(mild trigger warning to those sensitive to Anorexia talk, although all written with intentions of recovery focus and positivity)
Sometimes, just sometimes I am going about my day as per usual… and I’ll have this longing, this craving. A craving for Anorexia to be back in my life to protect me. And although eating disorders do usually entail struggles around body image, as did mine, I hope this blog post goes to show that they certainly aren’t all focused around it. And that’s precisely why they aren’t just an illness built on vanity, not at all. These are some of the psychological mind-sets and thoughts that I miss, that try and pull me back. I am luckily in the place where I can brush off these cravings like they’re just a poke or a nudge. So I go on to try and explain how these are irrational ways for thinking and I know that acting on them won’t improve my life long-term.
1.“I felt high structuring and planning everything.”
We face so many decisions each day that hold different amounts of responsibility, and for some people that causes a lot of anxiety. This can branch to even the smallest of decisions, such as what to watch on telly, or at the cinema with your friend when you both can’t decide. Often we put off the decision or we don’t take part in as much as we’d like to in life because of this anxiety and inner conflict. We don’t know how to listen to that gut feeling, and we over-analyse. Whether to play it safe and stick with the familiar, or take a risk and try something new. A lot of us don’t trust ourselves. We ask ourselves things like “but what if the other option was the better one?” or “what if I can’t live up to the expectations of having made this decision and I embarrass myself?”
When my yo-yo dieting spiralled into Anorexia, it was like all this day-to-day decision anxiety was gathered up and channelled, instead, through a laser beam onto food and meal-planning (as well as what I wore out of fear that certain clothes would make me feel fat). I feel subconsciously in this way, by putting so much internal research into decisions around food, it distracted from what felt like a big jumble of life anxieties that had no order, the decisions that can be thrown at you at any time. And I feel like many people with eating disorders can relate to that. By planning how many calories I was ‘allowed’, how many I had left… to which flavour yoghurt was ‘right’ to have on which day, I could pre-plan all of what felt like the most important decisions to me right now.
This forward decision-making gave me structure, and I knew I wasn’t allowed to eat until ‘x’ o’clock. Then along with all this was the planning of everything else in between. The activities I must complete each day, when and where, usually to distract from the hunger whilst also feeling I’d been productive ‘enough’ for the day. I’d be sat on a bench at 12.57 waiting with my salad unboxed, hungry, feeling without permission to eat until 13.00 because it was on my ‘plan’, otherwise I’d feel out of control and distrusting of myself to have made these decisions. I needed to follow it for my sense of self.
Following this regimented structure to food and the rest of the day, gave me a sense of inner peace, and self-esteem in a weird way. Before I deteriorated, I got a great sense of satisfaction from feeling in control about my food decisions for the week. I felt organised and the world felt a little less chaotic.
But I can’t let Anorexia trick me back to that. Do I really want to jeopardise my potential for a happy, fulfilled life, just to feel accomplished at sticking to a restrictive meal-plan and daily regime that became lonely? What I found was that despite how much I planned my food days ahead, I the more starved my brain became the harder it was not to doubt the decisions I made. Time spent food-planning became longer and more exhausting.
What I do now, is try to use this drive for planning to my advantage. I still meal-plan a week ahead, but in healthy manner. I try to make sure I’ve got variety in there, for health reasons as a whole, and not in a rigid, Anorexic way. I also plan meals for convenience around my plans for the day, instead of making plans around my food like I used to. If there’s foods I’m still fearing, I try and plan in something small each week to make sure I don’t become too safe with my food pattern, because with me that happens quite easily.
I am still a big planner – I’m the type that loves a diary and highlighters. But I can still embrace this part of me without Anorexia.
2. “When I focus on one thing I feel successful at it because I can give it my all.”
