1. It’s Not About the Food
The extreme anxiety at meal times and debilitating body insecurities are undeniably real and overwhelmingly consuming. But these are the symptoms of the problem, NOT the problem itself. An eating disorder is an emotional illness that manifests itself THROUGH the food but what’s going on underneath is the real problem. It took me nine years of living with one to work this out but now when I find myself obsessing, my immediate (or almost immediate) response is to stop and ask myself what it is I’m really getting worked up about and what the real feelings are… because it turns out that fat is not a feeling!
2. I am Separate From the Eating Disorder
Recognising the eating disorder as a separate entity entirely was baffling to begin with but doing so allowed me to disentangle myself from its sticky web. Having grown up with the illness, it truly felt like an integral part of who I was so turning my back on it felt like an awful betrayal. Doing so though was probably the most crucial part of my ongoing journey.
Because I’m such a visual learner (not to mention I love metaphors and analogies) it was particularly effective for me to personify the eating disorder. For some reason I see my eating disorder as a fish. Not a nice fish, like Nemo, but an angry snappy piranha type thing that only has my worst interest at heart. But like all eating disorders, he’s cunningly seductive and will put in every measure to convince me otherwise… and I still do find myself falling into his trap despite the awareness I’ve gained.
I have a notification on my phone that pops up every hour of every day reminding me that ‘The fish is not my friend!’ and this helps to keep me thinking straight.
3. The Serenity Prayer
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change”
Whether consciously or unconsciously, eating disorder behaviours serve as not only a coping mechanism but also a means to control. The problem of course, is that the control it does provide is:
A.) an illusion
I absolutely hate not knowing what’s happening tomorrow and the next day, who will be involved, where it will take place, when it will end, what will happen next… If I could plan everything out from now until forever I would! It seems so obvious now but I’ve finally come to terms with the simple fact that life doesn’t work like that. Accepting that unforeseen and unpredictable situations are going to arise whether I like it or not has sort of pushed me to relinquish the need for such extreme control.
These days I willingly hand it back to whatever force of nature it really lies with and to be honest it’s a relief! It’s cleared a lot headspace. Now that I’ve given up engaging in the past and orchestrating things to come, I’m actually able to appreciate and relish what’s going on right this moment in the here and now. Apparently this is mindfulness!
4. Even More Acceptance
Typical me, being the curious eager beaver and insatiably inquisitive person I am, when I finally decided I was serious about recovery, I was fully intent on doing it properly. (We perfectionists don’t do things by halves!) I was determined to grasp the ins and outs of my eating disorder, I wanted the psychology behind it, the why’s and how’s of every aspect of the illness and more importantly its recovery.
I was determined to pick apart my childhood traumas, mark every significant or insignificant moment that could possibly provide an explanation for something somewhere else, to join all the dots and solve the puzzle… convinced that once I’d collected and analysed all of my findings, it would be simple task of slotting it all together leaving me satisfied, fixed and free of the eating disorder.
But it turns out recovery doesn’t work like that. And apparently ‘normal’ / ‘well’ people don’t have it all figured out either?! I guess it’s easy to look at other people, see a successful exterior and assume they’re worry-free… whereas in reality everyone is facing struggles; we just cope in different ways (self-destructive or otherwise). My unrealistic goal for the perfect recovery is just another way the eating disorder worms its way in, attempting to deter my efforts and convince me that I’ll never get there. Today I’m giving myself credit on the progress I have made and focusing on making the right choices as they arise – an approach that’s proven so much less daunting.
5. Taking Care of Myself Doesn’t Make Me Selfish
Bottom line is: I have to come first. Having grown up in an environment where this was rarely the case, it’s always come naturally to me to put other people’s needs before my own. I like to think my best character trait is my instinct to care for others but recently I’ve realised that I also need to look after myself and in failing to do so, I’m actually no good to anybody. A major part of this was becoming confident in my decisions, believing that my voice was valid, learning to communicate more effectively and assert myself with conviction.
Another was gaining the confidence to say ‘no’ without having to justify or reason. And more importantly to actually stand my ground and follow through! I’m still working on this one.
6. The Only Opinion of Me That Matters Is My Own
I’ve always been intimidated by authority figures. I would become a stuttering mess on jelly legs in the presence of my head teacher (to be fair she was terrifying), manager, senior colleague, driving examiner, random police officer walking towards me… you name it, I’d be scared. And it all came down to the firm belief I held towards myself; that I was inferior. Not just in a lower position of power but that I was fundamentally flawed and worthless as a person.
