An eating disorder is a destructive thing but also helpful in an odd, dysfunctional way. It acts as a kind of support structure. It’s scaffolding. It’s the glue that holds everything together when the emotions seem too difficult to manage. It locks up the pain, the misery, the anxiety, the inferiority complex, the self-hatred and all the neuroses and keeps them barricaded away so you don’t have to deal with bad feelings.
There is a cost. You starve yourself. You binge on vast quantities of food. You purge what you eat, either by vomiting or some other method.
The eating disorder makes you miserable for wholly different reasons than the original ones; it turns your life into hell, but, for a while, it does do as promised. It holds everything back, keeps it locked down tight. Of course, in order to continue to push back, the eating disorder must escalate.
Unfortunately, it escalates you to dead.
An eating disorder is not a sustainable solution.
There is a problem, however, with doing away with the eating disorder behaviours, beyond the missing of them, which you do even though the routines are twisted and bizarre.
The problem is that without the scaffolding, all those other issues come racing back to be dealt with and that can be very difficult.
It’s a surprise when you realize how much you’ve relied on your eating disorder to keep other demons contained.
For recovery to work, you need a skill set. You need a plan. You need a replacement support structure. You need a way to deal with the anxiety and the negative self-talk and the ugly, hard feelings and the neuroses. If you don’t, they’ll bury you. You won’t be able to maintain recovery. You’ll drift back into the behaviours that seemed like they were keeping you safe because the other stuff is too brutal to deal with. You’re only changing one bad for another, but the familiar feels better than the new, which is not only comfortable but unknown.
This is one of the advantages of treatment in care. The support structure is built in. Unfortunately, if you don’t develop an internal one, you run into problems when you leave.
I relied on my eating disorder to deal with many things; the biggest was my anxiety. When I decided to really, really try and recover, when I committed to giving up purging behaviours, I came to realize what a significant problem my anxiety was. And I came to see that if I didn’t come up with a plan, a replacement set of thoughts and behaviour, I would regress. Or find new and perhaps even worse maladaptive coping mechanisms. Because the feelings seem unbearable and you need to find a way to address that.
I needed to develop a replacement scaffolding to help me address the feelings. To help me wait them out, to work through them.
Because, they do pass. You can wait it out. It’s a misery, of course, and it can last an uncomfortable amount of time during which you argue with yourself about falling off the wagon, just this once, just one more time, just to get through.
There are other things that are better than waiting. But, in the early, or even later days they are not instinctive. I have too much practice running away from uncomfortable feelings for it to be otherwise. If you don’t have a plan in place, eventually white-knuckling gives way.
Luckily, there’s no shortage of things that actually work in terms of soothing anxiety. I spent years not trying them, because reasons. Because I didn’t want to admit that something other than my eating disorder would work, I suppose. Because I wanted to recover, just not quite enough.
I’m at enough, now, however.
I take deep breaths and try and relax my body; anxiety makes my muscles tense.
I turn on a song I like and walk on the elliptical; exercise helps me widen the focus that anxiety narrows.
I reach out to a friend; I may not talk about what I’m feeling but reminding myself that I have friends and am connected to the world is helpful.
I read a bit of Stoic or Buddhist philosophy.
I stay off social media and off my smart phone; I find that they’re a little agitating.
I drink a glass of water; I’m more easily triggered if I’m dehydrated.
Sometimes I go back to bed and take a nap. Sleep the ugly thoughts and urges a way.
This is dealing. But building the structure, which happens as you build new thoughts about yourself, and new ways of thinking (such as CBT techniques), and new philosophies, and new behaviours, takes time.
The techniques and the adjustments to how you think are necessary. It’s best if you can have them ready before you need them. This was a mistake I made. I stopped but didn’t have the tricks handy and wasn’t working on building myself up while I was trying to stop my eating disorder behaviour. It made the early days darker and harder than they needed to be.
Trying to excise a behaviour without having something available to fill in the hole is a mistake.
Do you ever do things the hard way?