Weetabix x 2.
Wholemeal toast x 2, butter.
Breaded fish fillet, mushy peas, mashed potato.
Rhubarb crumble and custard
Tuna mayo sandwich (wholemeal), 5-bean salad, side salad.
Peach full-fat yoghurt.
Weetabix x 2.
…& the usual pint of milk.
Well, I don’t know when I was expecting Iron Man to arrive…
I’ve been waiting around for a good few days now. That mental brick wall isn’t going to be shifting any time soon by the feel of things. Surely my puny hands couldn’t do anything about it; they weren’t made to punch through bricks.
Anorexia had cemented so many habits and coping strategies in my brain, it felt impossible to know what to challenge next. You know that frustration when you’re chugging along with a sense of progress, and then you come to a sudden standstill? That need and desire to travel further… but something is so obviously in your way.
The other day, the dietician told me to write a list of all my dietary rules and behaviours around food. Anything I felt compelled to do, or felt decided by some outer control (my Eating Disorder). Little did I realise that minor task would become a therapeutically-scribbled two pages of A4.
‘Must not…’ this, ‘Always…’ that; I felt like a strict mum leaving a list of house chores for the kids. I thought they were just my deep-rooted ways of believing, the ‘right’ and ‘orderly’ way. But thinking about it, kids aren’t born automatically knowing how to hoover, tidy their room or take the rubbish out. Equally, I wasn’t born deciding how I would choose from a menu, what to avoid… or with the desire to meal-plan with jigsaw perfection, or knowing what order Anorexia wanted me to eat my food-groups in.
Now I was ‘eating plenty’ and ‘getting on with it’ didn’t that mean I was well on my way to recovery? If only it were that easy.
This is why I stress how just because someone is eating, or even a healthy weight, it does not for one second mean that their thoughts aren’t plagued by a mental illness. Put my two-sided list of rules, the personal Eating Disorder bible, inside the head of someone of a healthy weight. The way I would be at the end of my treatment here, if I decided to go with the meal-plan and reach a healthy BMI. Maybe you just passed them in the supermarket.
Well I’ve spent many phases over the years of my Eating Disorder looking that way, completely ‘fixed’ and healthy to the eye, with the same mind-set. I hiked through my last two inpatient treatments, putting on the weight, without feeling much hope in being able to tear up my rules for the bin. Assuming I’d never learn another way to cope. And yes, relapsing. So I’ve probably lived much of my life over the years, staring at that brick wall. Only now I am sussing out a way to get through it, putting hope in a life on the other side.
Basically, iron-man never turned up. There never was one. No golden opportunity; no-one was going to come rescue me. I have one option and that’s to break it down with my bare hands.
Anorexia built it, but I am stronger. I honestly believe every single sufferer in the world is too. I don’t care if you think that you were never meant to recover, or that it’s too late. I don’t care, because that’s not you speaking. That’s your mental illness. Which you weren’t born with by the way and you were never born to be.
Anyway, I’d made this list for the dietician… and I’d been waiting and waiting and waiting for the ‘right’ moment, to feel ‘ready’ to start letting them go. How on earth could I? I’d just got used to eating THIS much food. Eating desserts?! Not counting calories?! Eating Disorders will cling on and cling on to any brain cell they can. Stalling you on the recovery road.
Rebelling against any more rules would feel like pulling a plug out and letting so many confusing and uncomfortable thoughts spill all over the dining room. That’s when I recognised that my ‘rules’ are protecting those uncomfortable thoughts. And how would I ever know what else to do or how to treat them if I didn’t know what they were?
First brick crumbled – I had to find out.
So on Thursday, in a 1:1 session with one of the support workers on my team, I put my foot down. Gave the brick wall a good kick. I confessed that I desperately wanted to give up what feels like my very most important ‘safety behaviour’ of eating things separately/in a certain order. For as long as I can remember, I think since my first inpatient admission, this has been a re-occurring problem. I found it was triggered by one of the first times in treatment I’d been given a plate of food I had absolutely no control over in a panic. When Anorexia was trying to suss it out, make sense of it and still apply some kind of structure/order. Anything to destroy the uncomfortable thoughts, the mess, the greed.
I’m learning now, all it is doing to keep listening and falling for the ‘safety behaviour’, is strengthening the shame my Eating Disorder wants me to feel. Every time I continue to react and repeat it, I’m making myself believe punishing thoughts. Which is dangerous. I’m then MORE likely to turn to my Eating Disorder for comfort from the self-punishment… a recipe for a continuous run on the Anorexic hamster wheel.
This wasn’t the full-recovery I’d signed up for. For me, my family or my future.