My lack of self-esteem really did inhibit my growth and ability to welcome new opportunities. And I know many people suffer from this too. It’s ironic really that we’re all in the same boat and yet we all give greater credit to each other! What I’ve been able to appreciate in recovery is that we’re all just variations of the same thing; and that’s human. We may all be at different stages but who’s to say what the top is. And anyway, what if I don’t want a high flying career, several degrees and a multi-million property in London?! I’m able to say with zeal that I for one certainly don’t. The truth is, I’m not entirely sure what I want… and that’s okay!!
7. Scales Are For the Fish
Giving away the body analysing and smart scales that I became far too preoccupied with was a really difficult resolution to make, but it was absolutely necessary. Not knowing the facts and figures representative of my body is utterly terrifying, as is the agreement to undergo blind weigh-ins, but ultimately I’m aware that these choices are going to benefit me in the long run by cutting ties with the illness and the increasingly dangerous body objectives it promotes.
Regardless of how low that number goes, the eating disorder will NEVER be satisfied, and both meeting and failing to meet futile goals will inevitably result in being triggered one way or another. I’ve seen girls so severely underweight that their skins appears translucent and still they’re not satisfied with the number they see on the scales. Not only this, they no longer see past the illness at all. I have therefore made a vow to myself to never consciously weigh myself again.
8. Closing the Door on Damaging Relationships
“Every person is a new door to a different world”
This is one of my favourite quotes. While some people can be the most positive of portals, others can be detrimental to our wellbeing and happiness. The key to knowing the difference, I’ve found, is having the capacity to recognise the default patterns of behaviour and roles that I tend to fall into around certain people and how they often hold me back.
Being in touch with my emotions and knowing where they stem from also comes into it. If I feel like I’m denying any part of myself or that I’m trying to present a version of myself that I don’t feel comfortable with or connected to, it’s normally safe to say it isn’t a relationship I should commit to. And while challenging relationships can be a good test of patience and personal growth, I would say in early recovery it’s best to step away from anyone who might hinder progress, whether it be an unsupportive family member who can’t quite understand, or a friend who is also in recovery but whose behaviours can trigger the unwell voice that we’re working so hard to quieten.
9. Positive Affirmations
I have a wall in my bedroom dedicated purely to words of wisdom, inspiring quotes, happy little reminders for every occasion. Waking up every day to such an unavoidable canvas of optimism leaves little option but to start the day in an equally good mood. I get far too excited by adding to my collection on Pinterest! To quote another quote;
“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change”
This is so so true. The house is on fire… you could choose to think what a disaster this is and how you’re going to end up homeless… or you could alter your perspective and remind yourself that the furniture needed updating anyway and the pet cat was never very friendly. Or as a less extreme example, it’s raining and the sky is grey… but at least I get to wear my purple wellies!
10. Vision Boards
Essentially a montage of images that speak to you or represent something you’d like to see in the future. In Core group we talk a lot about who we are when we remove the eating disorder from the equation. At first I was very intimidated by this concept, convinced that without the fish in my head, there would be nothing left. The illness had been such a huge part of every aspect my life that I couldn’t imagine what I’d be like without it. (A part of me probably didn’t want to at that point either in all honesty). The idea of finding myself seemed like an impossible task, so again I decided to reframe this and instead use this as an opportunity to create a whole new me; rather than re-discover who I was or supposedly am.
I asked myself what I’d like to try, where I’d like to visit, who I’d like to be with, what my dream job would be, what makes me smile and what my life would look like if there were no limitations. What I ended up with was a compilation of surprisingly tangible goals that I felt motivated to work towards. I presented them on one big board and as instructed, hung it up on my wall (along with my affirmations!). Facing me as I get up each day are my aspirations of training as a nurse, falling in love, owning a little dog, taking up classes, volunteering for good causes, exploring new cities and lots more.
The power of subconscious reinforcement is incredible! After only a couple of months, I’m well on my way to ticking off each of my ambitions and I’m not afraid of adding more to the list because what I’ve worked out is that we’re all changing all the time, and it’s exciting!
I’m no recovery expert, neither am I eating disorder free but I feel that things are the best they’ve ever been for me and these are just some of the ways in which I got to be here. I know they won’t all apply to everyone or make sense at certain stages but I wanted to share these in the hope of inspiring anyone in need of a bit of encouragement because of how beneficial I’ve found other people’s input and experiences. My way of giving back. I really believe a positive mind can overcome anything!
With love from Laura x