The Mental Versus Physical Sides of Eating Disorder Recovery

I’ve had a minor revelation recently, and I feel the need to share it.

I propose there needs to be a deconstruction within mental health — specifically in relation to eating disorders. I believe we, as those who live with them and carers alike, need to deconstruct the assumption that mind, body and behavior all perfectly and consistently align.

This is not always the case, as I have recently discovered. Moreover, when these three things are misaligned, there is potential for all hell to break loose. Metaphorically.

Usually when I talk to someone about my eating issues, I say I “used to have anorexia” or that I am “recovering from anorexia.” That is to say, I am no longer an unhealthy weight, and in most situations I can pass quite genuinely as a “normal” eater (whatever that is). Recently, after an unusually and disconcertingly low mental period, I had a moment of clarity. I am not “recovering from anorexia” (hear me out). I am simply “coping” with anorexia. I’m a sort of “high-functioning anorexic,” if you will. My body and my behaviors are no longer anorexic, but my mind is. My body and behaviors have largely recovered, but in many ways my mind has not changed at all. Many of the same illogical, disordered thought processes are still very much there, and that’s where my difficulty lies. My mind is in one place and my body in another, and it is the friction between the two that makes me feel low, desperate, panicked, confused, anxious and self-loathing.

I had an appointment recently in which I told the nurse I felt happier when I was thinner (which she wrote down as a “belief,” and I corrected her and said it was simply an observation). As disturbing as that observation was, it now makes so much sense to me. My mind and my body do not align. They are disconnected, and the subsequent tension between the two is extremely unsettling. Within this framework, all my pre-weight loss tweenage years of clawing at my skin, with an inexplicable urge to climb out of my body, suddenly make sense.

Conversely, when my mind and body are aligned, things run more smoothly, life is more comfortable, and I am reassured. Unfortunately, my main experience of this alignment is when my body is thin, my behaviors are controlling, and my mind is its usual, disordered self. For many people, this alignment may look like a healthy mind, a healthy body and healthy behaviors. I feel that should be the goal of recovery. But all too often the physical and behavioral seems to be prioritized over the mental. This isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault — it seems inevitable really, due to the more tangible, measurable nature of weight and habit. As a result, my mind is now playing catch up with my body.

Recovery is an active process. In physical terms, I’ve been quite good at this in the past, writing food challenge lists and turning my previously destructive, goal-oriented nature into a productive asset. But I’ve never taken a purposeful, active approach to my mind. Now I have realized this is essential. I have been very passively “recovering” for a long time now, and all this means is that I feel constantly at the edge of what I believe I can cope with, occasionally slipping slightly over the edge when I wake up, take stock, and suddenly realize my body is even further removed from where my mind is programmed to want it to be. It’s like running a race, keeping up well, then blinking and seeing your opponent disappear over the horizon. Unsettling, to say the least.

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure where to go next with active mind recovery; I have a few ideas, and it’s up to me to try them out — but understanding the cause of my unease has given me a renewed hope of full recovery. I hope this article gives an insight into how eating disorders can continue to affect people’s day-to-day lives, even long after the major recovery period is over. I hope this article helps carers to understand there can be many dimensions to eating disorders and recovery — the physical, behavioral and mental are all equally important, despite being unequally visible. And I hope this article gives clarity to those who feel their persistent disordered thoughts and hopeless feelings are now invalidated by their healthy weight and “normal” behaviors. You are not “letting yourself go,” you are not “out of control”; you are brave and you are strong.

Image via Thinkstock.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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