How this form tells the story of my eating disorder recovery

or: What I’ve learned one year on from being discharged from treatment

ABOVE: the first sheet

This article contains potentially triggering discussions of disordered eating and EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified). Viewer discretion is advised. 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, please stop. About Eating Problems / Beat Eating Disorders / Supporting Someone With an Eating Disorder / Enhanced Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

I find them and am overcome with profound melancholy. I’ve written a fair bit about my recovery, but this is the first time I’ve read the pre-therapy questionnaires I filled out in March 2021, sat on my bed in my parent’s house, cracking half-hearted jokes to my friends over Snapchat about this being “a really weird Buzzfeed quiz”.

The three pages, each with that gloomy photocopy look which reminds me of school, are a blueprint to the ill person I used to be. They make me very sad. The survey is over-simplistic– I am still finding new ways to describe the chaos and confusion of what life with my eating disorder was like– but the structured questions are on theme as they reveal the cold, blunt, joyless place I lived.

Through the biro circles left on the page, I had condensed a lifetime of issues into ‘5’s and ‘6’s. I can sense the desperation behind them, the way fear and guilt punctuated my every waking moment, the hatred for myself I learned to live with until Covid-19 broke everything we’d not realised we’d had to learn to live with.

There were many dominoes that had to fall until I realised I needed help, but lockdown 2020 was the biggest one. I’d already been approaching breaking point, but now the whole world was unsettled and anxious; the comments from my parents about my weight and appetite became more frequent; the constant noise inside my head had little competition.

On one occasion, I screamed at my little brother when he ate the rest of the water biscuits in the cupboard. I’d been looking forward to having a few of them as a special treat for starving myself all morning and running around the park until my legs burned. Of course, even with this allowance, I would have immediately started obsessing over them, my brain chattering away, arguing with itself for hours on end, while the world kept moving around me.

But one afternoon Noah ate them, blissfully ignorant, all in one sitting, and I completely lost it. I can remember standing in the kitchen doorway, tears down my face, shaking with frustration because he got to enjoy food where I had to suffer over it. I can remember shouting “I can’t eat the way you do, because if I do, I’ll get fat”, and I can remember the way that all-important last word was spat at him, septic with disgust and hatred and weariness.

Re-reading the assessment, all of that feeling floods back to me. I don’t have any stories of being hospitalised. I don’t have any pictures of me looking thin and ill to put side-by-side with me at a healthy weight. I don’t have horror stories of inpatient treatment on a psychiatric ward. But I do have these three pieces of paper. Until now, no one but me and my therapist have seen them. 

I’ve shared parts of the documents here because I want to continue to raise awareness. Eating disorders are a terrible thing to live with, but coming out of the other side feels euphoric. Here’s what I’ve learned since.

Eating disorders are utterly misunderstood

The expectation of what an eating disordered person looks and acts like is one of the main reasons people live with them with no idea. I thought I wasn’t sick because I still craved food, I was bingeing every other day, I wasn’t having public meltdowns in restaurants, wasn’t making myself throw up, wasn’t abusing laxatives, wasn’t on a strict diet, and most of all, wasn’t thin or losing weight dramatically. It was all in my head. I put a happy front up for everyone around me but god, the noise inside never stopped. I was very, very, very tired.

On top of eating disorders being misunderstood, our assumptions about food and our bodies are mostly wrong. Sure, some people will immediately shed weight when they cut their calorie intake to 400 a day. But most people, people like me, are not built in this way, neither physically or mentally.

My attempts at losing weight by restricting my food intake did the complete opposite. I would wake up and tell myself that today was a day that I wouldn’t eat. Sometimes I’d succeed, falling into bed with a spaced-out smile, but usually I’d last about half a day before I had something small, like a piece of fruit or a bag of crisps. Another few hours would tick by, but then the evening would come. Evenings were my worst time.

If I was by myself, a binge relapse would creep up on me. It’s hard to explain what a true binge feels like, but for me, they were characterised by a lack of control. I literally could not stop eating once I’d started. What was meant to be a nibble on a slice of toast would end up as 2,000 calories– of all the foods I’d been telling myself were ‘off limits’. Over time, I gained weight, because my body, not knowing when it would next get real sustenance, hoarded all fat and sugar to keep me alive in case there was another period of starvation. 

It was only when I started therapy and ate on a strict schedule (main meals at 9am, 1pm, 6pm, small snacks at 11am, 3pm, and 8pm) that my weight went back to where it feels best. Against what I’ve been told my whole life, I started eating more and lost weight.

Disordered eating is everywhere

Once you’ve spent years of your life and thousands of your family’s money on psychological help to make you not always internally obsess over calories or about whether a food is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or about weight loss, any mention of these things, however innocent or good-intentioned, rings harshly in the ear. 

A few months ago, I was eating lunch at work when someone came over to me to tell me that they think my lunches ‘always look so healthy’, but then (pause to ramp up the comedic timing) they saw the Hula Hoops I was munching on! Ha ha! What a lark!

It’s difficult, though, to challenge the way people casually discuss diet culture. I don’t want anyone to feel like I’m censoring them. People are allowed to talk about themselves, their food intake, and their body in any way they like. If you want to define yourself by how much salad you eat, be my guest. If you’ve sworn off burgers and chips for the rest of your life, that’s your call. If your sole mission in life is to lower your body fat percentage and you have an insatiable urge to bore everyone around you to death by talking about it all the time, that’s none of my business.

