Stories I Tell My Patients

101 Myths, Metaphors, Fables & Tall Tales for Eating Disorders Recovery

by Arnold Andersen, MD and Leigh Cohn, M.A.T.

Watering the Roses when the House is on Fire

Watering the Roses when the House is on Fire anorexia nervosa, perfectionism, anxiety

What would you say if I told you the story of a young girl who was very good at watering the roses? One day, the house caught on fire and she was very afraid, not knowing how to put it out. She had been taught in school to leave the house promptly and call the fire department. She was told that sometimes, if the fire was very small, she could put it out safely by covering it with a blanket. If it was only a tiny match, she could douse it with a cup of water.

 Let us imagine that a small fire started in the girl’s kitchen. The fire could easily be put out, but the young girl wasn’t sure how to do it exactly right. So she went outside and watered the roses, which she did know how to do exactly right. The fire kept getting bigger and bigger until the house burned down.
 Meanwhile, the young girl did a very good job of watering the roses. She made sure that the leaves did not get too wet so that black spots would not grow on them. When the firefighters came to put out the remains of the fire in the burned-down house, they asked her why she watered the roses when the house was on fire. She said, “Because I know how to water the roses but am not sure how to put out fires.”

For many patients with eating disorders, especially anorexia nervosa, self-starvation is a practiced skill that can be turned to with satisfaction and perfection when any “fire” occurs in life. There is no situation that is so serious that it cannot be temporarily avoided by self-starvation. The art of losing weight is like the young girl’s ability to water the roses—it can be done with great skill, but it is the wrong activity for the situation. Losing weight gives the illusion of control, of being able to do something perfectly, and quells the anxiety that comes when life is not so neat, or when troubling situations provoke fear. Maybe it is better to put out fires poorly than to water roses perfectly.
A similar analogy is that some activities make about as much sense as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Whatever the analogy, when houses are on fire, you either put the fire out or call for help.