The prompt for SB4MH this week is eating disorders. Actually, it is National Eating Disorder Awareness week, so it seemed a good time to write about this topic. It is something I have touched on before. I have been open from the beginning of this blog about the issues I have around body image and in my post Healing, I went way past what I had told myself I would ever reveal. Although I feel shame, that was not what kept me from talking about it, it was more that I felt I had moved past that unhappy time of my life. I am no longer suffering from an active eating disorder, although I do suffer from the residual effects of it.
I still have disordered eating and I certainly have disordered thinking about food, eating and my body, and that really is where the problem lies. I don’t know if it is something you can be ‘cured’ of. My experience would say not. And in the way that an alcoholic can give up alcohol and stay dry, I have learnt to give up the negative behaviours and manage my unhealthy thoughts. It requires a conscious effort and the thoughts are not gone. It needs me to be aware, and to be challenging myself. It needs me to avoid patterns of behaviour which were a default for a long time, and so I don’t think in that sense I am fixed.
I try to keep things in perspective and I am in much better shape now than I was. My head is at least. I am unhappy with my body though, and I live with the fact that a certain amount of loathing will be inevitable. I don’t like this about myself. I see it as shallow and vain, rather than seeing it as a by-product of an illness which I succumbed to once upon a time. I suppose I see it as selfish and indulgent. Even during the height of my struggles, when I wasn’t well at all, I felt like a fraud because I had no good reason to be like this. I had no excuse and therefore it was my fault.
All the things that were there as part of my eating disorder are still there, they are just greatly diluted so that actually they are manageable, weird quirks even, rather than being destructive and dangerous. I am still very aware of what I eat and have the same sort of feelings as I used to, but it doesn’t control my life and overwhelm me like it did. I can go out, I can look forward to christmas and I can bear to be touched. I still struggle to find something to wear out, I still have to work through periods where eating is the focus, and I will still move HL’s hand away from certain parts of my body. Like I say, I manage it and keep it at a place where it is more ‘normal’.
In some ways, having never felt good about myself makes the physical changes of the aging process easier, but there is a window within which I have to remain with regards to my weight. I weigh myself at least once a day but this is a way of me managing my thoughts and my expectations, rather than it acting as a guide to how or what I do or don’t eat next. It allows me to ride the fluctuations in a more natural way and avoids the anxiety that will come after a period of not being able to have my usual weigh in. After a holiday, for example, I will have to come home, strip off and get on the scales just to ‘see the damage.’
I have got used to the fluctuations within the window that I deem acceptable, and I will not usually go outside of these much. If I do, then I will act by making some changes to my intake and my output. These will be healthy changes rather than the previous drastic and desperate measures that I would have employed in the past. Thankfully the days of addictive exercise, purging with laxatives, starvation and crack pot diets designed to stop me eating, are a thing of the past. I will up my exercise and cut out the things I shouldn’t have, but this is no longer the radical measure that it was.
I do still do things which show that I have an issue. I am a repetitive eater. I like what I like and am happy to stay within that. I don’t see all food as the enemy but there are foods on the list and foods which are not. I don’t get the pleasure from food that many people do. I eat to be sociable but I would rather not eat in front of people. I would be happier to go for a drink with someone than to be invited for dinner, but I would still go and would still enjoy the social aspect of it.
A while back now, I was prescribed beta blockers for my migraines. I suffer from a lot of migraines and headaches, some lifestyle induced and some hormonal. The beta blockers seemed to help with pretty much all of them but I felt sluggish. I also started to put on weight and it seemed to be gathering around my middle. I upped my exercise and cut my eating but it didn’t seem to change anything. In the end it came down to the horrendous headaches or weight gain which challenged my control. I chose the headaches despite their debilitating effect.
Dressing is also an issue. I don’t like the way that clothes cut in to me, and ironically, would probably rather be seen without clothes than with something scanty. As with eating, dressing for things I am used to is easier as I stick to a pattern but going somewhere different is hard. It will take a long time and a lot of stress. An outfit will look one way in my head but another in the mirror. What looked ok last week or even yesterday, may look different today depending on how my body is, and this will cause no end of stress, not just to me but to HL who often bears the brunt of it. Knowing that really, the difference is in my mind and not in my body, doesn’t change the reflection which looks back at me.
HL has worked with me on this, learning more about how my mind works and trying to understand how fragile my relationship with my own body is. Unfair as it may be, his reaction can unwittingly throw me into turmoil and a complete crisis of confidence, even now. Knowing it is irrational does not lessen the effect. Actually submission has helped. Not only has it improved my relationship with my body and allowed me to see myself more as others see me, but it has also allowed him to take control and push me from my anxious state, into a more submissive mindset where he can make the decisions for me. It has forced me to try see myself more as he sees me.
Stripped back to the bare bones, the skeleton remains, not really in my closet but in my head. Perhaps it is a mere shadow of its former self, but it follows me and messes with my mind. I have worked with young anorexics and they are often encouraged by mental health professionals to personify anorexia. They try to separate their thoughts from those of the illness and so-doing, challenge the negative ones. I never got the help I needed and therefore have always seen it as integral part of me. I owned those feelings, bad though they were, and allowed them to become one with my own voice.
I remember a boyfriend at university finishing with me because he felt he couldn’t deal with the way I was anymore. I didn’t blame him of course as I knew what he meant. I loved him though so I told my friend that I planned to get better, to get rid of my eating disorder, and to get him back. She looked at me and without thinking said, “But your eating disorder is you. Without it who are you?” Looking back, I realise how much it must have engulfed and defined me, although I wasn’t really able to see that at the time, despite her words.
So instead of seeing the eating disorder as something which could be outside of me, I have always concentrated on the people who were outside of me and have tried to use their voices to drown out my own. Later on, the desire I had not to let my children go down the same road was strong enough to sit as an incentive for me to display what I thought were normal eating habits. Cognitively though, a lot of what was there still remains, and so it has been a case of tempering that and trying to work with it, rather than being able to cast it out altogether.
Time has helped and I have been able to reroute some of the more damaging thought channels to ones which are more manageable. As a shadow, I suppose I live under it, but it only walks with me and not within me now. I still feel ashamed and guilty when I think about the things that I did, so I talk about it in a vastly diminished way. I don’t want to draw attention to my body either, and worry that to mention it will mean that people look at me now and think, Really? You don’t look thin to me!
These days, to nod at the notion that it was once something that had me within its grip, allows me to move further from the shame and the guilt. The rules HL has set for me mean that he manages both the way I look after my body physically, as well as the expression of the thoughts I have about myself. He was sick of tired of being implicated in my negative self view and actually, not allowing me to voice it, has quieted it a bit. I may still live in the shadow but when the sun is directly above me it disappears, and despite being there at other times, it never really catches me.
As this is Eating Disorder Awareness Week, I have included several of my related posts below, with a brief outline for each.
Healing is an autobiographical account of my experience, but told from a third person perspective as the distance made it easier to write.
Body Image explains the way that some of the body image issues still affect me.
Body Image, Beauty and Balance also looks at where my body image issues have come from and how we have been able to address them.
Being able post pictures which challenge the negativity in my head has been a big part of my recovery. Unfortunately I have had to remove many of these images from my blog due to privacy issues, so some of the links are no longer live. It also means that I am unable to take part in the #ComeAsYouAre challenge which I feel is really worthwhile.
Hit the badge to see who else is taking part in the prompt this week
If you would like to read more of my posts on Mental Health then please find them here.