You might contemplate why I needed to discuss it with someone else to ‘stop’ a behaviour I was carrying out? That only I could stop with my knife and fork? I wondered this too for a long time. I felt weak and frustrated at myself. But to say it out loud, and to have someone else help me put a plan onto paper, felt protective, like an umbrella in the rain. Someone else in the real world knew what I was going to do, and I felt like I was more likely to be set up with weapons to go into the battle. It meant I was welcoming staff support too, Anorexia’s biggest threat.
In a bizarre way, making a ‘plan’ of which meals to start with tackling over the next couple of days, helped lift the guilt of disobeying the compulsion to use my ‘safety behaviour’. Anorexia likes structure, so it was a way of satisfying that element, almost ‘sweet-talking’ my Eating Disorder, whilst knowing the goals I had set were actually in MY best interest.
Another thing it thrives off – a sense of achievement. Well my new sense of achievement would be approaching the meals I had planned with my support worker, not falling for dangerous, rigid rules. To attempt to eat in a disordered, visually normal way. To fight the compulsion to order/tidy my food. I was preparing myself for some messy, uncertain feelings, but I already had a rubber ring already thrown out at me for afterwards… a ‘thought’ record.
This is a written table to vent out in pen, and really be honest with what you’re feeling in a challenging situation, including what unhelpful thoughts/images came in, then describing a more realistic thought/balanced perspective… followed by what you did/could do/what’s the best response. It may sound wishy washy (I used to think this when I previously avoided the whole analysing my thoughts palava, putting no faith in it whatsoever. But really, it DOES work. Because this time I’m using any tool that’s offered out to me if it means recovering…)
I’d only used this method once before, and genuinely I felt it was so useful. It empowered me to challenge my own thinking and fire some logic at my self-punishing thoughts.
No wasting time, I needed to shift that brick wall I’ve been staring at for a few days now. I think that’s why I felt so low. And scared. Scared that my body will restore quicker than my head and I knew I needed to act fast so that I wasn’t stuck forever. It had been long enough.
So it started today. (wrote this on Friday)
Rhubarb crumble and custard was the first victim. Sandwich meal at tea-time, the second.
Up until this point, I would neatly spoon away the custard with the very tip, sometimes unnervingly contaminated by gooey fruit that had leaked into it. Then robotically moving onto the rhubarb, leaving the crumble until last. I have had this stupid rule about always making sure to eat the carbohydrates last, the ‘heaviest’ thing. I know some of this irrational thinking is fuelled by biology – the starvation of the brain, survival instinct can encourage you to behave around food in an unusual way.
But I also knew why mentally, to me, order mattered. If I begin typing it out, I’m actually scared of reading it back and realising how crazy it sounds. But I still will, so this is my confession:
Anorexia makes me feel that if I eat something I’ve not had control over, something I don’t know the calories of and especially anything indulgent, I must put my stamp of control on it. It must have order for it to make sense. It tells me that if I eat the parts separately, my thoughts and feelings will remain under some level of calm. That it won’t punish me anymore for eating this food now that I have no choice.
If I mix the parts, I would be eating for enjoyment. I would be mixing flavours and textures like an artist with a palette, for pleasure purposes. And to my Eating Disorder, pleasure is NOT an option. It is practically murder.
If I mix the parts, I would be making a statement that I am deserving to eat this particular food and to enjoy the taste of it. By combining the tastes, it would feel like I’m projecting to the world that I accept my life, I accept who I am and I accept that I feel unhappy in my own skin. That I want to remain this person, with this life forever.
And if I keep projecting this statement to the world and to myself, by repeatedly eating enjoyable foods, it’s like I am rewarding myself for the life I have created so far and for the person that I have become. And what if this reinforces that it’s a good thing which will then make me stuck forever? Because it’s not. I’m extremely unhappy with the person I am and for the life I have created so far.
Yes, I realise I am unhappy in my own skin and with my life, perfectionism, confidence and personality. But the beauty is that now, I have the strength to discover that following my Eating Disorder’s rules is never going to solve that. By continuing this way, I would just be feeding the bad wolf, and losing more and more of me.
Pudding in bowl, bowl on table, spoon in bowl. No staff member had seated themselves down on our table yet, and apparently she hadn’t been made aware of the ‘plan’ me and my support worker had put together anyway. I felt Anorexia niggling away, spotting this opportunity. Like the craving of a fag, my immediate instinct was to clean up this mess by following the custard-always-first procedure. Which I started to act upon.
Then, visualising that suffocating mental brick wall that seems to be haunting my days at the moment in recovery, I started scooping stringy bits of rhubarb too alongside the custard. Chaos already and feeling like a bomb was shortly to explode, yes it was very strange. It all felt very wrong. Tangy and creamy, stringy and smooth all in one.
