The person you become post eating disorder will never be the same person as before. In all honesty, there is no “post eating disorder”, there is simply the time before, the time captured and the time controlling it, keeping it at bay. An eating disorder will change you, but not only in negative ways.
The first time I read a book that captured this was Dolly Alderton’s “Everything I Know About Love”. Until then, all films, series and books had failed to capture the true nature of an eating disorder. They either played it off as a drive for attention, or showed someone recovered, eating with joy again. But you don’t eat with joy, the love for jam never comes back.
“As I got older and mercifully more aware of what a precious gift a healthy working body is, I felt ashamed and bewildered that I could have treated mine so badly. But it would be a lie to say I think I will ever be entirely free of what happened in that time, which is something no one ever tells you. You can restore your physical being to health; you can develop a rational, balanced, caring attitude to weight as well as good daily habits. But you can’t forget how many calories are in a boiled egg or how many steps burn how many calories. You can’t forget what exact weight you were every week of every month that made up that time. You can try as hard as you can to block it out, but sometimes, on very difficult days, it feels like you’ll never be as euphoric as that ten-year-old licking lurid jam off her fingertips, not ever again.” - Dolly Alderton (Everything I Know About Love)
“As I got older and mercifully more aware of what a precious gift a healthy working body is, I felt ashamed and bewildered that I could have treated mine so badly.”
There is a shame that grows after your eating disorder has subsided and your vision clears. It can form in many ways. It can be shame over the pain you caused people, the stress and worry you led others to. They will look back and wonder whether it was all worth it to you, the levels you reached in the desperate search for thinness. But at the time, to you, it truly was. Because it was more important than anything else on this earth. Because it wasn’t even important, it was a need. It wasn’t I want to be thin, it was I need to be or I can’t be anything. It wasn’t a choice, and so it was a priority.
The shame also forms in sharing that story with others, with people who didn’t know you then. Will they look at you the same way to know what you grappled with? I always fear someone looking through older photos on my Instagram and commenting on how different I looked. It truly is a different person in those snapshots of a time I barely remember now. You fear tainting the future with your knowledge of the past.
I grappled with the shame of who it made me, a person obsessed with bodies and food. I spent weeks volunteering in a third world country, and during that trip I made myself sick in the toilet, despite being surrounded by people who struggled to find food. That thought destroys me, frequently. It brings tears to my eyes and nausea to my throat. It makes me question if I could ever be a better person, or if that fact will forever define me. But even if I wasn’t in that country when doing it, I still did these things. I starved myself, obsessed over calories, and all the while millions die of starvation. What does that say about me?
“But you can’t forget how many calories are in a boiled egg or how many steps burn how many calories.”
These thoughts pop into my head, without me even realising. The calories in a banana, estimating how much my workout just burned. I still sometimes try to calculate how many calories I ate in a day, the only difference is that this is done within my mind instead of on paper or an app, as if that makes it better. These numbers are burned into my mind, as they were relentlessly poured over time and time again. If I close my eyes, I can see the exact image of the calorie-counting app, even though I haven’t opened it in over five years. Every decision with food that I make still bears the taste of that time, still holds the knowledge and habits of those days.
“But you can’t forget how many calories are in a boiled egg or how many steps burn how many calories. You can’t forget what exact weight you were every week of every month that made up that time.”
To Dolly, it’s the memory of your weight each week of that time. Because you were measuring yourself too often, be it monthly, weekly or even daily. To me, it’s the memory of how I looked, as well as how I thought I looked. The memory that a mirror can lie, that my own eyes can lie. My mind was feeding me the idea that I was too fat, too big, to stop me from feeding myself anything else.
It’s the memory of the control. For I have not felt such control since. It was empowering, to work and see the result. To choose everything that entered and left your body. It was undoubtedly unhealthy, and a sad way to live. But sometimes, when I feel overwhelmed in my BPD, I miss that sense of control over myself. I had a purpose, a goal that was my sole focus. And now I feel lost.
It’s the lack of memories. The blur that the days became, as I pushed to carry on while my body struggled to fail me. For I had already failed it. Looking back, I think that I didn’t have enough fuel to store memories, to process all existing around me. I was surviving on so little, pushing my body so hard, that all I could do was wade through the mist.
