Shifting the narrative in eating disorder recovery….

Recovery is millions of little challenges

My husband and I were hiking yesterday. We had hours of trail ahead and in between goofing around, talking about our plans for the week ahead we talked about the last year, 18months. So much has happened in this time, like for many people. We talked about people missed. Career paths, life plans and we made jokes about previous events. One event, now an often feature of his jovial mockery and light hearted goading is one of our darkest moments. Often making a situation that was once very unfunny can flip it on its head, make it more bearable. You see that a lot in the healthcare setting, jokes that someone from a non healthcare background would shudder at, is often daily practice. Why? because it makes pain and darkness more bearable and shareable.

This situation we were joking about was one of my biggest meltdowns, i’ve ever had. We were in New York exactly a year ago. I wasn’t really in recovery at this point, although I was fooling myself I was. We had been taking in sights all day, darting all over the place. I had done, what I did a lot at this time. Bargained with myself. I was “allowed” to eat whatever I wanted in the evening because I had been so active during the day. Fucked up beyond all reasoning, but this is how the eating disorder often works. Often that bargaining never actually leads to “eating whatever you want’ but we were looking for a restaurant that would suit us both. I didn’t have much input in restaurants at this point, so it was usually down to my husband to select somewhere. He talks about how incredibly stressful this was. I have no doubt, it must have felt like he was checking for poison for some medieval royalty. I would quash most selections before they had left his lips. However this particular day, it was 1 week from Christmas, we hadn’t booked. So the stress for him was ridiculous. Before he found a place, we spent an hour with us scanning menus, me rejecting. It got to the point where we retraced our steps and chose one at random that would allow us without a reservation. What came next, I don’t really remember. But he does very clearly.

It was a steak & lobster restaurant. There were no other options. There were chips and meat. That was it. After looking at the menu for all of 30 seconds, I burst into full blown tears, sobbing in a packed restaurant. I cannot describe what was going through my mind at this point. Except it was like the world had just ended. I had built the meal up, I was going to eat. Then I was presented with two things I hate, red meat and shellfish. I was petrified of chips at this point. A menu had reduced a 30 something to full blown tears. Inconsolable, snotty ugly tears. We stayed. ‘HH’ screamed that my opportunity had been ruined bla bla. I struggled through the dinner eating chips. Both of us shocked at how irrational I was. I had had moments like this at home but this was in the middle of New York. It’s obvious now, this was plain and simple fear.

But whilst cringing at this event, we chatted about the narrative now.

Eating disorders are not rational.

My world didn’t end. I didn’t die. I just looked totally mental. Now after lots and lots of little moments, challenges, meltdowns I can laugh at how absurd this moment was.

The point of this, recovery doesn’t happen over night. Recovery isn’t a case of going to bed one night and waking up recovered. It’s full of obstacles and challenges. If it’s not challenging it’s probably not recovery and doing jack shit.

Today, he asked me if I wanted an Ice cream. I heard myself say ‘no thanks’. This is a response ‘HH’ has trained to become my default. I am changing this narrative to ‘Yes, please’. Some days yes please is easier than others. But it felt uncomfortable, spontaneously having an ice cream. ‘HH’ certainly did not approve. This is another moment, challenge towards recovery. It was a world apart to the lobster joint. I felt uncomfortable, I got on with it and used to distraction techniques I’ve learnt along the way after. ( Today was repotting some of my veggies, other times breathing techniques can help) But if I’d said no thanks, it would have been a missed opportunity. Without challenges, nothing changes. In recovery discomfort is action. I don’t think I would sob in a restaurant now, unless the world genuinely was ending. I don’t bargain with ‘HH’ any more. There is no bargaining with an eating disorder, that’s an argument you won’t win unless you decide to do the complete opposite of what it’s telling you.

Useful breathing technique: https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/-/media/CCI/Mental-Health-Professionals/Anxiety/Anxiety—Information-Sheets/Anxiety-Information-Sheet—08—Breathing-Retraining.pdf

Food is more than just food.

Best biscuit ever……

Yesterday, I had a strange realisation. It’s taken me almost 30 years to get to it, but yesterday I realised food is not just fuel. Food has no rules, no moral value and no foods can be ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Whilst reflecting about my relationship with food, I craved a chocolate Hobnob. I heard ‘HH’ stipulate, ‘but you’re not hungry’. It was this thought, I rewound and re-framed my life-time’s thinking. Food, although important for fuel and nutrition is also part of connection and ENJOYMENT. It’s always blown my mind that people have just been able to easily eat something, just because. But yesterday, I understood food can be eaten whenever. Whether we are hungry or not. If we want to eat something we can, without judgement, without compensating, because it’s just food.

