The Power of Music In Eating Disorder Recovery - Jen Lombardi
I turn the music up, I got my records on
I shut the world outside until the lights come on
Maybe the streets alight, maybe the trees are gone
I feel my heart start beating to my favorite song
I’m 18 years old. Lying sideways on my bedroom floor, my nose is six inches from the speaker on my tiny boom box.
It’s been a difficult day: engaging in behaviors, negative chatter, tired, cold, alone, sad, angry at the world and longing to be a part of it. I alternated between a pleasing smile and a studious intensity all day. It’s exhausting, holding in all of these emotions and thoughts.
And I cannot share any of it. No one would understand. I’d be exposed, so I think. I can’t trust my own judgment in relationships, which means I don’t trust the relationships that I have. So, it’s my “all together” self, engaged in relationships that keep me (falsely) safe and give the appearance of being “normal”.
But at night, on weekends — when I think no one will discover me — I lie on the floor and stare into my four by four-inch speakers. And with every verse, every chorus, I feel all of my feelings. The words in the songs connect to the words in my head. And for a moment I feel connected and not alone.
I turn the music up, I got my records on
From underneath the rubble sing a rebel song
“Rubble.” Now there’s a word. I suppose we all have rubble we’ve collected, intentionally or not, from birth on. My life has been no different. My rubble soiled me, colored my view of myself. My own personal rubble led me to some hard beliefs about myself and my world. These were the rules I lived by and swore by:
- You don’t matter
- You’re not worth it
- If you cry, you’re weak
- If you are angry, you’re a witch
- You’re too much and you’re too needy
- You’re not smart
- Maybe the world would be better without you
I lived by these beliefs to the point where they morphed into rules; my head and heart believing that they would keep me safe. I spent the first 20-plus years of my life clinging to these rules. And I loved these rules. Why? They offered protection and survival.
And then two interesting things happened. I often found myself thinking of someone —someone who didn’t respond to me in ways that abided by my “rules.” This person listened to me intently and never shied away from tears or anger. This person never acted as if she was exhausted by me. She just kept showing up, consistently and matter-of-factly, as if to say, “Yeah, OK, I see you over there — thinking you’re crazy. Let me know when you’re done with that because I’ll still be here, loving you.”
No matter how much I acted as if the rules would be confirmed at any moment — trying to apply them with vigor to the people in my life — when it came to her, the damn things wouldn’t stick. I felt desperate at times, living in fear that sooner or later, at least one of the rules would be confirmed. But with her, the rules didn’t apply.
As we saw oh this light I swear you, emerge blinking into
To tell me it's alright
But then, a terrible thing happened. She passed away, a few weeks after my 13th birthday. As soon as we arrived home from the hospital, I went straight to my bedroom, sat on the edge of the bed, stunned. I told myself, “That’s it. You are all alone now.”
So I added the story of losing her to my beliefs and my list of rules grew by one more:
- You can’t allow anyone to get too close
And that’s how I operated: living without being alive in relationships; connected on the outside, disconnected by a wall of rules on the inside. And boy did I make it look like I was fine. To this day, people I haven’t seen in years will say to me, “I had no idea all of that was going on then.” Of course, they are mostly referring to my eating disorder. Back then, it was part of what helped me follow and sustain those rules. It was the thing that numbed me out, kept me distracted from the real pain inside.
Then, a second thing happened: another person entered my life at age 15. I was well-entrenched in my rules and eating disorder. Looking back, I can’t believe he could really see me. I couldn’t see me, and I had a front-row seat.
Despite the rules, the part of me that longed desperately for real connection never truly died. My grandmother, all those years ago, lit the spark, and the embers remained — no matter how powerful my rules were. Deep down, in quiet moments, lying on my bedroom floor listening to music, I still had hope.
They say the truth hurts. And my truth was that I still wanted to feel love, joy, laughter and vulnerability. Regardless of the rules, there was still life in me. No matter how much hate I spewed, the spark never died.
So you can hurt, hurt me bad
But still I'll raise the flag
Years later (and after many graduate courses in psychology and personal hours of therapy), I came to a new truth: no matter how many bad, traumatic and bone-shattering experiences I endured, there was still life in me. I would always want connection.
And music was keeping that spark alive.
Music was safe because it didn’t talk back — it accepted my story as a universal truth. I heard in the lyrics what others experienced; I felt kinship to songwriters I’d never met. In music, I found my emotions, my voice, my truth, myself. Music kept me alive until I could dismantle the tower, pick apart the rules and untangle the stories.
Allowing myself to shed tears over a song, I slowly, cautiously, allowed myself to shed tears with others. First with a therapist, then with the person whom I would eventually marry. I can’t say it was comfortable. But when I could let myself feel, I tried very hard to remind myself of two new rules (and I’m proud of these new rules):
- Don’t hide, hustle or hate — just be honest
- You are not alone
Honesty was, honestly, something that had never really occurred to me. Not that I was a pathological liar (although my eating disorder certainly was). I think I was just so caught up in the old rules that I never saw that honesty was the way out.
I couldn’t handle my truth, so how could others accept it, or even connect with me over it?
Which brings me to my new rule number two: you are not alone — the greatest irony of all. I had known that I wasn’t alone for many years. How?
So, find your song. Find your anthem. Find the lyrics that capture your sorrow, your anxiety, your rage. Put the song that encapsulates you on repeat. Play it over and over so many times until you almost can’t stand it. Play it until it morphs into a story. Your story. Your truth. And if you’re like me, cry until you find that deep, cleansing breath of relief because you not only let out your truth, but you connected with someone, somewhere.
Every tear, every tear
Every teardrop is a waterfall.
Jen Lombardi, MFT, CEDS, CDW™ is a National Recovery Advocate with Eating Recovery Center.