Two days into the coronavirus lockdown, I caught myself deliberately making my meals smaller. Perhaps I’ll just do half the rice, I thought. If I use less fish it’ll last longer. Do I need to have coconut milk when water will do?
The nagging voice was back, and I had barely noticed.
I was diagnosed with anorexia and bulimia three years ago, after nearly a decade of dancing around the point. I’m lucky enough to be able to say that my recovery, while slow, has been steady. I enjoy life more now than I have for a long time, and feel more at ease in situations that would have sent me into a full-blown crisis a few years back.
But getting better has taken a lot of work. It has involved the tearing down of a regimented world of silly rules – don’t eat that, don’t be lazy, don’t let people in – and the building of a new one in which I try to be a bit kinder, a bit more flexible and a bit more forgiving of myself. For many eating disorder sufferers like me, life under the coronavirus epidemic will take a lot of adjustment. Overnight, a new world of grimly necessary rules and standards has been created, many of which seem dangerously close to the old ones we have been battling to shrug off.
Take the new national conversation about food. Every day now I think about whether there’s enough to go around, whether what I’m buying is responsible or selfish, if I’m cooking too much in case it runs out. It’s hard to tell how much of this is reasonable worrying and how much is the old brain reasserting itself.
“Every day now I think about whether there’s enough to go around, whether what I’m buying is responsible or selfish...”
In my weaker moments, I find myself getting a kick out of not being one of the shoppers hoarding food – and I realise it’s a small step away from the virtuous feeling I used to get watching other people eat lunch while I went without at the nadir of my disorder: They’ll get fat and I won’t. They’re taking from NHS staff and I’m not.
Social distancing too has upset the rhythm I lived by: breakfast at 7, snack at 11, lunch at 1, snack at 3, dinner at 7. Even when the meals were small, I’d take pride in keeping that structure: challenging the disorder with a pattern that, by and large, kept me properly nourished. But when there’s no beginning and end to the working day – no set time at which others are eating too – I find myself at risk of idle snacking or seven-hour stints on an empty stomach. Neither of those things help.
A bad day used to be tackled with a run, working for months to find a distance that gave me a good workout but avoided tipping into me compulsive, damaging overexercise. That too now looks fragile.
Gyms are closed. Social media buzzes with people berating “selfish” joggers for sweating near them. There’s talk of closing the parks for good. People openly quip about putting on the ‘corona stone’. It’s an unwanted annoyance to them – but I find myself, once again, seeing it as the worst possible fate.
“With much less daily human contact, there are fewer people to spot when I am being absurd, and to shake me out of it.”
I find my mouth going dry, panic setting in at the thought of re-emerging Elvis-like from months cooped up here, a waddling version of myself met with howls of laughter. In the aftermath of a global pandemic, my thoughts go, everyone will be looking at my waistline. That is the kind of nonsense the unchecked eating disorder brain produces – and with much less daily human contact, there are fewer people to spot when I am being absurd, and to shake me out of it.
I worry about the people who were nowhere near better when this crisis hit – and hope they know that, even at a time when the world’s challenges feel huge, their own battle still matters. “Eating disorders often work to minimise your worries, or make you feel as though your experiences aren’t as serious as other people’s,” the eating disorder charity Beat – which has produced a guide and chatroom specifically tailored to the Covid-19 outbreak – has said.
And they add: “It may feel as though this concern is backed up by the huge focus on coronavirus, especially if you’re finding it harder to access regular treatment services. But other health issues are not any less important, and those experiencing them still deserve treatment and support.”
It’s early days in this strange new world, and spotting that this way of thinking is creeping back in is a positive thing. It means that a good chunk of what I learned while getting better has lodged itself somewhere in my overheating brain. But recovery from any mental health condition can be fragile in the face of change – and those of us with eating disorders will have to be extra vigilant in the weeks ahead.
Matt Honeycombe-Foster is news editor of PoliticsHome.com. Follow him on Twitter at @matt_hfoster.
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