I was feeling particularly reflective yesterday, because I felt really fucking sad. The fact the I felt sad, set off a whole chain of thoughts. But what made me grateful amongst it all, the fact I could acknowledge and identify that emotion. For years I have numbed my emotions, to the extent when I started to feel again, it took me a while to recognise what I felt. That’s pretty common I think amongst us who have eating disorders. I no longer associate with the nickname I have had for years and use to value, ‘the ice queen’. This is not me now. Nor do I want it to be. The fact it became at one with my identity is quite disturbing to me now, as I am a compassionate person. But in the depths of ‘HH’s grips I was an emotional void. I’d get angry, anxious & irritable if my routine was disturbed, or challenged but these were pretty much the extent of my emotions. Instead of returning to my old behaviours yesterday, exercising to the point of exhaustion, pain or restricting to the point of false euphoria, to numb out the events. Instead I went for a walk out in nature listening to a podcast and then had a cup of tea with a Hobnob.

I felt grateful. Grateful I have reached a point of mental freedom to enable me to feel. Being numb is not living. I was grateful I could feel sadness and sit with it. Feelings pass and are not permanent. But eating disorders are. Recovery although hard, is also temporary.

The next thing I’m working hard to reach, is body neutrality. There is so much talk about ‘body positivity’ at present. I believe the premise of this is great, but I also feel it’s a double edged sword. It’s general concept to love and accept your body, sure. Promoting acceptance by society of shape, size, gender or race is the main aim. But, I feel there’s pressure with ‘body positivity’ as a concept. It over values of the body image itself, rather than appreciation of the body’s functions. For me, I don’t know if I’ll ever ‘love my body’ but I love the things my body enables me to do. I think very few people eating disorder or no eating disorder love their bodies. So for me, getting to a point where I do not care, or have any value from my appearance will be sufficient, beyond that a bonus. But I feel it’s healthier to see our bodies as a vessel, a vessel that allows us to do what we desire. It does not matter what that vessel looks like. That’s what I believe the social media message should be, that’s what body positivity should be.

Interestingly my ‘negative body image’ didn’t truly start until I was in the depths of my eating disorder. Sure there were things I had insecurities with, but I think most people on this planet do have hang ups. But I can say, the negative body image spiralled and it took so much value. This value is incongruent with my own true values, i’m not a shallow person, I couldn’t give a rat’s arse what someone looks like if they are a good human being. But the world becomes so small, consuming and out of alignment with our own beliefs. I really struggle with this aspect of my eating disorder, because on a bad ‘body image’ day it still has far too much space. Space that’s not relevant or part of me. However this is part of the divorce from diet culture and unlearning so many untruths that are so engrained in society. Most days now fortunately I am neutral towards my body, but i’m not where I want to be yet. I’m not where I want the whole of society to be, where body image is as relevant as yesterday’s weather. But rejecting diet culture and accepting ourselves is a start towards remodelling society’s beliefs . Ultimately change starts with yourself.

‘Portion sizes’, re-learning to eat like a ‘normal human-being’, anorexia recovery..

Re-learning ‘normal eating’ ED Recovery

I say normal, loosely. Because the majority of the population has some form of low grade restriction going on. Whether they realize it or not, any diet behavior is restriction. This is not normal eating. But it is ‘societies normal’ This is not an option for us.

When we restrict, our body adapts, by lowering metabolism and a whole heap of other changes like disrupting hunger cues. (This is partly why diets don’t work, restriction leads to a response known as ‘hyperphagia’ (increased hunger) to counteract this unnatural behaviour. Our bodies function in equilibrium and so will adapt or correct the perceived famine. For anyone who is interested like me, in evidence or scientific explanations, the ‘Minnesota Starvation experiment, led by Ancel Keys’ is the closest we will ever get to depicting what happens to humans when starved, both physiologically and psychologically. It would never pass an ethics committee today but the evidence still stands. This was a practice changing study from the forties that still helps to shape nutritional rehabilitation. It provides explanation for experiences such as hyperphagia.

