Weetabix x 2.
Wholemeal toast x 2, butter.
Fish in parsley sauce, cabbage, mashed potato.
Cherry full-fat yoghurt.
Egg mayo sandwiches on wholemeal, 5-bean salad, salad.
Jam and coconut sponge, custard.
Weetabix x 2.
…& the usual pink of milk.
I remember those giddy tingles of fear. First day back at school, fresh new polo shirt smell, matching stationary. New class, new year… change. You know you’re growing up but you don’t trust that you feel ‘ready’ or old enough.
Saturday morning felt a bit that way. First breakfast in the main dining room. Adding in lunch yesterday and ALL meals today… like moving from primary to secondary school.
My main worry was the social bit… I was used to Anorexia being my security-guard whenever I ate, 90% of the time. (before coming to inpatient treatment) Alone, but at comfort. What I’ve learnt is, no one person with an Eating Disorder is the same…
Each person has their own collection of individual traits, triggers and issues. A bit like an orange with the skin on, but if you imagine each segment tasting completely different. They all look the same from the outside? So it’s important that everything you read in my posts aren’t generalised or stereotyped…
Often I used to take my pre-pared, weighed-out lunch in little tubs to the library and hunt out that familiar safe, square table. I’d scribble down what components were in my lunch, alongside the calories and time in my notebook of daily charts, before I could allow myself to take a first bite… waiting for the digital number on my phone to flash that exact minute I had planned to eat that day. It was almost a compulsive routine to ‘honour’ my Eating Disorder now I think about it? Like a Muslim taking off their shoes to pray.
I felt scared of the bully. Like feebly handing my pocket money over…
I was ‘allowed’ these dedicated minutes to enjoy the taste of my lunch, as long as the above things were in check. And that my environment was orderly, clean and tidy. But I must eat slowly and carefully to appreciate each mouthful so not to wake the thoughts of ‘greed’… interestingly, the ‘real’ part of me deep down, and the ‘survival’ part of my brain wanted me to eat slow for different reasons – make it last as long as possible…
It knew, deep down it wouldn’t be getting the substantial amount of food that it craved and needed, and was aware it probably wouldn’t be for as long as Anorexia held the reins… to make it last was it’s instinct for human survival.
The body and brain are subconsciously so incredibly clever.
My other ‘safe’ lunching spot was one particular bench in my local shopping centre. Not too far from ‘Next’. Sometimes if it was occupied, I’d walk round and round until it was free again to sit on. Why, if I prefer to eat alone? It was the more ‘dangerous’ option, but it was often a ‘plan B’ – if the library tables were taken, they were much more likely to be there a good while engrossed in a book…
Having humans around felt okay, as long as they weren’t humans I knew. They had no expectations of me, no emotions attached, hopefully wouldn’t acknowledge me, and I knew they wouldn’t interrupt when I ate. It wouldn’t matter if I looked weird eating or what I ate. Randomers wouldn’t distract from such careful, dedicated minutes. They were just passing ships. Strangers. I think this was the ‘real’ part of me craving that company, wanting to be around others, but not close enough to set off the electric anxieties in Anorexia’s hands…
“What if your face looks like you’re enjoying the food? What will the shame feel like then? How pathetically will people think of you?
Focus on nothing but the taste and your pace. What’s the point in eating if you’re going to focus on something else… it’s a waste of calories. If you agree to eat with that person, what if you end up eating earlier than the time you planned would fit best? Wouldn’t that make you lose control over what you eat for the rest of the day?
It’s so greedy to eat if you’re not completely mindful about what you’re doing.
You eat like a weirdo anyway – people will either worry or judge you.
If you eat round people you know, there might be emotions that come up. You definitely don’t deserve to eat if you start feeling stuff – we don’t know how to deal with it. ”
This is why eating around others is still very much a challenge. I may now be complying with the meal-plan, but like anyone who embarks on recovery… the most important voice you have to choose not to listen to first, is the one telling you not to eat, or not to eat enough, or to limit your calories to so-and-so, or to skip that meal, skip that snack, or to have to be in absolute control of everything you eat. The food has to come first in order to gain enough strength to try and tackle the rest.
And this is why just because someone is eating, it doesn’t mean someone doesn’t have an Eating Disorder or that someone in recovery isn’t still struggling just as much. A bit like someone taking a paracetamol for a headache… you don’t just expect them to be pain-free as soon as it’s in their mouth.
