I’ve been meaning to do a blog post on this for a while, but I’ve always seemed to shy away from it. Possibly because while I am an AWFUL lot better than I have been in a while just now, there is still the odd hang-up and in the back of my mind, I can’t help but feel like maybe I almost don’t want to let go of it? Maybe fully letting go is moving past this chapter of my life.
Don’t get me wrong – in the vast, vast majority of ways, this is a Very Good Thing. Living with any kind of eating disorder is hell. I cannot explain to anyone who has not suffered the hell you live in all day, every day. It is something I would never wish on my worst enemy. Being threatened by a nasogastric tube just to please, please, please eat something, dammit and even then STILL being so terrified by what is in front of you that a single kiwi fruit makes you feel like your chest is caving in and you struggle to relax enough to swallow each pitiful teaspoon. I cannot express that hell, and moving past from that? Of course I want it! Bring it on!
But on the other hand, it has taught me a lot. It is something that I do wish I will be able to one day live completely without (more on that later), but it has made me – I think and hope – a better person. A more empathetic person, a more patient person, and ultimately a much stronger and more determined person than I was before. I feel like I’m a person who has learned not to hide when there is uncertainty on the horizon, but to find out how to move past that and work for what I ultimately want. The problem is, moving past my illness also feels a bit like I might have to let these lessons go, and I don’t want to forget the lessons it gave me.
Anyway, today I want to write about living with the aftermath of an eating disorder. I want to talk about the challenges I still face, the ridiculous things I still have to congratulate myself for, the times when I can feel myself slipping back and how to combat it, and the emotional rollercoaster that the last four years has brought. And really I want to talk about the fact that even though by most clinical standards, I’m fine, in reality it is a lot more complex.
So. Point one. Challenges. There is still some stuff I do, still some stuff I avoid and many things I wish I either did (or did not do) that I need to bloody well work on. Though I also have to say that the last couple of months have seen me break through so many of these challenges and I’m immensely grateful for the circumstances around that. The first big thing for me is eating out. Eating out was such a terrifying thing for such a long time, because I had become such a ridiculous control freak around food. I had to know how things were made, down to the exactly quantity of olive oil used for cooking, the brand of food being used, the breakdown of each ingredient and how it could be added to a fitness tracker. When I made my own food, I knew it all and so it was all okay! I knew it fit into whatever arbitrary ~plan~ I had sorted for the day. But eating out??? And eating out at a) a restaurant I don’t know; b) ordering food I’d never tried, heard of nor seen before; and c) eating in front of other people?! Are you having a laugh????
I’d managed to get to a place where there were about 3 places I’d eat out at (plus one takeaway), but I wasn’t willing to push that any further and had a good bank of excuses saved up. This changed this summer when I was able to eat back at Wagamama (my favourite eat-out place) twice (!!), two different burger places, get a cooked breakfast out, a McDonalds (?!?!?!) and even eat take out pizza (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!). These were all Very Unheard Of Things, and have all happened in the last couple of months, and for that alone, I am immensely proud of myself. Yes, I absolutely did have a total war going on inside my head for every single one of these occurrences, and yes I felt guilty as heck for many of them before, during and after the fact, but I did it. And do you know what? The world hasn’t ended. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t see myself at an all-you-can-eat pie and cake day any time soon, but this is still the most progress I’ve made in recovery in the last two and a half years by a long shot.
One of the main things I’ve been trying SO HARD at the last few months that has helped is to stop reading the sodding nutritional information labels of everything! Just stop it! There is no need! Seeing how many grams of protein or carbohydrate (or heaven forbid – fat) that something has in it is not going to change the world. It will provide a complex so that you cut things you enjoy out of your diet and will start to limit your social life, but that’s about all it can achieve. So I’ve been working extremely hard on not doing this (as much) anymore. I used to be so terrible with it that my brother put sticky labels over things in his kitchen to prevent me from going on the prowl when I visited.
It was horrific at the time, but I totally saw where he and his fiancé (now wife) were coming from. Reading that information gave me nothing but fear foods, and I am still living with the aftermath of having a vast quantity of nutritional facts in my head about a load of stuff in the supermarket. I wish I didn’t know the labels off by heart for most fruit and veg, quorn stuff, cereals, fancy coffees and the snack isles, but I do. It means I can calculate the calorie content of a meal with a scary amount of accuracy and I really don’t want that knowledge! The day I can buy something without having the urge to turn it over and read the label, and then have a meal where I don’t do some mental arithmetic beforehand, I will have a party.