In early recovery most of us experience “extreme hunger”, hyperphagia. For me this wasn’t so much physical hunger, for the most part, but it translated more as mental hunger or feeling off. Regardless it’s still hunger, if we are obsessing about food it’s because our bodies are needing fuel. I was constantly thinking about food, when I was next going to eat, what I could eat, worrying about whether it was ok/ not enough, even dreaming about food, obsessing about food, reading recipes the list goes on. It felt relentless and really intrusive. It was hard to think about anything else. During this period, I would also find it hard to leave food on my plate, even if I felt full, I guess it was my brain freaking out, fearing that I was going to return to a state of famine again. I’d feel almost a compulsion to finish everything. I never felt satisfied early on, I would be painfully full but still thinking about food. This has gotten better with time. I don’t feel the need to finish everything in front of me. This obsession with food was different to that in the depths of my eating disorder, where I would obsess over food then. When under the grip of ‘HH’ I would control everything around it, I’d cook for others, but never eat what I’d made. I’d bake a lot at this point, now I bake if it’s someone’s birthday, I’m just not interested or obsessed like I was. This is common I think, now we have a rule in my house if I make it, I eat it. Some days, if I haven’t eaten quite enough, I find my extreme hunger can return the next day, but this is getting less and less.

This is terrifying when it first happens. If it is happening to you, or someone you know, extreme hunger is normal, it’s a healthy response to energy deficit and reintroducing nutrition. It showed up for me months later in recovery, after I got back on track from a relapse. I didn’t experience it prior. Bingeing is normal in this setting. It’s distressing, it feels it’s going against everything the eating disorder believes. But the only way I found it improved was to listen and respond to it. Restriction remains the enemy for this.

Some-thing I still find difficult, is what’s normal. I also think, there probably isn’t actually a normal, because what’s normal for one person is not for another. However serving sizes is a tricky one, I can under-eat some times because I have done so for so long and my perception of what a ‘normal portion’ is warped.

I have found asking for help with this, although humiliating as an adult and at time unbearably uncomfortable, I often run my lunches past my husband and if he tells me it’s not enough, I don’t argue, I add more. I am trying to re-learn normal eating.

Another thing that helped me, although at the time I hated it and argued until I was blue in the face was relinquishing control around food. By this I mean, I was lucky my partner took complete control of what I ate, when I could not make healthy decisions geared towards recovery without ‘HH’ sabotaging. I was not allowed to cook, prepare meals, or enter the kitchen when meals were being prepared. It was one of the most humiliating experiences of my life and there were times when I would argue, shout, cry, throw, he would force me to eat what was in front of me. I was like a child. But worse, I was an adult having a meltdown. But this role was necessary for a short time, because if left alone, I would skip ingredients, make smaller meals, substitute ingredients ‘for healthier’ alternatives etc.

But it was important for me to regain independence quickly (for me and my partner) and the only way I could was to suck it up.

I cannot express the grattitude I have for my partner, I think people who support a person through eating disorder recovery are saints, they see the worst side of a person imaginable, because a caged animal will always lash out. I have apologised more times than I wish I’d ever have to in a life time. I think this is where it’s useful to seperate the person from their eating disorder. We are not our eating disorders, and the non-negotiations are with the eating disorder, not the person being over shadowed by it. This does not give a free pass to be a dick, it’s just to help understand why you have to keep fighting for recovery. Thankfully this wasn’t needed for long.

For a short while, I followed the principles from Gwyneth Olwyns, homeodynamic recovery. I like evidence and this is evidence based. I will link this below. I do not count calories and find doing so to be detrimental, however this principle sets minimums and it helped me for a short period when trying to become independent again.

One thing I’ve accepted is, comparing what we need to eat in recovery to someone who has not just waged war on there body is never going to be helpful. We need more than most people to heal. Healing doesn’t end at ‘weight restoration’, we still have a nutritional rehabilitation, inner repair, mental healing beyond this. Who knows how long this will take. This, Is hard for someone with a restrictive eating disorder, but I believe it’s true and giving yourself permission to eat whatever, whenever and often ‘more’ than people around you is an important step. Letting go of the judgment. I’ve only recently gotten to this point, I used to find it really really hard to eat in front of, or with others. That’s isolating and something a lot of us have to overcome. So ignoring comments about food is important, hard but totally achievable.

1. The Minnesota Starvation experiment: https://archive.wphna.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/2005-Mad-Science-Museum-Ancel-Keys-Starvation.pdf

2. Gwyneth Olwyn, Homeodynamic Recovery Method: https://edinstitute.org/blog/2013/3/31/homeodynamic-recovery-method-guidelines-overview