It has been a year since I got diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and it has been the most life changing year of my life. I have managed to overcome my physical health relatively quickly thanks to receiving treatment so early on and being offered a place on a daycare programme. My efficiency and hard working nature were used to my advantage during recovery as well as my logical way of thinking. Due to these traits I was able to easily differentiate between my voice and the eating disorders voice. Making quick progress physically has meant that my brain hasn’t quite had the chance to catch up. I can’t cope with gaining weight when the voices are still very strong and are far more punishing now compared to when I was underweight. People assume that gaining weight is the hard bit when actually it is the easiest and the eating disorder voices get far worse when you have restored physical health. Recovery is like skating on a frozen pond; you aren’t sure where the ice is thin and could fall through at any second.
Looking back at the past year does not fill me with pride and joy as most people would expect from starting to overcome a serious illness. The truth is, I feel sadness and a sense of loss. Recovery is a bittersweet experience – you know that there is a better life (or just a life) in living without an eating disorder but it is as though you lose a part of you that gave you a purpose. I can appreciate how this might seem ridiculous to someone who doesn’t understand eating disorders which is why I think it is important for me to explain in order for people to help those who are suffering. They aren’t crazy, it seems so real and letting go is a terrifying experience into the unknown.
The good and the bad
Having an eating disorder is like being in an abusive relationship. You know it’s bad for you but a big part of you loves them and you are scared to let go of that one thing that gave you security in life. Anorexia gave me good things as well as the bad so letting go means I must be prepared to give up the positives. It made me feel empowered, indestructible and in control. Feeling empty and starving to the point where I was about to faint or so hungry that my stomach was making all sorts of funny noises made me feel euphoric – it was like a drug. I felt high because the voice inside my head was telling me I was amazing. I felt superior to everybody else because they couldn’t do what I was doing to myself. I had a bully inside my head telling me all sorts of horrible things which I believed due to my low esteem so harming myself was the only way I could feel validated and I became a prisoner in my own body. So long as my eating disorder was controlling me I never had to feel anxiety or depression or hurtful experiences as anorexia was the most loyal friend I ever had. When I could feel my bones and saw how skinny I looked I felt like I’d achieved something and found the one thing that I was successful at even though I knew my health was at a life threatening risk. For the first time in my life I was exceptional at something as opposed to the mediocre and average achiever.
Anorexia and other eating disorders are known as being treatment resistant. The biggest part of recovery is making that decision to get better. In view of the feelings of greatness and superiority, sufferers are often very reluctant to want to recover. With most types of illness you will want to do anything possible to get rid of it. To illustrate, a cancer patient will go through whatever treatment or trial they can to get fight off the disease and a person with schizophrenia will do anything to stop hearing voices. This is not the case with eating disorders as the illness served a purpose which had its benefits. I was highly functional and conquered my best achievements when I was most unwell. I felt empowered and indestructible as I knew the best way of coping during hard times. Obviously all of this came at the price of losing my life. I never felt deserving of life and didn’t believe others would love me unless I was ill. Being ill gave them a reason to love and be there for me and I still believe this to some extent now.
My ED voice often tells me “go back just one more time”, like an alcoholic having one last drink. I know that reverting back to my old ways is not an option because I can see that there is a future without an eating disorder but moving forward is terrifying. I am already putting this into practice otherwise my anorexia would’ve killed me if I didn’t begin to let go. My only coping mechanisms to manage difficult emotions were restricting calories and exercising excessively and although I’ve learnt new strategies, they don’t compare to that euphoric feeling anorexia gave me. Thinking back to the abusive relationship analogy; you remember all the happy times you had together and how you made each other laugh and smile – these memories encourage the thoughts of staying in the relationship in hope to get back what you once had. I once saw a quote that said “I wasn’t afraid of dying from my eating disorder, I was afraid of living without it.” This sums up exactly how much the eating disorder dictates and bullies you into thinking it is the best thing for you.
It’s not your fault
For those who don’t understand eating disorders or know someone suffering with one, this might be quite useful:
It isn’t their fault; they didn’t choose to have an eating disorder and it happened because of a number of factors such as their personality traits, genetics or traumatic experience. I never had a traumatic experience for my anorexia to take place which I often feel guilty for – “nothing bad happened so why did I get given this illness?” It can happen to anyone and you shouldn’t feel bad for that.
It’s not about the food; the food is a symptom of the difficult emotions lying underneath. Compulsive behaviours such as restricting, binging and purging are the coping mechanisms used to deal with such things like anxiety and depression which are often accompanied with an eating disorder. Whatever you say, don’t say just eat! It isn’t as though they hadn’t thought of that. Sufferers will often feel like they physically can’t eat certain foods; I couldn’t even touch some foods. The usual beliefs behind an eating disorder are “I’m unloved, I’m alone, I’m worthless.” This then impacts on their eating habits as a way to make them feel in control because they are so out of control with the rest of their life.
Never comment on appearance or weight. Gaining weight is a non-negotiable part of the process which is terrifying. Making comments on weight or even saying they look better or healthy could do more harm than good and you don’t want to trigger anything that could disrupt their recovery. Likewise, it is just as damaging to comment on their weight loss as they could be interpreted it as receiving recognition and therefore doing the right thing. Also see Why Not to Tell a Girl They’ve Lost Weight
Make sure you are getting the support so you can be there for your loved one. An eating disorder affects everyone, not just the sufferer, which can destroy relationships and hurt others so considering your mental health is just as important. The person suffering with an eating disorder needs to make themselves the priority and can’t be worrying about whether others are coping. Additionally, they aren’t in the best position to be giving advice or taking on added stress. There are plenty of helplines and forums via the Beat website and most treatment programmes offer a carers’ support group.
If you know someone who is suffering from an eating disorder and have any questions, you can contact me via email on the Contact page of Perfectly Imperfect.