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How It Feels to Be in the ’Midpoint’ of Anorexia Recovery

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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 741741.

If someone was standing before you right now, asking you to unwillingly hand over every aspect of your life that brings you any safety, comfort and shelter from the harshness of this world, could you do it? Could you relinquish them entirely — every single one — and continue to live your life composedly without ever running back?

Well I guess that’s the affliction I’m facing right now. My constant safe place, my only escape route, and the one single coping mechanism I’ve known for a whole third of my life is being wrestled from my grasp, and in many ways, I’m just not sure I’m ready to let go yet. Since recently being informed, however, that I will no longer be admitted to specialist eating disorder units as a result of “too many” unsuccessful admissions over the past few years, I have found myself deliberating, possibly too extensively, what it really is that I’m pouring every last ounce of my remaining strength and perseverance into every single day, and why on earth I’m now pushing the limit of my endurance when all of the evidence so far suggests this whole recovery thing just isn’t sustainable for me.

Do I want this, or don’t I want it? Well, contrary to the beliefs of those who have never experienced the restraining embrace of an eating disorder, it’s just not as simple as “wanting recovery enough.” Not when you’re living with potentially the only illness in this world that, actually, you’re so very convinced you can’t possibly survive without.

Not so long ago, I read something in which that unbearable midpoint of anorexia nervosa recovery — where you are no longer dying, but equally, you aren’t quite living — was compared most accurately to an eroded tooth. All of the drama, the obsession, the desperate concern and the physical aspects of the problem are gone, and all that is left exposed are those unbearably sensitive roots, concealed below the surface, that triggered the intolerable pain in the first place. It is undoubtedly the most vulnerably delicate stage of the process, which has always felt too impossible for me to overcome in the past. It’s that pivotal point at which the rate of psychological change does not yet match the rate of the physiological changes that are occurring, so whilst the body looks physically healthy to outsiders, the unseen elements of the eating disorder are stronger and more powerful than ever before.

I guess that makes sense though, right? Because suddenly, I have to take responsibility for feeding myself multiple times a day, despite eight years worth of rules and ritualistic compulsions consuming me every single time I try, and the long-standing belief that I am undeserving of our most basic need in life. Suddenly, I’m no longer able to express my fragility to the world, or signal that I require such delicate handling at times, without using my voice to reach out — something I have always struggled so hugely to do. Suddenly, I’m having to seek an alternative distraction from reality, and a less self-destructive method of avoiding the uncertainty and the unpredictability of life. Suddenly, I’m being forced to look beyond my narrow focus of nutritional intake and confront the actuality of what I have lost, and the consequent reality of what my life has now become. Suddenly, after never placing much importance on my physical appearance, just leaving the house, at times, is demanding every last ounce of my strength.

My body has expanded significantly — excess material no longer hanging from its harsh edges — and unremitting stress and the resumption of hormone production is causing my skin to break out like never before, and I just so desperately want to hide myself away from the world. Suddenly, those overwhelmingly painful emotions that have been numbed by starvation for so long are back in full force, and I’m having to learn how to endure them rather than retreat back to the only escape I know. Suddenly, I’m losing what has become my entire identity over the past eight years, and I just have no idea who I am anymore.

But let me tell you, if this whole process wasn’t insufferable enough to begin with, there is one single thing that adds a whole extra layer of anguish — the debilitating loneliness that descends upon you the day you walk out of that supportive hospital environment into a world in which everyone else has adapted to life without you around. See, having to desperately slide your way back into groups that have become accustomed to functioning without you is more of a challenge than you might expect, and brings about such excruciating feelings of abandonment and worthlessness — like you just don’t belong anywhere. You find yourself lying awake at night, desperately trying to work out how to fit in again, and wondering what it is you need to do to be included. Those people who were by your side through the weight loss and the protruding bones and the jaundiced skin and the vacant eyes and the hospital beds and the feeding tubes become distant when your physical health is no longer in immediate danger, reinstating those ever-existing thoughts that you must be a better person when you’re fading away to nothing, and that being smaller and weaker is the answer to people caring about you, including you and wanting to spend time with you.

Wouldn’t all of that make anybody want to run back to safety?

