I have always had a hard time confessing when I’m struggling. Well, actually it depends on the context of the problem. I didn’t mind having trouble adapting to working a few weeks ago, because it’s common to get stressed out when starting a new job. It was fine to ask for help when I had an increase of PTSD symptoms over the winter too, because most people in my situation would have felt the same way.
So I don’t seem to feel ashamed about depressive or anxious thoughts which are purely a reaction to circumstances. What I DO hate is struggling with thoughts and urges related to either the eating disorder or self harm. It frustrates me and makes me feel like a bit of a hypocrite, given my usual “recovery is awesome!” stance. Ninety percent of the time my eating disorder doesn’t bother talking to me any more, because it knows I won’t respond. But occasionally it likes to ambush me when I least expect it, just for shits and giggles. I would have to say that it must be a blue moon, except I know that the next blue moon occurs at the end of August 2012…
This might seem a bit weird given my non-body dysmorphic ED history, but I feel too big. Not fat – I see myself accurately in the mirror, I know I am at a healthy weight and could even stand to gain another 5-10lbs. I am quite aware that I am more attractive at this size than smaller. When I say I feel too big, it’s not a reflection of any cultural, peer-related or personal aesthetic or physical standards. What I mean is that I feel overwhelmed by anxiety and despondency, the practicalities of being an independent adult are overwhelming, and the corresponding physical state to the previous occurrences of this emotional state has been an anorexic one. Being at a normal weight and feeling utterly battered produces a weird sort of cognitive dissonance, as if I am in the wrong body. It’s similar to the feeling I’ve had when I’ve visited York University in the last two years. There, my brain associates a geographical location with a particular body size and set of sensations, and not being ill makes me feel disorientated. In this case, it feels more like the set of thoughts and emotions I’m experiencing don’t match the body I’m in. People always seem to find it hard to understand that someone without body dysmorphia can find being at a healthy weight just as torturous as someone who sees themselves through whale-shaped glasses, but I would like them to come and spend an hour in my head when this sort of thing is going on. It’s really hard to explain too. I see why so many people fall for the cultural explanation.
As with my occasional self harm urges, the problem is not really the thoughts themselves but what I DO with them. Most of the time I ignore them and they go away. Sometimes I ignore them and they don’t go away, and eventually I find myself acting on them in various almost imperceptible ways, so I have to catch myself before things escalate. This is easier said than done, because my natural reaction – hell, the natural reaction of most people with eating disorders – is to mentally put my hands over my eyes and then, six months later in full relapse, complain of having been blind. I’m not saying these are conscious decisions, I’ve read too many research articles to believe that – but it’s still easy to see where things went wrong in hindsight.
What I’ve found over the last two and a half years is that one of the most effective things I can do to stop this happening is to write about it. Eating disorders thrive in secrecy, so shining a spotlight on wayward thoughts and behaviours in recovery can have the effect of pouring a bucket of water over the Wicked Witch. It’s not that I need the reassurance of commenters – there’s no point telling me that I’m not too big, because it’s not THAT sort of big, if you get my meaning, which you may or may not depending on how coherent this post turns out to be. All I need is to get past the lingering shame of occasional struggles and actually talk about it.
A couple of weeks ago I got an email from a girl who was trying to decide whether to go to college this autumn or to take a year out to recover more fully from her eating disorder first, and one of the deciding factors for her was what her family and friends would think of her if she admitted that she wasn’t ready. She explicitly asked for my opinion, so I told her that recovery required putting your health before your pride. Most of the time that shame is misplaced anyway – what makes someone a stronger person, taking the road of very little psychological resistance and remaining isolated and ill, or doing something which scares them and asking for help?
Sometimes I worry that having ED thoughts and urges when under stress makes me a liar or a hypocrite, because it can be so variable – some weeks I feel like a normal 26 year old with no mental health problems, and then a week later I can be really fighting to keep my head above water. But that’s just dumb. This is what recovery is like. I go through periods when the ED is completely absent; when it is whispering but easily hushed; and when it’s shouting obscenities in my ears and I start to feel like I would do anything to shut it up. If I only wrote about the good OR hard times so as not to contradict myself my blog would only show half the picture. It matters more to know that I can carry on taking care of myself when things are crappy than when there isn’t much stress in my life.
Health before pride. I like it, if I do say so myself.
P.S.: WordPress stats inform me that this is my 600th post 🙂