On Tuesday I wrote about how my view of recovery had changed over the last couple of years. A lot of the things I feared about recovery turned out not to be true, for example I did not start to eat the house out when I began to feel hunger again – in fact, I maintain my weight pretty well by eating whatever my body seems to want. Equally, there were some really good things about recovery which I did not anticipate. I didn’t realise that my obsession with food and numbers was a by product of malnutrition which would die away naturally as I got closer to a healthy weight, and I didn’t expect the rapidity with which my brain accepted the size of my new body. I often felt awkward and like I was in the wrong body while I was gaining, but once I began to maintain a healthy weight my self image settled down very quickly.
But there was one aspect of recovery which I both predicted quite accurately and worried about. Having used eating disordered behaviours for over half of my life, on stopping them it was really hard to fill the gap that left behind. My eating disorder served so many purposes. Starving myself calmed down my lifelong anxiety more effectively than any medication ever has. It distracted me from traumatic memories and difficult emotions. It became the way I coped with any negative feeling, whether sadness, disappointment, anger, boredom, frustration, despair or fear. Even positive events and emotions frightened me and made me more introverted and self destructive: I couldn’t allow myself to feel content or hopeful because I was so sure it that things would go wrong again, and I couldn’t face that disappointment – it was far easier to sabotage it myself. Starving myself distanced me from the rest of the world. Anorexia was so engaging that I didn’t feel the need to have relationships with other people, and every problem I came up against had a simple answer: lose more weight. I didn’t have to face adult responsibilities because I was too ill. I was positively encouraged to sit around at home and avoid getting myself too stressed out. And it certainly kept me occupied. It gave me goals, meaning and direction. However bad my mood was, I could pull myself out of it by making a new, more restrictive, meal plan for the next day, by charting my weight loss so far, by going online and spending hours on message boards for people with eating disorders. It gave me a reason to get up in the morning when I felt that I had nothing else.
I was reading something by another girl in recovery the other day, and one of the things she said jumped out at me because I know I’ve written similar sentiments on my blog: she said that felt as if she had only been born a year or so ago when she left her eating disorder behind, and had been unceremoniously dumped into an alien world where no one spoke her language. I know what she means. I started using self destructive behaviours to cope with my anxiety and depression when I was about 12. Once I got to 16 my illnesses had become my whole life. Every 6-12 months there would be another crisis, and I’d have to quit what I was doing to avoid killing myself. I dropped out of my education five times, broke up with my first serious boyfriend, lost all my childhood friends, fell out with my family repeatedly. I am not sure whether I would have been raped if I had not been so vulnerable, as the people who did it were unquestionably drawn to the fact that I had suffered from mental health problems. I suffered huge traumas and losses from the age of 16-24, and the only constants in my life were my eating disorder and self harm. In this way an eating disorder – or any addiction really – can have dynamics similar to an abusive relationship. It harms you but you also become extremely attached to it. It makes you believe that it is protecting you, comforting you and that it is the only important thing you have in the whole world.
In recovery, you have to face the world with huge gaps in your life experience and coping skills, and without the one thing that you always turned to when you felt overwhelmed. It can be utterly bewildering and terrifying, and it is no wonder that eating disorders and addictions have such high relapse rates. Over the last eighteen months it has not been the old traumas and triggers which have caused me the biggest problems, but rather the feeling that everything is new, that I have nothing to hold on to, no prior experience to draw from when trying to deal with life. That I am not whole. That I am a child pretending to be an adult. That I am ill-equipped compared to, and somehow removed from, other people my age. That I am not quite a proper person, I am horribly inferior to everyone else because they belong in the world and I am new to it. It is so hard to leave behind the comforting, well known eating disordered “world” for an entirely new and uncertain life in which you have no idea of the rules and nobody knows your name.
I am instinctively feeling my way through this. As far as I know, nobody has written a manual on rebuilding your life after years of illness, and the only way a person can find out how to do so is by trying different things. I have to lean on other people more than I would like sometimes. My pride wishes I could deal with everything by myself, but bottling everything up and keeping everyone out was part of what drove my illness in the first place, so it makes sense to me that building relationships and asking for help is one of my ways out. Keeping a close watch on my thoughts helps me too. When I am feeling overwhelmed about something I ask myself how rationally I am thinking about the problem, and if there are any small steps I can take towards getting it sorted out. Just because I have never been in X practical-grown-up-situation before does not mean that I will automatically be unable to cope with it. Things are often less complicated and catastrophic than I fear.
There are things I remind myself of often. It was the years of illnesses which caused this disconnect, and so retreating back to the eating disorder for comfort would only make things worse. I try to stop my thoughts from getting too far ahead of myself: I cannot know that I will feel like this for the rest of my life because I haven’t lived it yet. So far I have been in recovery for a little over eighteen months, but every day I stay well I am building up the ratio of time spent healthy to time spent sick. One day more of my memories will have been made during recovery than during the illness. One day I will feel like a real part of the world, because I will have spent years engaging with it, instead of being lost in my mind. And until then, I remind myself that I am not alone, and that the other side of fear of the unknown is the excitement of discovery.