Good evening to anyone who has just found my blog from the links on either The Student Room or ATDT! I woke up this morning to find that my page views were rather higher than usual, and when I looked at my statistics I found that I was getting a lot of traffic from a forum I don’t belong to. When I investigated I discovered (I just typed disordered, lol) that someone had posted a link to my DIY recovery section on a topic about eating disorders. After I had gone bright red at the nice things they said about me and posted it on Facebook (hoping that people wouldn’t think I was being too big headed – I was in a bit of a mood this morning and this discovery made me feel so much happier!), my friend Charlotte put the same link on a carer’s forum, so now I’m getting people turn up from there too.
I know people who have read my blog for a while will be familiar with everything I’m about to say, so you guys can feel free to say “oh no, not again!” and ignore this post 😛 but I wanted to write a special post for anyone new who might turn up today.
Here are my top ten things I want you to know about eating disorders and recovery.
1. Recovery is possible. I refer to myself as being in full remission because it’s only been two years and I accept that I don’t know what will happen in the future. I wouldn’t want to be arrogant enough to say that I am SO awesome that even under extreme circumstances, I wouldn’t relapse. But at the moment I am healthy, I don’t use eating disordered behaviours and I don’t have any urges to use them either. I like my body, I enjoy food, I eat when I’m hungry without guilt, I maintain a stable and healthy weight and I wouldn’t trade where I am now for any of the comforts anorexia once offered me.
2. Recovery is freaking HARD. It’s panic inducing, both on a psychological and biological level. When you are going through weight restoration your hormones and brain chemistry are all over the place. On top of that, when I was very underweight I barely had any emotions other than anxiety, and during recovery they allllll came flooding right back. I had no idea of how to cope with all of this, because for more than a decade the only thing which had ever gotten rid of my anxiety was starving myself. I thought I was going mad, I thought I would end up relapsing back into self harming, I thought I would kill myself, I thought I would never be able to cope with being healthy and I would have to start restricting again. Instead I continually reminded myself that THIS IS NORMAL, and I rode it out. Slowly, everything calmed down. When I say slowly, I mean it took about a year after weight restoration. It seemed longer.
3. Recovery is worth it. Your eating disorder tells you otherwise. Your eating disorder is wrong.
4. I didn’t pluck that BMI 20+ thing out of thin air, by the way. I don’t want to impose an arbitrary number on you, I was just repeating what the research had found. Full recovery requires full weight restoration. For years I tried to do things the wrong way around – I thought that to recover, I first needed to deal with my “reasons” for becoming anorexic and for not wanting to get better. There are many problems with this approach. First of all, some of those things you think are stopping you from recovering are just the product of malnutrition/chaotic eating patterns. The way that malnutrition affects your brain CAUSES many of the symptoms of eating disorders, not the other way around. Some of these things will only go away once you are healthy, and no amount of talking will help you move past them. Secondly, your body chemistry, hormones included, will never fully settle down unless you reach a weight which a) is medically healthy, b) is healthy for YOU given your genetics, and c) you are able to maintain without using any eating disordered behaviours. If you don’t reach a healthy weight you will stay stuck in this horrible twilight zone where you are not sick enough for the professionals to come running, and you LOOK healthy to most people, if a little thin – but you are also absolutely plagued by eating disordered thoughts and urges. Been there, done that, horrible. And thirdly, I could barely read a newspaper when I was very ill, let alone have coherent thoughts about recovery beyond “nooooooo!”
5. I’m going to sound really arrogant and controversial here and say that sometimes the professionals don’t know best. Some are tied to some very old fashioned ideas. Some won’t even consider someone unwell until they are literally at death’s door. Sometimes you will run into attitudes in treatment which are unhelpful, like I did. I am not advocating that you cut all ties if that happens, but I do want you to know that if, for any reason, you find yourself unable to receive proper professional help for your eating disorder, it is possible to recover without going inpatient. I would urge anyone with an eating disorder to be checked out regularly by their doctor, and to find a therapist for support if they possibly can, but things are not hopeless if you can’t get the help. Those are the people I wrote my DIY recovery section for. Equally, for parents of people with eating disorders who have little to no professional support, there are great resources such as F.E.A.S.T.
