An eating disorder isn’t really about the body. The problem originates elsewhere. It’s history, nature, both, and neither. It’s what makes treatment challenging. Everyone comes from a different place. There’s no eating disorder penicillin.
For me, anxiety is a large piece of the puzzle. The historical happenings are significant but my anxious nature is why my compensatory behaviours went the way they did. Anxiety feels unbearable to me: the relief the eating disorder promised was too good to pass up.
Suddenly, the uncomfortable feelings had a focus – my physical imperfections. By focusing on my body and engaging in distracting behaviours designed to perfect it, I could, at last, subdue the uncomfortable feelings that made me want to crawl out of my skin.
But because the real problems have nothing to do with the body, working on the body doesn’t provide a fix. It does, however, distract for periods of time. Since that feels like relief, we recommit to our actions, creating a vicious cycle of maladaptive coping mechanism, anxiety, and repeat.
An eating disorder will never make any situation better. It only ever makes things worse. Once you’re in it, however, escape is difficult. An added problem is desire: you get a little Stockholm Syndrome. We might say we want to get better but truthfully, most of the time we want to keep the crutch behaviour more. We don’t want to feel the uncomfortable feelings again. Blood in the throat is easier.
Compounding the escape problem is the reality that abstinence is not an option. We have to eat to survive. People with eating disorders are forever tied to their drug of choice.
Nature or nurture: who’s to blame for all of this? Anxiety is my nature but nurture, how one is treated and the experiences they have, that’s part of the puzzle as well. I could hop on the “blame the parents” bandwagon but that wouldn’t be fair. The same nature that made me anxious also blocked me from approaching them for help: I’m the fixer and caretaker. That I’ve always felt fundamentally flawed just made things harder. The perfect appearance was going to fix everything.
I tried hard to get perfect. I tried for a long time but I kept failing. I’d do all the things the eating disorder suggested but I was still wrong. I was still imperfect. I should’ve concluded the plan was flawed. Unfortunately, the eating disorder doesn’t let you go there. The problem is always and ever you.
Eating disorders are also a growth proposition. They expand and become about more than food and the body. Soon, everything needs to be perfect. It’s hard to resist the lures the defective thoughts dangle, always promising that this time, with this behaviour, it’ll work.
The eating disorder is such a liar.
You can’t fix yourself this way. You don’t know that though. In the early days, you think you’ve found the magic secret, the trick that will make everything okay. Even if you think about it being an eating disorder, you don’t worry. You’re in control. You don’t notice when things start to go bad because the eating disorder breaks the mind-body connection. We’re meant to be one thing, a single entity. The eating disorder breaks us into pieces and suddenly, the mind and body are at war. Wars are great at stopping communications.
Re-establishing the mind-body connection is hard. It’s been five years since I started working seriously on recovery and my body still feels like the enemy too much of the time. It’s hard to let that go, hard to silence the voice that only has negative and hurtful things to say.
An acquaintance once told me that emotional healing takes about half the time you had invested in the problematic situation. I was married for seven years and felt completely over it and free a little past the three-year mark. A sobering thought when I look at my numbers: I have forty years of an eating disorder under my belt.
Freedom sixty-five. Something to celebrate.