That’s another thing… eating the components separately convinced Anorexia that this was the honourable way to fully appreciate the luxury food I was eating. That if I HAD to eat something so self-indulgent, so disobeying to Anorexia’s dietary rules, then the least I could do was fully appreciate every broken down food group/element by giving them my full attention.
Mixing flavours felt selfish, ignorant and careless. But greedy most of all.
I didn’t approach the pudding as care-free as I’d have liked, still trying to put off the crumble part until last. But I didn’t act on compulsion and scrape away all of the custard sitting on top; I committed to the rhubarb and custard together and then the remaining custard with the crumble.
But to me, it was enough to rebel and take some power over my own mind back. Of course it was bound to feel wrong first time round. Yes, I felt guilty but I knew I would. But the fact no-one prompted me to do it, felt empowering. Acting on my own behalf felt empowering. It was very, very weird. All very wrong, very weird.
But deep down I know it was very right. For me.
Afterwards, it was bizarre. I felt pretty numb. Empty and numb… however, this is, I’ve noticed what seems to happen every time I choose to let part of Anorexia go. Like letting a balloon off and feeling more gravity. The hardest bit to fight is turning back to the thing which filled the hole. Reading about others’ recovery, it seems that learning about yourself and being able to gradually involve other things in your life, is the solution to this. And the overall solution to getting your life back.
Thinking about my future challenges ahead with the meal-plan, and trying to guess what I might feel like rather than it all come as a shock, I imagine desserts and any ‘saucey’ meals are going to be the most difficult. That’s when it all feels unbearably untidy, sauce contaminating the food groups. Pleasure swimming all over the plate. More pieces added to the mental jigsaw puzzle.
Do you know what though? I’d started typing this post not long before tea. And the positive mind-set I felt coming on by therapeutically trying to explain the meaning behind my behaviours, set me up with a good attitude for the next challenge. I wasn’t as anxious as lunch-time. The components of the meal were generally quite separate. If Anorexia had it’s full-blown way, it would mean eating the tuna-mayo filling, before the bread. And I remember in my earlier days here at the Unit, I’d attempted that but staff were pretty firm and stopped me in my tracks.
So this, in order, was the next best/safe thing: salad, 5-bean salad, then sandwiches. I even ended up relying on eating the dark-coloured kidney beans first before the lighter ones in the 5-bean salad. Clinging onto order, systematic eating, refusing to make shameful statements that Anorexia feared I would make as soon as I started mixing things up.
As I was in a fairly positive frame of mind and mentally determined, I tried to distract any temptation, by chatting with the girls in the lounge before we went through to the dining room. And it didn’t feel forced. I felt that I had accepted it was time to start letting go. Usually I would conjure up a negative state of mind, actually worrying about being triggering in any way towards any other patients. Which then is a trigger for more guilt, and yes, relying on my Eating Disorder even more. Reminder to Yasmin: evidence for yet again, a lose-lose situation.
Now I’d started chipping away with that crumble and custard, I knew the only way was forward now. I was ready to sit with the s****y feelings, the ‘telling off’ in my head but this is what it would take to re-train my brain. And I knew from the start that wasn’t going to come by chance. It would come by change, and it suddenly felt quite exciting.
It seems almost laughable how petty this is to think about typing out, (please don’t laugh… okay, do – as long as you don’t close this window straight after!) but I am recording my achievement over Anorexia so to reiterate it in my brain as perfectly okay…
I divided my 5-bean salad into two. Then I alternated between the salad and half of the beans. (mixing up BOTH colours)… ate two sarnies, the rest of the beans, and the remaining two sarnies.
Crikey, how daft that seems!
As much as I was convinced it would all feel incredibly messy, actually it still felt very neat. But this time I was in the driving seat. Did tuna mayo ooze down my front? No… did I fire a kidney bean at a patient over the other side of the room? No… were my sandwiches still triangles and hadn’t morphed into star-shapes? Yes… did I eat too fast like Anorexia was adamant I would do in a mixed-up way? No…
Had my life changed? No…would it have done if I’d decided to still follow the irrational, tidy order of eating? No… the truth was, which I can accept, but still find difficult and frustrating, however I decided to interact with food wasn’t going to take away any pain I felt about myself or my life. It was just one big mask. Under which the problems have been stewing.
But it CAN get better by embracing an emotionally-detached relationship with food. By getting my body to a healthy weight so that my brain has the best chance at a healthy mind-set. This is turn puts me in a better position to cope with the emotions that Anorexia doesn’t believe I can face.
Tomorrow, the meals I have prepared to challenge my behaviours on are lunch – vegetable goulash, rice and cauliflower…. oh no. S**t. A VERY messy meal to my irrational head. Bring on the saucey dilemmas. And lemon sponge and custard at tea-time.
There’s still a hell of a lot of crazy loops left on this emotional recovery rollercoaster. But I’m choosing to stay on.