But someone once told me, in the midst of my distress, that all of this pain would one day teach me everything worth knowing, and only now am I beginning to see some truth in that. I so often look at the lives of others around me, and at everything their own experiences have enabled them to achieve over the past few years, and feel like my own has been stuck on pause. Like I have missed out on so many of those significant milestones that are a vital part of growing, leaving me trailing at the heels of others my age.

But let me tell you, in the midst of this affliction, I’ve encountered situations that have forced me to mature in ways many people have not yet experienced, and I’m continuing to uncover some of the most valuable life lessons along the way. I’m learning that, despite the overwhelming desperation for the distress and anguish to disappear, the most important thing we can do sometimes is to understand our pain, show it some compassion, and allow it to teach us a lesson rather than breaking us down. See, the more I’ve started to accept that, actually, my life might always have an element of just “getting through” each day, and functioning alongside some unwanted thoughts and feelings, the more I’ve started to appreciate even the smallest moments of contentment, as short and as rare as they may be at times. I truly do believe that only when you’re someone who is so well-educated in pain can you begin to fully comprehend the value of happiness, and that’s actually a very rare and precious thing that only a handful of people in this world will ever truly be able to appreciate. So, as relentless and as distressing as things can seem, we really must work on just allowing ourselves to feel however we feel, because I can promise you that pain itself doesn’t cause half as much suffering as resisting it does.

I’m learning that maybe I couldn’t be further from having everything together right now, but maybe that’s also kind of OK. There are some times in life when, actually, all we need is a shard of hope, an abundance of strength and perseverance, and just one or two people beside us along the way who love and believe in us. Because maybe, instead of attempting desperately to solve our whole lives right now, it’s about adding further meaningful things in along the way, just one by one, and allowing that pile of things to slowly grow. Rebuilding a fulfilling life is by no means a quick process — it takes a whole lot of time, patience and perseverance — but by adding these “good things” into our lives one by one, hopefully we can start to rebuild a life, from the bare foundations, that truly makes us happy. I’m no longer expecting the future to be perfect and entirely carefree, because in reality that is probably an unreasonable expectation after living a life dictated by such harsh rules and destructive thoughts for so long, but sometimes just the smallest and simplest of moments can come along and remind us why this is all so very worth it, and those are the precious moments that we must hold on to.

I’m learning that, occasionally, finding a brighter future can mean walking away from things that have consumed such a significant part of our past, which is undoubtedly one of the most painful and indescribably terrifying things we can ever do. After so many years of providing what appears to be such genuine comfort, safety and familiarity, we can become so blind to the destructive side of some things, so I guess it’s no wonder the idea of walking away can feel almost impossible, and bring so much fear and uncertainty. But maybe I’m not “stupid” or “weak” for trying so desperately to hold onto this illness, no matter how destructive and totally draining it is. Maybe I’m just a more sensitive person who feels connection on a deeper level, and who feels more intense fear about “letting go” because I feel I’m not worthy or capable of ever finding anything desirable to fill the void that is left over. But I’ve also learned that, sometimes in life, only in walking away can we truly open ourselves up to new beginnings, and to a future that unfolds in ways that build us up rather than breaking us down. A future that shows us that, just maybe, we are worthy of more than our past. Think about it — we can’t ever enter one room without leaving another behind completely, and we just never know how beautiful that next room might be until we step into it and turn on the light. Maybe it’s OK to be scared, and maybe it’s OK to feel hopeless and unsure and totally lost in the process, but do you know what is most likely going to stop us from achieving what we dream of having? Staying right where we are, and believing that what we have now is all we will ever have. Ultimately, life is about creating our own contentment, but before we can even begin to do that, we must believe we are worthy of it.

So, from this point onward, I just need to try. We all do — every single one of us. We don’t need to follow any timings or expectations. We don’t need to face each challenge thrown our way with instant ease and resilience. We don’t need to make it through every single day without showing anything other than a smile. We don’t need to be perfect; we just need to do the very best we can do in each and every moment, and just maybe that will truly be enough. See, sometimes in life, all we can do is have faith, have patience and show ourselves some kindness. The rest, as they say, will take care of itself.

Photo by Daniel H. Tong on Unsplash

Originally published: October 11, 2019
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