sister found the group for me at a local hospital. In my mind, I was going to this group to rule out the possibility that I had an eating disorder. I will never forget sitting there in silence, listening to every person in the circle speak the thoughts that were in my head. I was astounded. I thought what I was up to was my thing, my secret, my hiding place. It turns out, the symptoms of disordered eating are so well known there is a list of them in the DSM-V. :) It also turns out that the thoughts and feelings and behaviors that go along with restrictive eating disorders are the same for everyone who struggles with it, with only slight variation.


Clients struggling with disordered eating are often surprised when a therapist who recognizes the pattern (identifies the vine) names it and provides in-depth descriptions and explanations of the symptoms. The person often feels unexpectedly exposed, because the invasion of the process addiction is insidious to the extent that the person sees the process addiction as a friend, confidant, and a great reliever of distress. It seems unbelievable that the patterns of the process addiction could be so easily recognized and called out. There is also a sense of relief, though, in having it identified. Disordered eating brings such suffering. It can feel good when someone sees it with compassion and says, “I see those symptoms, and those symptoms are not you.” It helps immensely to have someone who sees that you are not the invasive vines, but are the forest. It is like being reminded of a truth known deep in the soul that has been covered up for so long it was temporarily forgotten.


I contacted the Berea College Forestry Office and explained my concern about winter creeper, because the land is owned by the college. They responded that they are aware of the problem, and they have some volunteers attempting to clear the vines, but that they don’t have enough volunteers to make a dent in the infestation. It’s going to be a long process. This can be exactly how it feels when facing disordered eating: insurmountable. People recovering need someone to see the infestation of vines and say, “I’ve seen this before. I know how we can clear this. And you’re worth the effort.”


Disordered eating might be one of the most misunderstood mental health concerns and is considered difficult to treat. People who have not personally experienced it have a hard time grasping why and how this distorted relationship with food and body can occur with such intensity and persistence. Even some therapists and doctors believe the vine is impervious to removal efforts. While the understanding and treatment of disordered eating is extensive and complex, the bridge toward understanding can begin with two main ideas: 1. Disordered eating is always linked to trauma, and 2. Disordered eating is a process addiction.

 

Trauma is a foundational factor to consider in disordered eating. Trauma theory helps us

understand that the behaviors, beliefs, thoughts, and emotions associated with the disorder originally formed for survival. Trauma can be understood as the central nervous system being overwhelmed to the extent that the way we process and recall memories is altered. This can happen from extreme one-time events or from frequent events over time during childhood and/or teen years. When we experience trauma during formative years (up to age 23), we use an undeveloped psyche to formulate ways to survive it. The experience of the central nervous system being overwhelmed necessitates survival strategies being enacted.

 

With consistently present overwhelming input, these survival patterns grow into our brain as it is developing. Thus, it becomes what I call emotional instinct to follow those patterns. Emotional instincts like disordered eating (and other process addictions like love addiction, codependency, and perfectionism) are extremely insidious because they are triggered unconsciously and automatically in response to certain environmental input. They function like an emotional muscle memory in the self-system, calling up beliefs, emotions and behaviors that helped with survival during formative life. These beliefs, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors become an addiction; a way of living continuously as though the trauma is still happening. Process addictions are a compulsive playing out of behaviors that have a harmful effect.

 

The invasive vine of disordered eating alters reality. One client said to me that she knew she needed to eat, but when she looked at food in front of her, it felt as though the world would end if she ate it. The psyche projects the traumatizing threat from the past onto food, weight, and the body. There is a reason for this. In the past, when the threat was an adult, the child or teenager felt powerless and out of control because they couldn’t do anything to change the person who had power over them. But, when the struggle is transferred to food, weight, and the body, the person thinks and believes that they have the power to manipulate the relationship and gain the upper hand of control. Of course, this control is an illusion, because while it may feel like control at first, the person eventually loses the ability to choose, and the disordered eating survival pattern, with a mind of its own, is making all the choices. The vines have overtaken the forest, but the forest doesn’t realize it because vines are masquerading as trees. This is universally true of process addictions. They show up as a solution devised by an undeveloped psyche, and inevitably reinforce the very problem it promised to solve.


In one young woman’s family system, beyond basic survival needs, she was not treated as though she was important nor loved. She grew up being told she was too sensitive, needy, and dramatic. She watched her parents stay busy with work and exercise. She remembers there being little food in the house on a regular basis. When she needed something from her parents, it always seemed like an annoyance to them. They seemed to want her to need nothing and be a “perfect” extension of themselves. The consistency with which she received the message that her authentic, natural self was incorrect was eventually overwhelming to the nervous system. She internalized being emotionally neglected and started using restrictive disordered eating patterns to cope. She formed the pattern of enacting those behaviors instead of continuing to voice the need for love, nurturing, care, and attention – which seemed futile and costly. Eventually, her disordered eating became obvious and a parent noticed and attempted to get treatment for her. She resisted treatment because she felt she needed her disordered eating to continue to survive; it had become a substitute for the love she needed. Keep in mind, she was only treating herself in a way that reflected what she internalized from her family system: as an annoying person who should not need anything. But because it helped her survive and she thought she was in control of it, she clung to it with all her might. Years later, in adulthood, when someone comes close who wants to love her, even though it’s what she has always wanted and needed more than anything, she goes deeper into disordered eating, which interferes with the relationship. The receptors in her psyche and brain for loving care have shut down due to the formative pattern of emotional neglect that has been internalized and played out over and over for years through her process addiction. To gradually open her receptors and receive love would be terrifying because she would actually have to believe something she has had to believe was not true for her whole life – that she is lovable.


