I'm not recovered yet, but recovery will do.
I never thought I'd get over the point where returning to my restrictive behaviours as a way of dealing with stress and vulnerability lost its appeal, but this time round I think I turned a corner. My weight dropped rapidly following anxiety about an impending dietitic appointment, alongside a spate of confidence shattering feedback at work, which on another day would probably seem petty. I also encountered an argument with my housemates over the fact I'd been organised paying the bills. I felt the only way to help myself was by burying my head in the sand (or duvet) and not bother with recovery. I didn't even feel hungry, because I felt so defeated. No matter how hard I tried to take steps forward I kept getting hurt and it seemed so unfair.
The thing is, as I shivered away in late September (even with my lovely new jumper) I found myself getting less like the bubbly personality I've become and more introverted. I found it harder to communicate. I felt like crying on many days, and sought comfort in a friend one lunch for fear of bursting into tears in the middle of the office. I am pleased my friend was there, because it stopped me from taking another step back to a habit which I've been able to kick (laxatives) and I'd have been so disappointed in myself if my low mood had led me to that point. I found myself being indecisive and catastrophising. I found myself unable to concentrate and feeling sick because I had such a horrible headache. And suddenly I came down with a really horrible cold, a few days before a holiday I have really been looking forward to.
Only weeks ago I felt full of energy, excited about my newly discovered passion for gymnastics. Now I just felt sick and lifeless.
Once again my mind had become full of numbers and targets and filled with this concept that every minor set back was an enormous failure. Suddenly the all too familiar ritual of daily weigh-ins and calorie counting became habitual and without thinking I was slipping back into the icy grasp of anorexia, who I had tried so hard to separate from.
When you have experienced recovery, and illness in a close space of time, you forget just how powerful the eating disorder is and just how destructive it is in mind and body. You also forget just how quickly it turns from being an innocent coping mechanism into a full-on relapse. When it takes over your concentration fails and normal, easy day to day decisions become a struggle. Some would say, "just eat", but it isn't that straight forward. Just eating, when your self esteem is rock bottom and when you are beating yourself up for a non event (or large event which anyone would struggle to deal with) is hard for us and therefore we return to the behaviour which feels most comfortable.
Unfortunately, for those of us with eating disorders, or mental illnesses where are behaviours involve addictive coping strategies, these forms of coping mechanisms are harmful, not helpful.
Recovery is about discovering behaviours to replace the former unhealthy coping strategy. This might involve distress tolerance such as behaviours, which help to bring you back out of catasrophising in that moment, or other behaviours which help to improve the moment. It might involve getting better at sitting with uncomfortable feelings through mindfulness, and using sensory elements to aid this. It might involve utilising other people through distraction such as phoning someone, or doing a positive action, which is the opposite to what was originally intended. All these skills take practice, and it's unrealistic to expect someone to do these always all the time. For example, the other day I spoke to my friend over lunch when I was having a bad couple of days. This helped problem solve a lot of my feelings and prevented a number of other negative behaviours from creeping back in. However it wasn't enough to help me eat lunch that day.
Recovery isn't expecting you to be better and for all the negative thoughts to disappear. I think too often we set ourselves unmanageable goals because we enter recovery with a very high level of optimism. There must be some logic for this, particularly in anorexia nervosa, because having experienced levels of depression for so long associated with the negative eating patterns, eating normally helps to regulate the brain chemistry leading to feeling good again. No wonder we think we can take on the world. Understanding that recovery is not linear, and that we will need to make adjustments along the way is extremely important in helping to sustain the journey of progress, not regression.
I started this post off by saying that I was surprised by how quickly things slipped, but also how noticeable it was this time round. I don't recall noticing how cold anorexia was before, and how mean anorexia was before. For once, anorexia wasn't my friend and she definitely wasn't helping me. In a previous blog I highlighted the fact that we ended our relationship when we finished therapy. In a way it's like a relationship ending, but the court case that has come up...almost over custodial rights which no-one wants to face. One day I hope she will be gone for good.
Useful websites and helplines:
Beat, call 0845 634 7650 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Samaritans, open 24 hours a day, on 08457 90 90 90
Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393