Mentally, the thoughts a bit further above, are very loud and distressing. I imagine these are similar across those who suffer from all types of Eating Disorders… Bulimia, EDNOS, Binge-Eating Disorder…
In the ‘Stage 1’ dining room, until yesterday, there was me, one other patient and two staff members. Although of course there are still ‘people’ there, the main focus is on completing the food and still transitioning from being on ‘half-portions’ to ‘full-portions’. That’s why it’s so tense. Patients are still in the early grapples of their thoughts. The one’s stopping them eat.
In a way, the expected intensity of this environment gives your Eating Disorder the excuse to focus on nothing other than the plate in front of you. To give every food group your full attention in order to feel deserving. Particularly when the food itself is out of your usual precise control (which is overwhelming enough), it makes it even more important to zone in to every mouthful. There is then no major expectancy for you to talk.
Since acting true to my gut feeling, wanting to help the other young patient complete her meals and grapple the thoughts I knew so well, I’ve invested in what was first a challenging and now incredibly supportive friendship. (everything my Eating Disorder disapproves of…) I wrote some earlier posts about the triggering I first struggled with, and taking responsibility for my own thoughts, as well as then choosing to channel my focus into creating a better, more relaxed atmosphere in the dining room for the other patient. As well as helping myself.
Changing my attitude/focus at meal-times has amazingly shifted my mind-set. I recently finished reading a book about the meaning of longer-lasting genuine happiness, which puts the solution down to helping others. That we have to work on our OWN happiness and health so that we CAN help others. For me, personally, looking at things like that takes the guilt away yet again, as soon as I start to contemplate ‘trying’ to be happy and mentally/physically healthy. Even when Anorexia screams at me not to.
I also already spoke about how, at first, I made the effort to control the urge to ‘shake my leg’ when my head told me I didn’t deserve to relax while eating. I’ve 95% put that to bed now. I couldn’t be a hypocrite and help the other girl whilst being so triggering.
Then, awkwardly, I pushed myself to make a feeble attempt to start a bit more conversation, so the other girl’s mind was more distracted from her thoughts over the meal. (otherwise sometimes it could be deadly silent, especially if the staff weren’t very talkative…) I put the hope in that ‘faking it before I make it’ might work. That creating more positive behaviour would help make my thoughts more positive and that eventually I’d relax into it and believe them. Rather than trying and failing to change my thoughts with hope that my behaviour change would come AFTER.
As the past week or two have gone by, I’ve definitely felt my conversation increase with random spurts of confidence. Depending on that particular meal/pudding. Sometimes if I’m too anxious/focused on a challenging food or the way it’s presented and compelled to ‘sort it’/’separate it’, I’ll acknowledge when staff are talking but stay food-focused. But sometimes, if I’ve had a positive day and I’m feeling motivated, or the staff member is really relaxed to talk to, I have surprised myself.
There’s been one or two meals so far where all of a sudden, I have found myself engrossed in the chat rather than the meal. This is usually the case when the meal feels less ‘messy’ to Anorexia, and is more naturally ‘ordered’ and doesn’t require much auto-pilot anxious behaviour… such as separating food groups.
Since gradually leaving the ‘Stage 1’ dining room behind, I’ve lost what became another ‘safe-ish’ familiar space and routine. I found I went from wanting to run away instantly to the main dining room, when my thoughts were so self-destructive because of the comparison of how much I was eating with the other new patient… to feeling a sense of grief. Like leaving your little brother or sister at a train station and waving goodbye.
I’ve enjoyed the privilege of watch her mentally grow stronger. Every time her plate was a little more empty, it felt like a big middle finger up to Anorexia. For me and for her… !
And she still is working fantastically! (this morning she expressed her determination to complete the full day’s meal-plan today)… ! At least we can still be friends outside the dining room and I make sure to check in with her every day.
I was worried that entering the ‘Stage 2’ dining room, I would lose this focus. Anorexia would convince me that I have no EXCUSE to ‘be social’ and ‘try to relax’ when I eat if I’m not doing it with a purpose to try and help someone else too…
Those feelings of inadequacy, not socially ‘fitting in’ or being ‘bubbly enough’ all flooding back from the school-days as I entered what looks like a small school canteen with round tables. What if everyone avoids sitting with me? What if I don’t talk enough and everyone finds me boring and avoids me at meal-times? What if I have a negative impact on anyone or end up being triggering?
