An eating disorder is like a mushroom. What you see is only a piece: the interesting stuff happens below the surface. [i]
It would be better if an eating disorder was like a parfait. Everybody loves parfait.
And while my bulimia hides its secrets like a fairy ring, it lives and dies by rules. The list of things you can’t do is not only legion but alive. New things get added to the “honey don’t” list all the time with the promise that permissions will be restored as soon as you meet certain demands. “Wants” are irrelevant and soon stop featuring in decision-making at all.
That behaviour carried on well past the point at which I stopped throwing up. “I can’t” is more of my inner monologue than I’d like. That doesn’t magically change because you alter your behaviour. Work is required.
I know. It’s so annoying.
You can’t eat that. You can’t do that. You can’t go there. You can’t wear those clothes. You can’t put on jewelry or makeup. You can’t build a life. Those options aren’t currently available. You’ll have access when you level up.
“Level up” is eating disorder speak for “dead.”
Eating disorder recovery occurs on a continuum. It’s not unlike yoga in that regard. You want to achieve things like normalcy or a truly awesome double pigeon, but these are late-stage desires. Early-stage recovery is mostly concerned with staying alive.
If one doesn’t know much about eating disorders, this might sound like hyperbole: it’s not. Help is usually only sought when it’s minutes to midnight. And help is rarely accepted even when death looks imminent.
Help is another thing we’re allowed to accept only when we’re perfect.
I didn’t hear “I can’t” that often in the early days of recovery. It was a daily slog through sobriety and my brain was busy being miserable. I was unprepared for how difficult recovery would be. The life you had is ripped away and with it goes your coping mechanisms. It takes time to grow new skin.
It’s probably why I didn’t start hearing “you can’t” from her again until fairly recently. She was in shock. Or maybe my eating disorder is getting more aggressive now that she’s facing obscurity? Though how much more aggressive one can get beyond trying to kill is uncertain.
But I digress.
If you do something all the time, it’s a feature, not a glitch.
Once the early days of the eating disorder had passed, the voice could relax. I didn’t need to be told I couldn’t eat ice cream unless I was planning on throwing it up. I’d have sooner eaten my shoe. I was well trained. I knew the rules. The list was long and complicated; with food, it’s easier to list what was left: water, diet pop, high-water content vegetables, and fruit. The occasional gummy candy for energy. I never could figure out why I was always so tired and cold. [ii]
This is the pain of recovery. You break the rules that kept chaos and your disgusting self at bay. You dismantle the supports that kept you safe. This is why compliance isn’t ideal. You “adopt” the desired end without building new scaffolding. When you leave and the institutionalization of rehab falls away (it takes a few weeks), the terror, decompensating, and real work of recovery begins.
If things go well, what you learned is enough.
The timeline might not be what you expect.
It’s nearly seven years on and only now am I challenging the thoughts that tell me no.
The eating disorder tries to gain another foothold, tries to toss out “can’t” and more rules, but I’m very much the middle-aged toddler these days. I’m all about “no” and “why?”
As it turns out, I can eat fries. I can eat nachos. I can have seconds, feel too full, and neither throw up nor shave my head. I can skip dinner and have nibbles in the evening without freaking out. I can eat food I didn’t measure. I can eat food without studying the nutrition panel. [iii]
I can exercise every day for a month and then skip a whole week. I can have wine with food. I can enforce boundaries without feeling apologetic. Mostly.
I don’t have to apologize for my existence.
It’s been nice. It’s strange to go to a restaurant with a friend and not have large sections of my brain absent as it plans how we’ll deal with the sin. The permission to enjoy – or rather the relaxing of prohibitions – isn’t limited to food either.
The posts about sheet masks and collages, the occasional photograph I share: these wouldn’t have been impossible before I started working on my eating disorder recovery. They expose imperfections, both the talking about and the doing. Selfcare was for when I was perfect. Life was supposed to be harsh nastiness until that day. This is the consequence of being flawed.
But now I eat deep-fried pickles with a dip that’s Big Mac sauce-adjacent. They’re delicious and I’m amazed. I eat fresh pasta I haven’t weighed. I have dessert.
It’s not easy.
But food with high-fat content is tasty and my skin’s looking fierce.
Progress comes with pain. It has always been thus.
header credit: The Daily Guru
[i] For “interesting,” read “dangerous.”
[ii] Unless I was binging. Then I might have chosen the shoe.
[iii] This is slightly disingenuous. My eating disorder was full active from age eleven until age forty-six and there was run-up time and time in recovery. I know calories even when I don’t want to.