Another set of challenges for me is choosing what I want to eat, not what is “better” to eat (what my mind tells me is “better” to eat). I still struggle with this – ordering not what I want because it’s not as “good” as something else. If I’m at a restaurant and it looks like it’s taking me forever and a day to decide, it’s because I want to have one thing, but I’m having an internal war with myself over that and another option that I see as being ~good~ (or better) and these two voices are going at it – the “just for god’s sake eat what you bloody well want!” and the “don’t you dare – you’re going to roll home”.
This is what I call enjoying food for food. There’s still stuff I avoid (cheesecake, anything with cream on/in it, coffee made with milk, most take-outs), but this list is also getting smaller. Before my recent trip to Amsterdam, doughnuts would have been on there, as would chai lattes (one of the ridiculous things I’ve had to congratulate myself on recently), but there is definitely still work to be done here to enjoy stuff for what it is. It’s not like I do this all the time – I was on holiday enjoying a wonderful few days before heading back to the UK and throwing myself into work. But I do wish I could have allowed myself to be more free with what I wanted. And I wish I could have enjoyed what I did have without checking the step-counter on my phone…
Which brings us to the next bit. Times when I can feel myself slipping, and what to do. One of the tell-tale signs that I’m slipping is that my activity and exercise goes through the roof. If it is far more sensible to get a bus or train or subway somewhere and I’m insisting that I walk, it is because I’ve eaten something I feel awful for, my skin is trying to crawl off of me and I Need To Walk It Off Now.
So yes; the big first sign for me is exercise (followed by filling myself up with caffeine but not a whole lot else). I need to feel active – I get quite low when I don’t – but I’m also terrible for using it as both a distraction method and a method for punishment. If I’m feeling Not Great, I will go to the gym or go walking as a way to think about something else. Not only can it focus your mind and force you to tune out and not think about what you were thinking about, it also gives you a lovely little boost of serotonin, adrenaline and some endorphins. And that is wonderful therapy – it’s the best therapy I’ve ever sought.
However, for me I can tell I’m slipping when I start to not only rely on it, but feel terrible if I don’t do it, and continue to go to the gym and walk miles and miles even when I’m still very much feeling a past workout or set of activity. This is something I still have to work on a LOT because this is the easiest thing for me to abuse and it often leads to a trickle-down effect onto other behaviours like logging my day and pairing the two and only allowing one thing if I’ve done (or will do) another thing.
So, what can I do about this? Well the first is that I’m getting a lot better at recognising this happening. I used to go to the gym 6 times a week and walk 5-10 miles a day (every day) on top of that. I’m tying to limit myself these days to 4-5 times a week, with a very much rest day thrown in and no stupid walking after having already been to the gym. This past week I know I’ve not really done this (yes, I have only been to the gym 4 times, but I’ve done far, far too much walking on top of that and both of my knees are… twinging just now). There are a few reasons for this (my mood being the main one), but I have at least recognised this and will take it easy this coming week.
The next thing I can do about it is tell someone when I can feel it happening, and not be so secretive about it! One of the worst things about anorexia is that it’s so bloody secretive! So just letting people in can be a huge help. And being honest with yourself – stop the bull, stop trying to justify and ‘logic’ yourself out of illogical thinking. If you know something is not okay, recognise it, be honest and talk to someone to sort out what to do. It is amazing how much this can help.
Really, the more I think about it, the more I see that before these last few months where I really have come on in leaps and bounds (the amount of times I’ve said “you know, it’s been well over 5 years since I’ve had this!” is in equal parts awesome and heart-breaking), I wasn’t really living as much as I could have been. So much of life is focused on food. It’s one of our hierarchy of needs. It is essential to life, and maybe that is why so much of our social lives – between friends, acquaintances, colleagues, partners – is focused in on food. You share a breakfast, meet for lunch, chat over a coffee, go out for dinner. And when I had as many hang-ups as I did, I wasn’t taking what I could have been taking out of life. Goodness knows, there’s still huge chunks of my life where I am still existing and not quite living, but the hope is that come the day that this aspect of my life is finally tackled once and for all, I’ll have more mental energy to focus in on those other aspects as well.
It’s the old adage – life is for living, so live it. It’s a cliché, but it isn’t half also true. So get on out there and do it.