For my first breakfast in there, I noticed one of the quieter girls sat on her own (tables seat 4), so approached and asked if she minded me sit with her. I was glad for this, and then explained my social worries and how I’m not a big talker when I eat. Reassuringly, she said the same.
Thankfully, I’m still sticking with my Weetabix until planning in my challenges for the week with the dietician. So going up when the staff call us up one table at a time to portion, wasn’t too overwhelming. Currently I watch staff portion mine. But thankfully you don’t have to have a GCSE to pop a couple of wheaty biscuits into a bowl. So I ticked that box.
Watching staff portion at times, like today’s ‘fish in parsley sauce’ can be a big challenge. I didn’t think this is something I struggled with… until at lunch today, Anorexia felt like it was being slapped in the face but not being able to do anything about it. Watching the control ripped out of my hands, right in front of me. I felt like I had tape on my mouth, hands tied behind my back, unable to scream for help. (Anorexia did anyway)
Seeing the nurse spoon the sauce over the fish fillets was a mind-boggle… for my Eating Disorder anyway. It seemed to sabotage something so ‘pure’. The fish, I would have been settled with. But anxiety kicked off when my plate now looked like a creamy pond with fish swimming in it… mash blobbed on, a trickle of sauce touching and the cabbage going for a dip too… it all seemed mentally so, so messy. WRONG. Things touching, contaminated. All making me super-sensitive by the fact I had NO control over that plate of food in any shape or form.
Of course I still ate it though. I was tempted to take my time and leave the sauce until the end, so that when they called time over (we get 20 minutes) the fish would have left but the pond still remained. But the last thing I want to do is to be a trigger for anyone else. And after my surprise at weigh-in this morning, I felt reassured that this innocent parsley sauce would have no sudden impact on the scales.
As the conversation thing goes, at lunch today, I felt I could relax a bit more before the actual plate was there. Sat with a couple of other girls and one staff member. Still conscious of seeming ‘boring’ though, or if I mumble, I still felt those familiar inadequate school feelings linger. Plus I felt more pressure as I held big respect for these girls and I didn’t want to give off negative vibes.
Sometimes I’m thankful to be sat with a few others in a way, because in some ways I hope that they will have more interesting things to talk about between each other rather than focus on me, only to discover my absent personality or to set off embarrassment when they ask me to repeat what I say if I mumbled. (this is my low self-esteem, which I do recognise and openly will say I think this is one huge trigger for my Eating Disorder) It makes me have the urge to escape social situations and be back safe in my own company. But then that puts me at risk for Anorexia to jump in.
I have really been pushing myself though but like anything, my mind-set isn’t going to transform overnight. I will keep chipping away, because that’s the only way change is going to happen. And I know how much I want change…
Today at tea, I felt a bit low and instantly I purposely walked towards a seat on an empty table, part of me hoping I’d be on my own. But then one of the other lovely girls sat next to me. My instant thought whenever that happens is “s**t, I feel so sorry for them.” and then “well she’s really laid back and lovely so I’m pretty sure she likes anyone.”
As the main meal was something I’d grown pretty safe with now, and it feels much less ‘chaotic’ than lunch, I felt able to engage in conversation with her. It was lovely, and I found out so much about her I didn’t know. If anything, it was a great distraction from the food… and she thanked me for hugging her the other day when she was upset after group. I was flattered she remembered… it was nice to finally get to know her. Compared to the week I first came in, this now made me feel a social butterfly… ha! Long way off yet.
Another excuse Anorexia dishes out for not wanting to talk to anyone else when eating, is in case I eat too quickly, lose focus. Well, this occasion proved it wrong… if anything I actually ate at a slower pace. Purely because we weren’t both sat there mechanically eating like robots in awkward silence. The time in the dining room felt more of a social purpose… (still a pressure that worries me) and enjoyable.
Until pudding came… all eyes on the sponge.
So I’m learning, it seems to just depend on how challenging the food is at the moment as to how I can push myself socially.
If I’m going to conquer this Eating Disorder for the long-run I’m going to conquer this awkward social thing. I’ve learnt that I must have a lot of negative associations with my unconfident, inadequate feelings of the school-days. And growing up as a whole I guess.
I hope, if you’re new to understanding about Eating Disorders, that if you take one thing away from reading my blog posts… it’s that they are a complex mental disorder around SO much more than just food.
Food and weight are the skin of the orange.
There’s a whole other world beneath.