Have you ever given someone advice, knowing in your heart of hearts it’s the bloody well right thing? It makes sense. A gut and logical reaction. Yet… when it comes to yourself experiencing the same problem in your life, it’s difficult to always listen to that gut feeling, so you don’t act in line with what you know is right for everyone else. There’s a giant metal hand grabbing your waist, pulling you back. Most of us are guilty for that.
When it comes to mental health, for those of us in recovery whilst supporting/encouraging others along the way, this happens a lot. You’ll tell someone you believe they can do that very thing they’re frightened of – maybe it’s being able to take a shower, meeting with a friend after long periods of isolation, starting that job or new course, or eating that cake they used to love but has been ‘off limits’ to them for years. You know they can survive whatever it is that’s having power over them and they’ll make it through the other side. You also know that if they follow through with it, it could be the first stepping stone to really opening up some real hope for change. An exciting future. And all of this advice comes from a place of honesty, not just blabbing for the sake of trying to come across as saying the right thing. (okay, there probably are some of those people out there, but speaking for myself…)
Sometimes, when you’re trying to face the same challenge you’ve advised someone else on, it triggers thoughts, fears and previous negative experiences for yourself that you don’t feel you’ll be able to cope with. So you don’t do it, or you compromise with that challenge, lowering the bar. In the wider world, you’d be called a hypocrite – “someone who says they have particular moral beliefs but behaves in a way that shows these are not sincere” (Cambridge Dictionary)
Let’s put mental health aside for a second and think of examples of how a more obvious hypocrite might look. Maybe someone who is extremely anti-fox-hunting and actively preaches about it in their community, gets asked to go fox-hunting for a stag-do with a close friend, and they agree out of fear of being left out… or they get bought a gift made of fox-fur by a new partner and they wear it out of love for that person. To me, that shouts ‘hypocrite’. (…although, me begin my over-analytical self would then question if that person struggles making social connections, so craves to be able to do this when the occasion arises – therefore this overriding their animalistic moral beliefs… and then, if they are head-over-heels in love with a person, love can be blinding sometimes and perhaps that then becomes a priority over their original moral codes)
Experiences change us.
Back to mental health… when we’re going through a process of a recovery, we all know that there isn’t a recipe to follow like there is for baking a batch of flapjacks. Instead, we practice and sometimes 6 out of 10 pieces come out of the oven edible, other times we can just about scrape from the pan about 1 ½ (if we pieced the big crumbs together). And through this process we learn more of what we need to add, and more of what we might need to take out. There is no recipe – just learning what works, with the tools we acquire on the way. If we stopped baking flapjacks after a burnt batch, that’s up to us, but I feel through the 10 years I’ve experienced an eating disorder, I’ve learnt something worth tasting through every time I’ve picked myself up from a relapse. Some burnt, some survived.
So anyway, what sparked this blog post, was something personal going on for me at the moment. I’m a big advocate of pro-recovery and breaking away the negative language used around food, fad diets and so on. My moral code, my internal ‘wise mind’ (as we learn it in DBT) led me to give a talk last year at a big event for my local mental health services. Through this I shared the lessons I’d learnt for life through recovery (whilst still struggling badly with Bulimia)… one big point during this was something along the lines was how you don’t need to count calories to live a healthy life. Even for those needing to lose weight for health reasons, calorie-counting can for some, form a disordered mindset and lead to addiction, diverting attention away from what the food is and can offer the body, onto the numerical value of everything you eat. Which is really sad, and everything I hope to avoid happening as much as possible over the world. Whilst I still 1000% believe this (and during the time of giving my presentation last year I trialled this out)… I cannot erase my past. I told myself, after years of doing it that I ‘should’ be able to stop calorie-counting, and if I couldn’t do it then I was failing recovery. But my struggle up to that day, and then on to this day was/is, that calorie-counting and weighing foods seem to be the only tools that stop me from binging and purging. So my dilemma was – do I stop the numerical attachment to food altogether and just ‘keep trying’ and hoping to stop binging and purging… or do I go back to those reliable behaviours and risk feeding the addiction. And if so, will it again lead to Anorexia?
I’ve tried them both, but more-so trying to be relaxed about monitoring everything I ate… and where was I up to a month or so ago? In debt due to Bulimia, feeling extremely depressed and self-conscious about my body image due to the weight gain as a consequence of binging and purging, acting on impulse like a driven drug addict… and utterly hopeless.
And so recently, I felt like the only option I had, was to risk seeming a hypocrite, if I’m to stop this daily hell. It’s been two years since my last eating disorder admission (when it was cut short at a vulnerable time) of feeling like a crushed pea in the palm of an ogre’s hand, the Bulimia dictating my whole mind-set and genuinely, disastrously ruining my quality of life. It made me feel suicidal, and lead to multiple admissions onto a mental health ward.