Ever have that fear that when you open your life up to lots of different things, and try to be as engaged with it as possible, you doubt whether you can give them all your best? Whether you are good enough? I’ve always, throughout my eating disorder recovery struggled with this idea of juggling life, and I’m slowly, finally getting better at it. Again, with focusing on food and seeing my weight go down, in the past I felt as though I was giving my best to one thing, trying desperately to keep some sense of self-esteem in tact. (until of course the more ill I became, my self-esteem shot right down)
The thought of introducing other things into my life, such as making new friends/even seeing friends, starting a course, giving time to any of my hobbies, or even much change at all to daily routine became daunting. I had this massive fear that if I tried those things and I was no good, or not as good as my high self-expectations then I wouldn’t be able to cope. I felt that if I gave attention to other things then Anorexia would become threatened and make me suffer with thoughts of self-hatred. Which would only then draw me in closer to it.
Now, I’m learning and discovering that the more varied and colourful your life, the more you have going on (to the point where you’re not over-doing it and going barmy)… the more content you feel about the person you are and the life that you’re building. I’ve had to face these challenging thoughts about not being able to give my best to absolutely everything, and realising that sometimes just showing up is enough. Taking a small step, that is different to someone else’s step is enough. Of course if you are deteriorating with the physical effects of an eating disorder or any other mental health illness, then the first step before thinking about any of the above is to get yourself physically safe. But the biggest mistake I made through relapse and recovery attempts, was to wait until I felt ‘fully recovered’ and ‘mentally at my best’ before introducing much else into my life. That time never came, and instead I learnt that including a rainbow of things in your life and getting balance in as many areas as possible – work/education, socialising, family, hobbies, leisure etc. is part of the set of building blocks to becoming the most recovered you can and want to be. It’s part of the process.
Yes I have my doubts, frequently about whether I’m doing the best I can in all areas of life, but it’s much more important to me now to show up and take part in all of those things, whilst tackling the emotions alongside it. And quite often, we’re doing much better than we realise. When you get out there and do stuff and meet people, you might also be surprised at receiving an encouraging comment or two from those that notice your efforts and progress.
In part of my planning for the week, I now create headings for each area of life, and make sure I am taking part in all of them as much as I can, because it can be easy to let them slip. I try and have a little goal for each every day – such as for the ‘social’ part, it might not necessarily be ‘see a friend’, it could be ‘to arrange when next meeting a friend’, or ‘replying to a text’. Even that can be daunting sometimes. But fairy steps all add up.
3. “I can better judge when I deserve something.”
Like many people with eating disorders, for me ‘reward’ played a huge part in my relationship with food, and still does at times. Because I held such low value for myself, I never quite knew when I deserved something or what I was deserving of.
The taste of food became a reward as it was something I recognised I enjoyed. And it’s a frequent part of our lives. So in a sense, using food as a ‘reward’ for achieving something, or for going so long without it became a way to give to myself. Carefully counting my calories, and being strict about the times of eating, when I did eat I felt almost deserving, or nearer than I would have before my eating disorder anyway. But this became very distorted, because over time, the guilt around eating increased, even though the amount I was eating decreased. A red flag for Anorexia.
Seeing food as a reward can be a danger for unhealthy eating behaviours and/or a disordered mindset, regardless if you have an eating disorder or not – so please reach out to someone about this and take a step back to look at your relationship with food.
When good things happen to me, or people are kind to me, I still struggle with the thoughts and feelings I get, but I’m working now at accepting it. It’s difficult sometimes not to feel in debt to whoever has been nice or kind to me, and to feel deserving, but with a bit of self-talk and rationalising by talking through it with people, I’m learning to embrace it, not shy away from the good stuff.
Most important probably, is that whoever’s giving out that opportunity to you obviously thinks you have what it takes to do it, or whoever’s giving you something out of kindness enjoys doing that and thinks you ARE deserving. So to take from someone is almost a way of giving back to that person, too.
Self-care and self-soothing is another huge way to healthily encourage that sense of comfort and feeling deserving, instead of using food. I’m still very much a work in progress in this area as thoughts around my body image at the moment are extremely negative, but there are things I recognise that feel like a reward, aside from food – things such as looking forward to binge-watching my favourite series on Netflix, or picking up a book I’m enjoying.
