I’ve kept this blog for nine months now, since the first week of February this year. I started it as a replacement for my membership of various online communities for people with eating disorders, which I knew I would need to leave to make recovery work, and for something to do while I was waiting for my parents to pick me up from York. I was in such a mess that I couldn’t really do much other than sit in my room and stare at my laptop by that point.
So much has changed since then. It’s hard to keep that in mind sometimes because I get overwhelmed down by the bigger picture. Sometimes the bigger picture can be discouraging rather than helpful. My overall goal is to be fully recovered from all my mental health issues, to have a job and a group of friends and hopefully a relationship, to be stable and able to trust in my ability to cope with whatever life throws at me. I’ve had problems with anxiety since I was four, depression from the age of 11 and the eating disorder and self harm started when I was 12, so working towards this could be a life long process. I think it’s really important to remind myself how far I have come already though, because it improves my resilience to the feelings of hopelessness that try to get the better of me every now and then when I start thinking about what a gap there is between my life and the lives of people my age who have not had their lives interrupted by mental (or physical) illness.
I’ve gained 33lbs since February, and I’m now only 4lbs away from my target weight. My health is so much better – in February I was suffering from vitamin and mineral deficiencies, a protein deficiency, a fungal infection with a Napoleon complex had spread through my digestive system (my tongue was brown. BROWN. Those people who seem to think that eating disorders are glamorous? They are insane), my hips, knees and lower back were constantly bruised, my hair was falling out and my skin was incredibly dry and, along with the non-whites of my eyes, a rather fetching shade of yellow, thanks to the fact that my liver was beginning to struggle. The changes in my brain chemistry caused by malnutrition meant that I was only getting about two hours of sleep a night, I kept doing stupid things like walking out in front of cars by accident because my brain wasn’t working properly, I couldn’t concentrate enough to read as much as a newspaper article and I was becoming suicidal quite rapidly. So much for the belief that restricting and being at a low weight would shield me from depression and anxiety. I felt like a puppet, I KNEW what I needed to do to turn things around but I was paralysed by fear.
It’s well known that starvation can cause even previously psychologically healthy people to start showing symptoms of eating disorders (hey Ellie, the Minnesota experiment is popular today 😛 ) and in one small corner in my mind I knew that I had been sucked into a state in which the anorexia was self perpetuating. But the rest of my mind was consumed with obsessing about losing more weight. I barely talked to anyone at university and did all my socialising on ED websites, I gave up first the concert band, then the astronomy society, then the juggling society, as I spent my free time walking into the city and back rather than studying or having fun. Despite the fact that I had had an eating disorder for 12 years by that point I had never been obsessed with food to that degree before. While I was waiting the two weeks between telling my parents I was ill and them being able to come and get me I spent all my time watching endless cookery programmes online and looking through my recipe books, marking pages of things I dreamed of making with a fluorescent forest of sticky notes.
I was reading a post by Ellie earlier in which she asked for peoples opinions on food blogs and recovery from eating disorders. It wasn’t until then that I realised that I honestly don’t obsess about food anymore. I actually find food blogs boring. I don’t mean the blogs of people I know because I am always interested in the lives of my friends, but other than that I don’t read food blogs anymore. I don’t stare at photos of other people’s meals, I don’t calculate the calories or the balance of carbs, proteins and fats, I don’t wonder if raw vegans would look down on my veggie casseroles, I don’t research trace elements that are supposed to rev up your metabolism or the newest exotic berry which has twenty times the antioxidents of broccoli. I don’t plan my meals a week in advance – in fact, I usually decide what to have for lunch about five minutes before I make it, and dinner is planned maybe an hour ahead because it tends to take more preparation. I still keep a rough tally of calories but if I find that one of my meals is going to take me 50kcals over the usual number I ignore it rather than cutting them out elsewhere. I am still not sure how ‘hungry’ and ‘full’ feel, but if I can’t stop thinking about biscuits half an hour before my usual afternoon snack time I’ll eat one then instead of waiting, and if I eat a lot for dinner I can have dessert an hour later instead of feeling like I’ve got to ‘get it all over with in one go’ or starting to debate leaving out those couple of hundred calories. I just wait until I’m not full and eat it then.
I’m not totally recovered from anorexia by any means. My stomach still flips over when I get on the scales every Monday morning, even though I’ve maintained my weight for the last ten weeks. I have to rationalise and then disregard eating disordered thoughts that pop into my head several times a day. I frequently wonder how on earth my thighs ended up each having the same circumference as my waist did back in February, and generally looking in the mirror when naked is to be avoided. But I can see reality more often now too. When I go to the gym I can see from the full length mirrors that I am still small for an adult woman. If there is another woman who looks a bit underweight on a treadmill I don’t automatically feel that anorexic envy, I remember with a surprising lack of emotion that people come in all shapes and sizes and that you can never know what is going on in other people’s heads – she might be naturally slim, she might be utterly tormented by her relationship with food and wishing to God that she could just eat and exercise healthily, you just can’t tell. If one of my friends is having a hard time I don’t feel resentful for ‘having’ to stay healthy and ‘not being allowed’ to restrict anymore, I know that recovery is my choice and I still believe that it is the best choice I have ever made.
