Picture living in a minefield – full of mud and quicksand, snakes and leeches, dotted with potentially lethal unexploded munitions, occasionally sparsely populated with beautiful flowers, bouncing bunnies and exotic ferns. You come to an impossibly wide river of fetid black waters and on the other side is a distant, thick, impenetrable fog. You can’t see into the fog and you have no idea what’s there, but you’re told again and again, the other side is full of hope and joy. Of rainbows and unicorns and all things fantastic. Even though nobody can articulate what that hope or joy looks like, and they can’t promise you will ever get there, they keep telling you it’s all going to be worth the trip. Just keep navigating the minefield, swim through the fetid waters, and trust that journeying into a foggy unknown is going to be worth it.
That’s what recovery from an eating disorder feels like to me.
I may be living in a minefield and the recovery process feels thick, viscous and horrifyingly distressing, but that unknown fog is more terrifying. I know where the pitfalls in my minefield are – it feels better to live with the devil you know…
I have spent all my 50 years with disordered eating – binging, purging and restricting. I have probably spent the vast majority of those same 50 years, experiencing some level of depression and/or anxiety. I have never learned healthy coping mechanisms for emotional distress – my personal minefield is filled with self-loathing, shame, guilt and fear, all planted in my field long before I can remember, but watered and nurtured by me as I grew.
I understand how frustrating my irrational fears and behaviours are. I have watched with frustration when those I love bury themselves in alcohol, drugs, computer gaming or any other of the myriad ways which we humans have devised to dodge emotional pain. It doesn’t solve the problem – it just buries and numbs it. But it’s pretty jolly familiar, and the more you do it, the more normal it becomes and the harder it is to change.
For me to overcome my eating disorder, there are some massive mountains to climb and rivers to ford.
- I have to accept my body is scarred and flawed, and to embrace it in all its glory.
- I have to recognise hunger and fullness.
- I have to learn to feel comfortable with food in my body – to accept it as nourishment, not punishment.
- To know I can eat whatever I want, whenever I want.
- To find pleasure in food, alongside the sustenance.
- But ultimately, I need to lose my entrenched fear of food, which is deeply, deeply rooted in my fear of getting fat.
Every one of these mountains feels insurmountable to me. I don’t believe I can do it but I’m terrified that I might.
I understand how miserable and dysfunctional my life has become and I don’t like it. Not one bit. But fear frequently hijacks my best efforts to “do the right thing”. To “move on”. To be willing to be willing to be willing. Fear of gaining weight is the biggest one. I feel I need to be underweight to recover – because then I have leeway when the kilos stack back on. But I also know, that no amount of skinny, will ever feel enough.
Fear of being fat overwhelms me on a daily basis. Not because I think there’s anything wrong with being fat – I don’t. I don’t care what other people look like. I know that thin people can be unhealthy, unattractive and undesirable. Just as fat people can be healthy, attractive and desirable. But imprinted onto my soul, as a young baby, was the terrifying fear I would be fat – and that I will be judged by this. That when I’m fat, I’m not good enough, I’m not smart enough, I’m not attractive enough, I’m not desirable in any capacity. It’s totally illogical and irrational. But fears are like that. I have no fear of heights, stages, or public speaking. Doing those things causes me no angst at all. I have great fear of dogs, socialising, and getting fat. I can’t talk myself out of these fears. I can’t just tell myself it doesn’t matter. Fear doesn’t work like that…
So, when I see people looking at me, and wondering why a middle-aged woman, who is otherwise sensible, reliable and educated, engages in destructive, painful behaviours, I want those same people to know I’m terrified. I’m terrified of keeping going. I’m terrified of stopping. I’m terrified of changing. I’m terrified of going back. When stuck in a lose-lose situation, it is natural to go for the easier option… It is comfortable. And when life is routinely miserable, we seek what comfort we can.
So, will I recover? I don’t know. I’m fording the river now. I certainly know I want to see the rainbows and play with the unicorns, but I’m a little sceptical regarding their reality. Do they really exist? Everyone keeps telling me they do. People I know and love and trust. So I take another step into the dark waters and hope that as I get a little closer to the other side, a few glimpses of light crack through the fog and show me that yes, it is going to be worth it.