when your eating disorder co-opts your brain

i think i want an afternoon snack. i think i might be hungry. it’s hard for me to tell. there’s a physical sense of emptiness in my stomach, a hollow rumbling, but i’m never totally convinced it means i should eat. i never quite believe my body when it tells me i’m hungry.

i thought i might have a cookie. i made them last weekend and they’re very good – peppermint chocolate chip. the secret, well one of the secrets, is using peppermint flavouring rather than peppermint chips. the other secret i’ll be taking to my grave. they’re that good.

i think i’m hungry enough to have one, but my brain is trying to decide if that’s okay. i had a bagel for breakfast and that’s a big portion. lots of carbs. plus, i had two scrambled egg burritos for lunch and the number is weighing heavily on my mind. one would have been more comfortable for me to deal with.

the daily food tally doesn’t even include the three wine gums i had following the burritos. my daughter offered them to me. i probably should’ve said “no” because their consumption is weighing on me, making the cookie decision hard.

plus, it’s dinner time soon; i should probably skip the snack.

it’s a lot of mental conversation to engage in over such a small decision but for me, the consequences of the choice can have some serious impacts.

an eating disorder is not just what you eat. it intertwines with your thoughts, and heart, and soul, and guts. it tentacles its way into every which where. you don’t realize how completely it dominates your day-to-day existence until you put the active eating behaviours on hold (mostly). it’s only then that you realize how pervasive an eating disorder is.

i expected it to be different. i expected that once i stopped bingeing and purging, my thoughts on food would automatically normalize, i would love my body and myself, and i would be recovered.

that’s not what happened.

stopping the bulimic behaviour stopped the bulimic behaviour. that’s it. there was no magic conversion in my brain, i didn’t start to love myself, and plenty of other eating disorder behaviours have remained.

i have to confess to feeling little bit pissed and a little bit betrayed.

i struggled for decades to stop throwing up on the belief that doing so would be a “cure”. i stopped purging believing that doing would make me well. that it would fix my brain.

it hasn’t.

don’t get me wrong, i’m better in so many ways.

my ankles, for instance. they don’t hurt and that’s kind of a miracle. constant vomiting throws off your electrolytes. water retention is a side effect of that. i tried to mitigate it with water pills i smuggled home from the US (they’re not available over the counter in Canada) and by drinking large glasses of water with lemon (unsweetened) but mostly my joints stayed swollen and my ankles were the worst. they looked awful, with much less delineation between ankle and calf than i’d have liked and felt worse. by the end of the day, every day, they’d ache enough to bring me to tears, if i’d have actually been able to cry. luckily, i was able to use fat ankles as one more hair shirt.

but now they’ve shrunk. not throwing up means my water levels have stabilized. my joints are no longer swollen and achy, and my ankles have definition. this is a good thing. it doesn’t, however, help me decide yes or no regarding the cookie.

recovery, as it turns out, is more complicated than making one change. it’s a process and changing how you eat (or how you get rid of what you eat) is just one part of that.

when i stopped bingeing and purging, i realized how much real estate my eating disorder has taken over in my brain. recovery is not just not throwing up. it’s about getting my real estate back. the current owner is a bit of a bitch and not inclined to let go. i wish this was a city project and i could just expropriate it back, but there’s no easy way around the issue. you have to deal with the crap.

i’m working on the underneath stuff, the deep and dark stuff, the issues that drove me into bulimia’s open arms with my therapists. it takes time. in the interim, as i get better and get a handle on my issues, i have practical eating disorder stuff to deal with. i have all the things that aren’t throwing up.

the restricting. my brain still wants me to do it. it’s why i’m so hyper-vigilant with the food i eat. i can still tell you every bit of food i’ve consumed for days upon days back. i wish i couldn’t. i wish i wasn’t monitoring my consumption so intently.

i still check out my bones in the mirror every morning and i still have a debate with myself over whether or not this would be a good time to go on a diet, because you could definitely lose ten pounds by the end of the weekend and are you going to be working out today, because you probably should, and this is where i usually wake up and start arguing back, pointing out that most people don’t want to see their ribs poking out alongside their spine.

i still hang onto clothes that are ridiculously small for someone in recovery. they are better suited to a tween or an active anorexic and i’d prefer not to be in that category anymore. i remember one of the counsellors at rehab asking me if i was surprised i wasn’t dead, because the staff was. i kind of took that to heart. it was the first time i really heard what people were saying to me.

not just that my eating disorder would kill me, but that the time was getting close.

so not purging is not the cure. it’s a step, a movement in the right direction. the biggest part of the eating disorder is not the part everyone sees on the outside, it’s not the behaviours. it’s the brain part. that part is proving more of a challenge to eradicate. i’m sober in my eating, not in my thoughts.

non-eating disorder behaviour would be to walk into the kitchen and have a snack. not because my eating up to this point today was “acceptable”, not because i’ve let myself get hungry enough and i now “deserve” it but because food is not my enemy.

adjusting my thinking is a lot harder than getting sober in my eating and i thought that was the hardest thing i’d ever done. if i don’t do it though, i’ll end up with a half-life. i’ll waste more time and more energy on thoughts that need to be challenged. on thoughts that need to get gone.

recovery is a huge leap of faith. you carry on with it because you believe that doing so will make things better. that life, without the problematic behaviour, will be better. some days i believe that and other days i don’t but what i do know is this: recovery cannot possibly be worse.

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