My health is better than it has been in years. When I was a teenager I was usually at a more-or-less healthy weight, but my eating habits were very erratic and I was always feeling tired and run down and getting viruses and infections. I – touch wood – haven’t had as much as a mild cold in months now, which is some kind of record for me! I have so much more energy – I can run faster now than I could in early 2007 when I was training for the marathon, and I still feel great afterwards. My blood pressure is stable and I can stand up as quickly as I like without things going fuzzy round the edges, and my blood sugar levels are a lot less tempermental than they used to be too. I noticed recently that my nails were a lot longer and stronger than they ever have been, and my hair stopped clogging up the drain months ago. My period came back in July so hopefully the DEXA scan due next year will show that my bone density hasn’t deteriorated any further – I still have my fingers crossed that if I maintain a healthy weight, get enough calcium and keep up moderate weight training the osteopenia will be reversible. My white cell count is higher than it’s been in five years of blood tests, my B12 and calcium deficiencies have been reversed, and I am definitely no longer yellow. I’m glad, yellow was not my colour! I was not meant to look like one of The Simpsons 😛
I am still occasionally a logic-free zone when it comes to food, weight or exercise. For example, yesterday I managed to pull a muscle at the gym and by the end of my workout I could barely put any weight on my right leg. Driving home I was thinking ‘well maybe I’ll just go twice next week’ and congratulating myself for being all rational! But as I pulled up to my house I asked myself what someone who had fully recovered from an eating disorder would do, and the answer was clearly that not being able to walk without swearing means no gym until entirely pain free, so I am not going to the gym this week (don’t worry J, I will be recovered and/or doped up on painkillers enough for wandering around on Thursday, although I may look like I’m doing a John Wayne impression!). I also pre-empted all thoughts of cutting down on my intake to compensate by deciding that a recovered person would know that would be too risky. Anyway, I do still want to gain a few more pounds.
I used to think that being weight restored but still having anorexic thoughts would be my worst nightmare. But I am now as good as weight restored, anorexic thoughts do still appear in my head, and I am not going insane with self hate or daydreaming about chopping off imaginary fat. This is because I don’t see anorexic thoughts as things that I believe anymore. They are just symptoms of an illness, nothing more than the cognitive equivalent of a record stuck on a loop. I don’t have to pay them any attention. They don’t even cause me any extra anxiety most of the time – if I am tired or stressed out I might get sucked in for a few minutes, but 99% of the time I manage to stick to the same way of dealing with them. I acknowledge that the thought is there, I tell myself that it’s a symptom of anorexia and that I am not being dictated to by an illness anymore, and I ignore it. And it goes away. If someone had told me that that worked a year ago I wouldn’t have believed them. It took practise, but it’s really just a logical extension of the way my recovery began. I realised in March that not wanting to recover is a symptom of the illness – I knew that intellectually for years before hand, but it wasn’t until March that it clicked emotionally – and labelling it as such for the first time made me want to rebel against it because I could suddenly see just how controlled by the anorexia I was. Since then I’ve taken the same approach to all other eating disordered symptoms. It’s like wearing a psychological suit of armour. They can’t touch me anymore.
It is hard to resist the image of the future being a huge and unforgiving mountain to climb, and to fight the urge to plonk myself down where I am and cry. I often feel so overwhelmed and discouraged. But I’m missing perspective when I get caught up in that thought process. It is not easy to recover from anorexia. It’s not easy to find the motivation to stick with weight restoration, to fight the instinct to choose the predictability, safety and comfort of the illness over the uncertainty and anxiety of life without the numbing effect of self destructive coping mechanisms. It’s not easy to always eat enough to reach and then maintain a healthy weight regardless of whether the day is an easy one or one which you can barely imagine getting to the end of. It is not easy to learn how to disregard the unhelpful thoughts and urges to be your own worst enemy, the only role you have known for years. But although it is not easy…I have done it. I have been fully committed to recovering from anorexia, every day since March 2nd this year. In March the idea of getting back to a healthy weight and restoring my physical health seemed like an enormous task, but I took it one step at a time and the sum of those steps led me here. I still have a long way to go, but if I make sure that I do whatever I need to do to be a little more stable and have a little more trust in myself by the end of each day, eventually the mountain will be beneath me.