When relying on disordered eating, a person can kind of be here, and kind of not be here. For the most part, no one will notice because the person is still functioning. I call this functional dissociation. People with disordered eating are commonly over-achievers and people-pleasers; happy to wear a smile at their own expense to have a pleasing version of themselves accepted by others. The constant and continuous distraction of calculating and planning food and exercise data and checking and obsess about “fixing” the body provides a way to not be present. The process addiction of disordered eating becomes a second mind of sorts that takes the wheel and drives the life, much like the vines taking over the forest. The person is on autopilot much of the time, allowing the disordered eating to make rules to live by, regardless of the consequences. It feels like a helpful solution within a paradigm in which someone feels that being their authentic self, having needs, and feeling emotions makes them unlovable or abandonable. This is exactly why disordered eating and other process addictions are not about the target of obsession – they are about the problem of existence. As Irvin Yalom writes in his book Staring at the Sun, what bedevils us is rooted in many things, but also a confrontation with existence.


It takes time and help to walk that path toward healing. Think about how the weakened native plants in the forest would respond if we could snap our fingers and all the winter creeper vines vanished. The exposed plants would be shocked by the sunlight, wind, and temperatures – the removal has to happen systematically and intentionally to allow the forest plants to recover and strengthen while the presence of the vine reduces. First comes the separation of the vine (disordered eating) identity from the forest (true) identity. This takes a lot of creative, honest engagement and time because of the extent to which disordered eating has infiltrated thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors – the vine ways have become automatic. The person has been existing as the continuous internalized replay of trauma and has perhaps never known how to exist as themselves.

 

With support from a therapist and/or a treatment team, a person can stand and face the reality that these vines are everywhere, difficult to remove, and are killing the forest. We have to land in reality before anything can change. The therapeutic process, ideally helps with awakening from denial. The internalized abuse and neglect pattern is named. It is a tough pill to swallow. However, having it named and understood eventually brings some relief, as well as self-compassion. On exciting days, it can feel like a huge “ah ha!” moment in which the person says, “OHHH! I haven’t been living my life!”  

 

There is a necessary grieving process about the forest never having a chance to live as it instinctively expected to; time has been lost. Grief is painful, but important. Facing this reality provides motivation to not lose even more time by delaying recovery or going back under the vines. With time there can be an inspiring realization that clearing the forest with recovery is a new lease on life. Eventually, a person learns to cut the vines away with interventions designed to increase insight, self-awareness, and self-love. The sunshine begins to feel nice again. The rain can reach the roots of the native plants. Healing brings the opportunity to discover that the forest is lovable, savable, and worthy of protection, investment, and attention.

 

Practices of recovery help build healthy, secure attachment to the authentic self. Existence from the authentic self becomes more palatable than the process addiction, and survival strategies give way to life skills, emotional literacy, embodiment, and genuine connection. The process includes maintenance removal of vines that periodically grow from a left behind piece of root in the ground. There might be a time when a vine grows up a tree again before it is noticed. In other words, a trauma trigger can cause someone to revert back to reliance upon disordered eating. But, with a method in place for removal, it doesn’t have to become the threat it once was to the health of the forest as a whole.

 

Winter creeper is just a vine. Where it originated, is lovely, tenacious, and resilient. It is an evergreen and brings a dark, rich green and red color to the winter forest. In a forest with natural predators to eat the vine, it would not be a problem. But when it goes unchallenged, it overgrows and cannot be ignored. Untreated obsessive compulsive mental health conditions, like disordered eating and all process addictions, are like a vine in the psyche without checks and balances to keep it from overtaking the whole of life. Through treatment and recovery, a person gains attachment to self, which develops an internal, safe, attuned, loving parent-a true protector of the heart and mind.


Disordered eating is a hiding place that was used for understandable reasons. It just can’t be a hiding place forever, or the forest will cease to exist. An adult can’t fit in the same hiding places used by a child. In recovery, we learn that we don’t have to feel bad about the things we did out of survival. In fact, recovery and healing eventually yield gratitude for having to clear the vines, because in the process we discover and claim our beautiful selves. With help, we put disordered eating down, repair the relationship with body and self, and learn to walk forward in life without it. We learn to appreciate the forest that we are and accept that we belong in the real world. The true life unfolds.


By Kyrai Antares, Ph.D.


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