When I Realized My Eating Disorder Was My Survival Mechanism


Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.

Through treatment, I’ve achieved enough mental clarity to discover and articulate the many functions of my eating disorder. Something that I’ve recently come to realize is that, in many ways, my eating disorder is a survival mechanism. I’ve used restricting, fasting, purging and other behaviors to prepare myself for the pain that inevitably comes along with being human. If I can create and revise a controlled environment of pain, then I will theoretically be capable of facing and reacting to the external pain. If I can survive self-imposed famine, drought and chronic exhaustion, then I can survive grief, loss, heartbreak and other inevitable unpleasant experiences.

Obviously, this is an unsustainable and incredibly lonely way to navigate the world. It might feel correct and necessary to isolate myself and live by my eating disorder’s code of ethics, but human survival is impossible without connection. Running around in circles, treating numbers like scripture, zeroing in on specific body parts, purging instead of expressing pain through language and other survival strategies only prolongs suffering and inhibits genuine connection with myself and with others.

With my eating disorder, I know exactly what to expect. I know that restriction makes my brain foggy and my body weak. I know that purging makes my throat burn and my teeth ache. I know that overexerting myself physically incapacitates me. I know that diet pills and caffeine make my heart and mind race. These symptoms are predictable and habitual, and they come from a mindset that makes false promises of security.

I want to understand the functions of my eating disorder, not to judge my dysfunctional impulses or shame myself for acting on them, but to address the needs that my illness seemed to meet. If I can name the mechanisms of my illness, I can finally begin to follow more compassionate roadmaps to true survival.

I believe that, for other people seeking lasting recovery, the ability to analyze the functions of your eating disorder is a powerful key to getting your life back. At first, it might only be possible to do things slowly and mechanically. Learning how to eat and sit with the guilt, shame, and racing eating disorder thoughts and urges is incredibly difficult. It is also a necessary first step. Moving away from your eating disorder behaviors means welcoming intense sensations and emotions, but this openness also creates a motivating desire to replace those behaviors with new ones that will sustain life and lasting recovery.

Choosing recovery every single day means facing these challenges head-on. It means confronting pain without the mental haze that your eating disorder creates. However, feeling pain becomes a giant leap towards self-compassion when you name it for what it is, confront it courageously, and refuse to cut yourself off from sensation. Without this awareness, your eating disorder might manipulate you and cut you off from your own intuition. Intuition is a critical tool for lifelong recovery because only you have the power to listen to yourself and fight to defend your right to exist as you are without your eating disorder. Every time you embrace your own power wholeheartedly, you inch away from your illness until, one day, there is no more room in your mind for your eating disorder.

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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Thinkstock photo via Galimsianova.

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