6. There seem to be as many theories about eating disorders as there are sufferers. Mine goes like this. Some people are genetically susceptible to eating disorders. They have a biological predisposition which means that if they become malnourished for whatever reason (physical illness, stress, deliberate dieting), they get sort of stuck in a behavioural loop. This, combined with the effects of malnutrition on the brain and any complicating factors such as co-morbid disorders (autistic spectrum disorders, OCD, depression, anxiety and PTSD have all been linked to eating disorders and can all feed into them), can make someone a) unable to see that they are ill and b) unable to do anything about it. I don’t believe that things like trauma or body dysmorphia or bad parenting CAUSE eating disorders, because some people go through those things and never develop problems with food, and some people with eating disorders had a happy life up until that point. Everyone has different triggers and those are important to deal with to avoid relapse, but the underlying biology is most likely the common ground – the cause.
7. I say unable to change rather than unwilling for a reason. When I was ill I would have sworn blind that I was choosing to be anorexic, and that I didn’t want to recover. I had no idea why ANYONE would want to recover. Anorexia made me feel numb and calm, and after so many years of problems with anxiety I wasn’t about to give that up. I got a high from starving myself. My eating disorder was like a form of OCD – if the number on the scale went down, I was safe, but if it went up I was panic stricken. If I DID try to increase what I was eating, I felt virtually suicidal and overwhelmed with anxiety. So the only way I could ever describe anorexia to be a choice is as the sort of choice one would only make if they had a gun to their head. I wasn’t stubborn or attention seeking or trying to punish my parents, I was unable to cope with changing my behaviour.
8. Having said that, I did eventually change my behaviour, and I coped with it. The way I did that was to approach recovery like a military operation. I sat down and worked out all the obstacles between myself and recovery, what had gone wrong in previous attempts, what might trigger me into using behaviours, what I could do to avoid those things. I worked on my motivation to carry on every day, reading and re-reading my little recovery flash cards whenever I was scared or wondering why the hell I was trying to change. I found a therapist who supported me and helped me learn ways to cope with my anxiety which didn’t involve harming myself. I took as much pressure off myself as possible and focused on my health first, then tackled the problems involved in getting my life back to normal one by one.
9. Those problems included learning to cope with being at a healthy weight, starting to socialise again, getting voluntary and eventually paid work after years of unemployment, working out what I wanted to do with my life and starting the necessary college courses, moving out into my own house and somehow not relapsing during all of this. It’s no wonder eating disorders have such a high relapse rate – recovery doesn’t stop with weight restoration or cessation of behaviours. Life after that first stage made me feel inadequate and out of my depth and like I was never going to catch up with my peers. The trick was to take it slowly – one big change at a time, so I didn’t get too overwhelmed. Even then, every change I made unsettled and destabilised me, and I had to leave gaps in between things like moving house and finding a job to make sure that I wasn’t trying to go too fast.
10. I’m not unique and I don’t think of myself as being especially strong or brave. I am a fairly average person who came to a point where I became more afraid of living the way I was for the rest of my life than I was of changing. I know lots of other people who recovered outside of hospital, and who have reached a similar stage of recovery to me. You just don’t hear about it much, because once someone is largely recovered they stop spending all their time online and start actually having a life! I have done that part of recovery more slowly because I find it hard to adjust to big changes, so I have stuck around to wax lyrical about how great being recovered is 😛
Finally, any ATDT parents reading this – I think you are the superheroes. I wish my mum had company like yours ten years ago, it would have helped her so much.
Good luck with everything 🙂 and if anyone wants to email me, the address is firstname.lastname@example.org