While it may not seem ideal to some people out there, and the recovery sceptics… I had to return to the tools I knew could help lift this destructive behaviour, from past experience – calorie-counting and weighing foods. And yes, restricting to lose the weight I’d gathered through Bulimia. So after a couple of days of doing this, I started to associate this mind-set around food with how if I do manage to conquer the Bulimia how it could lead to Anorexia again instead, “it probably will”, and “what if it does?” Because these are my experiences from the past.
But does it have to? Does this choice of behaviours need to arrive at the same outcome? Every day in recovery, the sun keeps turning and the weather is different. The leaves on the tree aren’t in the same pattern as the day before. Just because you’ve done something previously, it doesn’t mean it needs to lead down the same path if your mind-set is different. Mind-set is everything. A behaviour is only one part of the puzzle. If you are invested in other things that matter to you, you have an idea for your future, you have things that ground you and are feeling purposeful in ways (no matter how small)… and you are nourishing the areas of your life that benefit your mental health as a whole, including feeling connected to others… then there’s no reason why the ending of the chapter has to be the same as the ones that didn’t end as well in the past.
As I discuss my progress with my therapist (DBT, I’m not with the eating disorders team any more) I am realising that the most important thing is to work on one (usually the most) troubling thing at a time. For me, as I say is the binging and purging that has haunted me non-stop pretty much for the past 2 years. So that’s my priority. I’m doing what’s right for me – where I am, with what I have. That’s all we can do.
And I can’t believe I’m saying this but I’m on my 31st day in a row without binging and purging! Crackers! Honestly, a couple of months ago, I would have said you were having a tea-party in Teletubby Land if you were to tell me this was going to happen. The respite feels such a peaceful place… everything feels much calmer. Whilst I don’t know whether I’ve lost weight yet, as I only weighed myself last weekend after over year having not, that doesn’t seem to be the most important thing at the moment. It’s how I feel inside, the empowerment and the sense of hope restored about the future.
Whilst I’m sure it will be tempting to continue to lose weight (for anyone with a history of Anorexia), I also know that it isn’t the future for me anymore. What matters and is so important is to manifest how you wish your life to look when you’ve achieved your goal – for me, that’s a BMI slightly lower than what I am at the moment, still within the healthy range (a place I physically feel more comfortable for me and which I don’t associate with my weight gain from binging and purging). Of course the risk is there, but what’s different for me this time, is that I don’t intend to keep going and going and going until I feel ‘better’ when I look at the scales, which is a never-ending dangerous adventure for anyone with Anorexia. To specify my goal, and to put things ahead of time, in place for when I reach that goal is what will help me hugely. For example, I really enjoy exercise, specifically running, so is something I really wish to keep up when I get to the point of aiming to maintain my weight. To help me do this, I plan to work with a personal trainer, who can understand my history with food and weight, guiding me with a fresh perspective from those I’ve experienced with dieticians and eating disorder therapists, on how I can manage a varied diet, without having to weigh foods and calorie count. Also having this guidance, will help me detach from the world of eating disorder professionals, which I think will be massively beneficial for my mind-set moving forwards with recovery.
Now you may disagree, or now I’ve explained you may understand my side of things and where I’m coming from. All I want is a life worth living. I’m not aiming to be unhealthily skinny or to be dictated by rigid food rules that don’t allow me to participate with family and friends in celebratory eating. For now, a bit of this is temporary. At the moment, it has to be to make me feel like I can keep the binging and purging under control. I owe this to myself to get some confidence back in my own skin, to feel excited about shopping for and putting together outfits, instead of only wearing certain jumpers, to be able to straighten my hair because I want to, instead of feeling like I have to hide my cheeks behind my curly lion mane.
I have a dog that I love and has made life more complete. I have ambitions that finally feel realistic. I want to be financially independent, and eventually be driving again. I want to get my book finished – it needs a successful ending in terms of recovery, and for a while I haven’t been able to offer it one. How great it would be to be able to pull all of my challenging experiences together and give others hope in creating a sense of peace with food and their bodies. To reach their potential, in whatever area that may be and to feel like they are in the driving seat of their lives instead of the passenger seat to their eating disorder. All of the above would not be possible to achieve or keep up if I got to the point of allowing Anorexia to get me in it’s grips again.
Remember, if someone is giving you heartfelt advice, and you see they’re not always able to follow it through for themselves… it is not some secret or cynical game-plan, some way to have a dig at you or to be a downright hypocrite. Experiences change, as does what’s helpful for our personal toolbox, and our priorities at that time. We have to be patient with each other and understand that we’ll never really understand each others’ journeys. Someone’s experience of a diagnosis can be completely different to someone else’s.
Here’s to continued tinkering with that flapjack recipe! 😊