Part 1 of 2 I have been a fourteen to seventeen old anorexic. I remember having too much pain in the present to think much about any future, a confident despair that told me nothing but distraction would break the grip of physical weakness and fear, and that only for a few hours. I did not believe in any suggested motivations to recover. Now, in my mid-fifties, I have relapsed. My underlying health is broken and hope is much harder to come by. I don’t know what recovery might bring. The rewards will likely be less and the journey no easier.
My going forth into #EatingDisorders recovery in my late teens was a very different journey than the release Isaiah describes. It began not in joy and peace, but from shame and grief when I could not donate blood platelets a close friend needed to prolong her life. Cognitive behavioral therapy with a sensible psychologist laid the groundwork and helped me make recovery a reality.
Recovery itself challenged my body and spirit. Judging from the reactions of my parents, it was a stress on my family as well. When I was weak from malnutrition and running interference for my eating disorder, much of my energy went toward distracting and pacifying parents. I spent hours drilling myself into good grades and scores on standardized tests. My room was neat, I wore clothes my parents liked, and prioritized family events. When I did act out, the underlying need could be dismissed as part of my illness. In recovery, suppressed emotions burst out sometimes from a direct cause and sometimes randomly after being ignored too long. I even had tantrums until the worst rebound was over. I had the energy for a full social life with peers. I was no longer convenient and predictable.
Then there was the matter of eating and weight gain. I began gaining weight on Christmas cookies and well-buttered bread. One family member, annoyed that I was having all this treat food after causing such trouble, told me plain bread and salads was a better plan. Carnation instant breakfast in milk was a good weight gain strategy not because I liked it (I didn’t) but because as I gained weight thought I could change to skim milk.
In college, freedom to eat without censure, a physical need for enough reserves to convince my body it was safe to use energy on repairs, and a lower nutrient to calorie ratio than home cooking led to more weight gain. The year I began menstruating again a family member advised smoking to keep from gaining too much weight. Under pressure to restrict at home on breaks I did, and my weight fluctuated annually between the upper and lower limits of a healthy range. In the summer, dessert was off-limits except for family-defined special occasions, and even then how much I ate was subject to scrutiny and commentary. A packed lunch of two packaged toast pieces, ten raw peanuts, and three dried apricot pieces brought the comment that I was losing college weight, “without doing anything crazy”.
Recovery was physically difficult as well. Weight came on unevenly; for the first half-year maternity clothes would have been a good idea. Dresses were easiest, jeans essential but difficult, and skirts impossible. My feet and legs were no longer used to energetic movement and carrying a normal-weight body; I had foot pain so severe I could only walk in padded boots. I had to rediscover bras that fit. When menstruation resumed, it was heavy and unpredictable enough that I could not always manage it gracefully. Going forth from anorexia did bring joy, but at the cost of peace.
Please, you who are in the cold peace of suppressed emotions and a dying body, do not let this make you afraid. Recovery side-effects pass. During recovery I did manage to stay in school and earn diploma. I went on to a joyful career in teaching, marriage, volunteering, and mothering two children. I hiked, visited cities and museums, enjoyed books and music, and eating, as well as other activities, with friends. I studied a martial art.
Recovery does not mean the end to all problems, even physical ones. I developed celiac disease and irritable bowl syndrome, making some measure of restriction in eating necessary and pushing my weight to the lower limit for physical health. Osteoporosis and arthritis do run in my family, but I have a more severe case of the first than my mother and grandmothers did. I have healed from a fractured pelvis and fractured hip, but still need to do daily exercises to preserve mobility. My liver function is not good and I have low blood sugar. Two bouts of pneumonia meant an interruption of eating and I never did resume anything close to sufficient calorie intake, so I am again underweight enough to directly cause physical and emotional problems.
At this point, recovery seems much more of a gamble,