4. “By the time it gets to bed I am exhausted and no longer have to suffer the dreaded night-time over-thinking and anxieties about how long it will take me to get to sleep.”
This is still a part of Anorexia that seduces my thoughts back sometimes. It’s still a really hard time of day for me, the evenings. It’s common with a lot of people isn’t it, but also the fact this time of day has historically affected my eating behaviours and increased intensity of guilt makes it a nightmare waiting to happen at times. When I’ve been doing well with Anorexia, Bulimia returns usually at this time of day. I’m doing better 80% of the time now, which is great, but I really and truly have to fight the thoughts and the urges in the evening. So this was perhaps one of the strongest ‘benefits’ Anorexia gave me in terms of my emotional/mental protection.
But… it doesn’t solve the problem. It just masks it. Through DBT we are learning techniques for distress tolerance, as well as emotional regulation and interpersonal effectiveness. Although there is no one prescriptive thing that works for anyone to make it through difficult emotions safely, it’s trial and error and not being afraid to try something that you haven’t before… because if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got. (one of the DBT therapist’s favourite sayings…)
It’s an important life skill to be able to ride an emotion and trust that you’ll get out the other side of it – because the same emotion never lasts. This is hard to remember when we’re really struggling internally, but one to keep telling yourself. And I do try with this at the moment, but it’s still a battle. Other things I’ve found helpful during bed time when I’m anxious, are sleep meditations on YouTube, or listening to Headspace. Another one I’ve found helpful lately is window shopping online, and adding lots of things to my basket without spending. After I’ve done lots of scrolling, it usually tires my eyes (hard work the whole shopping thing, I know). Or I get up for a cuppa, and the soothing warm taste calms my whole body.
5. “The hard stuff doesn’t feel as difficult.”
Sometimes I miss the way that anything fearful before Anorexia, wasn’t so much during it. Like social anxiety. I’d be so wired off the anxiety of the eating disorder, whether that be recalculating the calories of the day in my head just to re-check, or worrying about whether I’d made the right decision for lunch tomorrow, that fear from much else slipped away. And sometimes, this felt invigorating.
This is partly down to the starvation of the brain, so not being able to feel as many emotions, or take in as much information, so it’s no wonder it feels like your world shrinks when in the grips of it. But it’s also psychologically because of how much emphasis you place on one thing.
But what’s changed a lot in recent times – is the fact that I WANT to feel the fear and get through the other side. I like the idea of a challenge and being able to accomplish it – which involves facing uncomfortable emotions, and not just the ‘good stuff’. The ‘good stuff’, to me nowadays, is the feeling I get after I realise I’ve outstretched my comfort zone and feeling more powerful than the emotion I thought I couldn’t cope with, instead of it ruling me.
If things feel challenging, I feel like I’m moving forwards, which naturally we do – whether in life itself, or in terms of developing as a person. For me, this is a better option than just avoiding the difficult stuff. If we all talked about it, and were open about these emotions we face together, I think it would be an easier, more supportive world. Emotions are there to be felt, and to guide us.
Even just typing all that blog post out, reaffirms to me why the short-term longings of Anorexia, are certainly not worth the long-term. It’s easier to seek short-term peace than to prioritise what will happen in the long-term. But when I was in the grips of my eating disorder, I couldn’t see the future. I gave up hopes and dreams for seeking peace with Anorexia by pleasing it as much as I could… but it never lasted however much I chased it. Now, I have hopes, ambitions and I can see a future. Create goals, break them down and you can achieve anything.
Do I miss this? No. Do I miss the muscle weakness in my arms? Do I miss feeling anxious and on edge about whether I look ‘messy’? Do I miss crying to my younger sister in the shopping centre that morning because of the mental torment of day-to-day life? Absolutely not. Here’s to never going back that way.