But it is strange. The ease at which we say harmful things is strange. The obsession we have with thinness is strange. The way we assign moral value to food is strange.

Recovering from an eating disorder in our diet culture obsessed world is like waking up one night to a big, bad, ugly wolf sitting on your chest. It’s suffocating you, and it takes a lot of strength to build up the courage to fight it off, but after a bloody battle– teeth, claws, fur, skin– you finally get it out of your house. You slam the door behind the beast, hearing it scratch and snarl at the wood, still there, still furious, but trapped out in the cold. Eventually, you stagger into the living room, bruised all over, and look up to see that everyone is having a very merry time indeed, all with their own sharp-toothed wolf pup in their lap. It quite often makes me want to scream for a very long time.

You do not need to feel guilty for eating carbohydrates. You are not being ‘naughty’ by having a biscuit at lunchtime. You are not better than anyone for swapping your Coca Cola with fizzy water and balsamic vinegar. Salad is not ‘good’. Pizza is not ‘bad’. When one of my closest friends was hospitalised as a young teenager for being severely underweight, pizza was the opposite of bad– it was a literal lifesaver. Unfortunately, she had spent so long being told that certain foods are bad that she couldn’t bring herself to eat it. 

The only metric I believe in when it comes to diet is balance and intuition. If you eat nothing but bread for the rest of your days, you probably won’t feel great in the long run, and if you try to survive on cucumber and black coffee, you’ll be miserable without understanding why.

Your body is intelligent and alive

I will never go back to my eating disorder, but even if I really wanted to, it would be a physically painful thing to do. After a few years, my ignored hunger signals led to me never really getting hungry. I’d get peckish, sure, and within a few hours of nothing being in my stomach, I could feel it, but the sensation would pass with enough water and wilful ignorance.

Once I started eating, I felt years of hunger all at once. I went from being scared of eating before lunchtime to having breakfast every day, and within less than two weeks my body adjusted to my new routine. I can’t go more than an hour after waking up without having something, and I carry snacks with me almost everywhere because of how unbearable the feeling of hunger is. I start to shake, I feel lightheaded, my stomach hurts and flips so I feel sick. Emotionally, I go into a close-to-panic state. Ultimate Hanger.

To quote an old essay I wrote on hunger: “Having not really experienced true, full hunger for many years, I was suddenly hit with a ravenous, all-consuming, demanding hunger.

“The shocking part is, despite how alien it feels, this sudden, primal craving for food when I’m running on empty isn’t a new feeling. This is the exact same hunger I was dealing with throughout my eating disorder. The brain-fog, the anger, the anxiety, and the fatigue were all there, but they were stretched out into a constant state of being.”

Ask yourself: how hungry are you really, and how long have you been hungry for?

I’ll never shake it off completely, but I am a better person now that I eat

I still look at the calorie count of foods and use that to make my lunch choice. I still get paralysed in front of menus, having to analyse every option and ‘allow’ myself to choose something other than a salad. I still struggle making spontaneous decisions about my food. I still look at my reflection in shop windows and press my stomach down with my hand. I still wake up and have the instinctual thought of “How can I finish the day lighter than I started it?”

These things will never go away, as many addictions and disorders never truly leave us. When I started my therapy, Julie told me it would be the most amazing journey of my life, and I didn’t believe her. But taking little steps every day to fight my eating disorder, for 365 days, has changed my life. 

I have more time for my friends and family because I’m not dedicating hours of my day to staring at a wall and trying to decide whether I’m allowed to eat pasta for dinner. I’m more focused and don’t get distracted as easily because my brain is getting the fuel it needs to chug along. My body doesn’t feel as sluggish as it did before, and my nails and hair grow faster and stronger. My general mood and attitude towards life has been flipped on its head. I feel more confident and spend less time picking at my appearance because it’s not my main goal in life to eradicate the flaws I’ve preached to myself. I’m less vain, less shallow, less angry. I’m not hungry anymore.

Three final things:

  1. The way you look is the least interesting thing about you.
  2. Calories are not an enemy.
  3. And finally, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but your parents were right– breakfast is the most important meal of the day. My favourite breakfast recipe is below. About Eating Problems / Beat Eating Disorders / Supporting Someone With an Eating Disorder / Enhanced Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

Life Oats

In a jar or container, combine:

  • 90 ml of milk (any kind works)
  • 4 heaped tablespoons of rolled oats
  • a sprinkle of cinnamon (optional)

Seal the jar and leave in the fridge overnight.

In the morning, top the oats with:

  • a drizzle of honey
  • two spoonfuls of smooth or crunchy peanut butter (I find the fancy stuff best for this recipe, the kind with lots of natural oils)
  • 1 sliced banana
  • 1 quarter of an apple, thinly sliced
  • a handful of blueberries
  • sprinkle of sunflower seeds, chia seeds, and pumpkin seeds

Pour the contents into a small bowl. I find the fruit bakes best when it’s at the bottom, covered by the peanut butter and oats.

Microwave on high for 3-4 minutes.

Mix well while piping hot, allow to cool, and enjoy your breakfast.

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