Living vs. Surviving: Questioning the disorder

The hardest part of recovery is realising that your mental illness is not your friend

ABOVE: Me, photographed in my first year of University [credit: Kyle Jones]

This article contains potentially triggering discussions of disordered eating and EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified). Viewer discretion is advisedWhile I do discuss my eating disorder in this article, I have tried not to go into any detail that could be productive to someone else’s illness— there are no ‘before and after’ photos or detailed descriptions of any ‘techniques’ I have used. There are some references to restrictive eating. If you are reading this to try to trigger yourself or look for ‘tips’ and ‘tricks’ on how to further contribute to your own eating disorder, I implore you follow these links to get help. You deserve to get better. About Eating Problems / Beat Eating Disorders / Supporting Someone With an Eating Disorder / Enhanced Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

It’s been around six months since I wrote ‘Eat vs. Starve‘, and almost exact one year since I really started to think critically about my relationship with food and my body. I’m still working a lot of things out. I’m still scared that people don’t believe I’m ill. But last week, I started a specialised form of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which targets disordered eating and body image issues, and it’s absolutely terrifying! When I was first recommended to go to eating therapy by a doctor, I grimaced. I didn’t want to change my routine. Far from it- I was just starting to get used to dealing with this thing.

The funny thing about living with a disorder for upwards of ten years is that you become comfortable and familiar with it. You have to, in order to keep existing. At some point in my life, the big, horrible, sticky cloud of disordered eating took residence above my head and it has been hanging around me since. I couldn’t shake it off, so I adapted. It’s not something I like to admit, but I am good- really good- at having an eating disorder. I am really good at surviving on coffee and cigarettes for the first six hours of the day. I am really good at keeping track of calories in my own head. I am really good at constantly checking my body in reflective surfaces. I am really good at shaming myself into tears and panic and self-harm whenever I think I might have gained weight. I am especially good at convincing everyone around me that I’m fine.

So, when the idea of ‘getting better’ was presented to me, I turned up my nose, out of fear and denial. Recovery is hard work, and mental illness tends to make you docile. The aversion that I had (and, if I’m being honest, still do) to changing my lifestyle is just proof that I have fallen deeply, deeply in love with my own illness. This Stockholm Syndrome is not just my own doing, either. Disordered eating is folded neatly into the fabric of daily life, especially for women. It is our captor, and we have been instructed to obey it.

In December, I was sat opposite a nail technician at a salon as she asked me about my Christmas plans. I told her I’d be spending it with my boyfriend and his family, and would probably just be reading a lot of books and drinking a lot of wine. The tech asked me if I preferred white or red. I said white. She smiled, and sagely said “Oh, yes, much better than red. Less calories too.” I smiled back, instinctually. The woman, not too much older than me, continued, with a tone that was dripping with pride. “I lost three stone this year.” I continued to smile at her, but I could feel myself drawing back. As if she could sense my reluctance, the woman leaned into me, like she was telling me a secret. She peered up, through the plastic screen that kept our faces separated, and smirked. “Sometimes, I won’t eat dinner just so that I feel even skinnier in the mornings.”

A few weeks later, my housemate and I watched The Devil Wears Prada, in which a very slim Anne Hathaway is consistently called fat until she ‘goes from a size six to a size four’, at which point she is graciously accepted by her contemporaries. Midway through the film, Emily Blunt’s character says: “I’m on this new diet. Well, I don’t eat anything. And right before I feel I’m going to faint, I eat a cube of cheese. I’m one stomach flu away from my goal weight.” It’s meant to be played as a joke, but it made me quite sad. It felt far too real to be funny. (‘Goal weights’ are a whole other kettle of fish that I could dive into, but, in short, they’re a total scam. If you dictate your existence by a number, you’ll never reach your goal weight, because the goal will always continue to get lower and lower.)

Yesterday, lying in bed with my boyfriend, a YouTube ad popped up below a video I wanted to show him. Ed laughed, pointed at it, and asked “what is that?” It was an advert for a weight loss program, showing exaggerated illustrations of women to highlight the differences between ‘gluten belly’ and ‘alcohol belly’. The words ‘GET SLIM FAST!’ stood underneath in big, red letters. I had never considered that he might not have seen these types of adverts before. At this point, I hardly blink at them, because I’m so used to being told, all the time, with no warning, that being thin is the absolute ideal, and if you’re not already skinny, then you should be doing everything in your power to change it.

Once you wake up to it, you notice that diet culture and celebrations of thinness are everywhere. It took me a decade to realise that my relationship with food was severely fucked up. I was just following the implicit rules that the world had laid out for me: eat less, be hungry, eat even less, lose more weight, eat next to nothing, and eventually, you’ll be skinny enough to finally be happy. It’s a miserable existence, and it’s so insidious that it took a full mental breakdown for me to realise that my entire life is structured around the goal of being as small and palatable as possible.

I thought my eating disorder was normal, because it was taught to me as normal. But it’s not normal to think about food constantly because your body has gone into starvation mode and is desperately trying to keep you healthy. It’s not normal to be scared of certain meals because of their calorie content. It’s not normal to see food as an enemy that you’re a slave to. I lived by these beliefs as if they were gospel, so it was quite a shock to realise that they’re absolutely false.

Imagine that you have an old cut. It’s healed over now, so that you don’t really notice the scar. On the flesh, it seems perfectly okay. But in reality, under the skin, there’s all this old grit from the initial injury- dirt, mud, glass- stuff you didn’t even realise had been embedded into your muscle. This debris hurts you when you move. But you can’t see it, and it doesn’t hurt all the time, so you get on with life, hoping the pain will go away on its own. Recovery is the process of carefully opening that wound up again. You have to dig through it to get all of the shit out, and it hurts while you’re doing it, but then, it’ll be cleaner. You can patch yourself back up again and start to properly heal: not just in a way that looks fine on the surface.

When I told my therapist that I wasn’t convinced I needed to get better because ‘I’ve survived’ long enough by obeying my eating disorder, she said, “You might be surviving, but are you living?”, which really just sums the whole thing up. So, with a long road ahead of me, here’s to remembering how to live. About Eating Problems / Beat Eating Disorders / Supporting Someone With an Eating Disorder / Enhanced Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

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