“You can restore your physical being to health; you can develop a rational, balanced, caring attitude to weight as well as good daily habits.”
Dolly mentions the habits that help you to manage the eating disorder, as you are not cured but managing. You know what to do to be okay. Vegetarianism helped me to manage my ED. Like I know that I’ll be able to eat junk food once in a while and not completely break down, but only if I continue to exercise regularly. But when I hurt my ankle and had limited movement for weeks, this tore down my safety, the habits I carefully constructed. Similarly, going on holiday stresses me out. I rely on cooking my meals, knowing what I put in them, and the idea of eating out time after time is too difficult. That combined with holiday photos and excessive drinking is so overwhelming.
Our habits are the basis of our recovery, and without them we slip back into old thoughts and negative cycles. But if we rely on them so heavily, are we truly better? If we need two good days of eating to make up for one deep-dish pizza, have we got a healthy relationship with food, or are we still trading, but simply raising the stakes?
And all they do is restore our physical health, our mental health is a completely different question and something I spend an hour weekly in therapy for.
For some of us, our eating disorder wasn’t about thinness or even food. It seemed like it, and it revolved around it, but it was the symptom of far more. My eating disorder was a symptom of my depression, it was a way for me to exert self-harm but pretend it was for my benefit. Later I would discover that both of them were simply an aspect of my Borderline Personality Disorder. It can sound confusing to have such a cocktail of mental illnesses. It was a way for me to capture control in a mind I no longer understood, a way to hurt myself and not feel as guilty, a cry for attention when I felt so close to dying. It was all of that and more. Others might not have the same, and others might have it be a symptom for something more. I haven’t recovered from my ED because it is interwoven into all that I struggle with.
You do not lose your eating disorder because it changes you as a person. And this isn't only negative. For your eating disorder, or any mental illness, will make you more empathetic as a person. You have experienced pain, loss, struggle. And so whenever anyone else does, you will know how it feels, and you will know how they are feeling. You will react. And even when you’re not sure, you are open to the possible pain of others, the tremendous amount that can be hidden behind a smile. Everyone has a story, you know yours, and so you are cautious for other stories that may have darker contents. You will want to help, as others once helped you.
It can be unnecessary sometimes. For example, as soon as a friend claims to not be hungry, I am suspicious. I try to recall the last time I saw them eating, have they lost any weight? Or when a friend mentions a diet, a plan to avoid carbs, I am vocally against this. Hypocritical or fearful? Because I don’t understand how to diet without excess. Because I don’t understand not hungry, as food is so trapped within comfort for me, it is a cycle of love and hate, it is the toxic relationship that I just cannot escape.
“It feels like you’ll never be as euphoric as that ten-year-old licking lurid jam off her fingertips, not ever again.”
This was the line that immortalised the text to my mind. This was the moment I allowed the tears to fall freely, clutched the book to my heart, and finally felt understood. It was a feeling that I had never managed to encompass in words. It was the fact that once your eating disorder begins, that very first bout of food reduction or purging, food will never be the same again. It will never bring you that same joy. Even when you eat a treat meal, it is a treat, and you are wary of that. You remember that you ate it, you are trying to push down the brimming guilt. I see friends grab a handful of crisps, and I imagine a few hours later they won’t even remember that they have. But I will. Everything I eat will still be scrutinized in my mind. The only difference is that now I do eat. I feel as miserable in my body but comforted by the health of my choice.
But I want to eat jam with reckless abandon. I want to eat a cookie and savour the taste, without berating myself, or using it to soothe my pain. I want food to be food again. Not fuel and not the enemy. I’ve lost the pleasure in food, and even though I am a healthy weight, I can’t be who I was again. I still picture the first time I tried to avoid eating, counting each hour proudly, the first time I successfully purged. I pray to go back, to stop that young girl, to stop her making the mistake that will haunt her forever.
But while I will never be that young girl, naive to the complexity of food and simply eating what I enjoy, I have my life back. Between the fear of food, I get to enjoy it. To move, to experience, to live. And I will never recover, as it will never leave me, not a disease that you wipe out with antibiotics. But I will live with it, I will thrive and bury it down. And that will have to do.
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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