Category: Choosing Recovery


You know “the grass is always greener…”?  It’s a common enough expression.

But when you think about it, it doesn’t make sense.

WHY green when it’s actually red?

The grass outside my window is no more green than Bob’s my uncle.

I can hear your confusion and I know what you’re thinking. You’re wondering where the hell this is going…  A puzzle. You’re frowning. Figuring out the point.

My point is this: that every time you look at that park, or that garden… you’re thinking that the grass is green. You’re SEEING it with your own eyes. ACTUALLY SEEING it.

So you believe it, right? You can see the grass is green so you believe it. Perhaps you’d even swear to it.

But you are, quite simply, wrong.

It’s not green.

You’re still frowning… or your lip has turned up slightly at the very edge…

What will it take to convince you that grass, as a natural product of this beautiful earth, is bright red ?

Stop and think. Just for a few seconds. What would it take?

Because that’s what everyone else sees.

Everyone else knows it’s red.

 

Have they just been agreeing with you?!

Going along with you… Not daring to challenge your view.

Nice one.

That’d be why you still believe it’s green.

 

I know and understand that you THINK this is madness. I know you SEE green… But it’s red.

FACT: Everyone else knows and sees red. You alone see it as that bright green colour.

red-grass-

Stay with me. I’m trying to make sense (despite all evidence to the contrary).

It can be argued that a certain degree of body dysmorphia is part of the human condition.

However, whilst for many of us the distortions in our perceptions are not significant enough to cause distress, it’s very difficult to gauge just how accurate our perceptions are, particularly when they involve our appearance. Hence, a person may grow up with a mole on their cheek and barely see it, whilst another with the same mark, may grow up feeling ACUTELY aware, paranoid even, that it’s all anybody notices. Certainly it may be all THEY themselves notice.

Although each case is different, Anorexia and Bulimia often incur constantly shifting distortions in the sufferers perceptions of their body. the extent of this may depend on the individual’s mood, the amount that they’ve had to drink, the whispering voice of their illness, or how full / empty they feel at any given moment. It doesn’t appear to matter whether the ill person is a  tortured artist or a brilliant scientist, the degree to which they are susceptible to absolutely absurd thoughts about food and the body’s relationship to it, remains the same.

For example, as a level headed and rational being, I know that I CAN’T be big in any way because the measurements, weights, body mass I am faced with are completely accurate. The ratio is too low for my body to be fat; too low for my body to be healthy.  The figures are scattered on the green grassy earth.

As a sufferer though, I look in the mirror and that grass is DEFINITELY RED. I can SEE it. DAMN IT! IT’S THERE IN FRONT OF MY EYES

AND YOU’RE STILLSTILL trying to tell me it’s green!

I’m fine! There’s nothing wrong with me! I look normal… healthy.

Some days, my arms look chubby… and my thighs often look massive towards the end of each day… but generally, I look perfectly normal.


Arguing with an Anorexic can be hugely upsetting, incredibly perplexing and downright frustrating. You see one thing, they see another.

Families in particular will suffer the agony of watching their loved one deny the truth; a blank refusal to hear the other side of the story. It’s painful to be stonewalled or to have your words hurled back at you. Few can identify with the desperation and helplessness experienced by screaming at a skeleton whose rock solid belief is that they are ‘fat’ or ‘fine’. Not everyone can trace the ridges of the bone along the clavicle of a loved one who refuses to eat because they think they’ve got plenty of fat still to lose.

My message is convoluted. It’s a poor attempt to somehow explain the complex illusion / delusion experienced by the victim of an Eating Disorder like Anorexia.

I know many, many women who dislike parts of their body, or at least, are dissatisfied with particular aspects of their appearance. When someone develops an ED, that dissatisfaction, becomes a rigidly held belief which apparently robs them of a realistic view of themselves. Much like joining an extremist party or cult, Anorexia transforms the mind in such a way that makes reasoning with them, impossible and unrealistic.

Hopeless as this sounds, my final message is to anyone who is having to watch a loved one starve .

Don’t give up.

It can be heartbreaking and it’s often a long, tiring path, but if there’s one thing that will help to save them, it’s a quiet, pervasive message that it’s the ILLNESS that’s lying to them and not the rest of you. If you’re met with a brick wall, don’t employ a bulldozer. You’ll flatten the person rather than the illness.

Remember the quiet echo of the drip that splashes against a stone surface. Gentle but unswerving,  the message will sink in, and though they may always see a tinge of red, at least they will accept that, mostly, grass is green

water on stone

spaghettiJust eat! It’s really that simple”

The well meaning eyes of family and friends cast along the frame of an ED sufferer; pupils travelling the ridges of the clavicle, the skeletal hands and down the birdlike legs.

Just say, I CAN do this

Just make up your mind that you’re GOING TO do it and then DO IT

Lots of ‘justs’. Lots of good suggestions. Lots of spilled frustrations.

So why isn’t it ‘that simple’?

Surely it’s not rocket science…

Well…. in actual fact, although it’s NOT about rockets, there is quite a lot of science involved; physiology to be precise.

When someone is well below a healthy weight, the list of psychological blocks to recovery may be a mile long. However, unbeknown to many, there are also many physiological reasons. Chemical and hormonal shifts in the brain that induce behaviours which can make it incredibly difficult to behave in a ‘normal’ way around food. Experts in the ED field will tell you that a full recovery isn’t possible until weight has been restored to the point where a patient’s BMI is between 20 and 25. In fact, many argue that it is ONLY when a patient reaches a safe, healthy weight (and so, BMI) that recovery can begin.

I agree.

One of the strongest pieces of supporting evidence we have for this idea comes from a ground breaking, wartime,  experiment into the effects of starvation, performed by Dr Ancel Keys.

In 1944, as war raged throughout the world, Keys recruited 36 young men (mostly conscientious objectors) all deemed to be at a peak of physical fitness and mentally / psychologically healthy.  Over a period of a year, he studied the behaviours and mind set of the men as he systematically cut their calorie intake and increased their levels of exercise . By the end of the ‘starvation phase’, the men had lost around a quarter of their body weight and their physical appearance was skeletal.

Photographs of the subjects reveal bodies not dissimilar to those who had suffered in concentration camps. Certainly, the men appeared to have been subject to a lifestyle which denied them of their most primal need; much like the self inflicted discipline exercised by those with Bulimia or Anorexia Nervosa.

For someone attempting to recover from an eating disorder, the most pertinent revelations of ‘The Minnesota Experiment’ lie in the fascinating changes in behaviour displayed by Keys’ subjects. Behaviours and attitudes practised in secret, cloaked in a horrible sense of shame, perhaps feared by the sufferer to be so ‘odd’, so far from ‘normal’ that nobody should ever find out… Behaviour that actually, The Minnesota Experiment, proved to be a direct result of the human body being starved and therefore, some way beyond the sufferer’s control.

Keys documents that the more the men starved, the more overwhelming was their obsession with food. Food became an absolute priority while the rest of the world, family, politics, opinions, religion etc, all faded into obscurity.  The men were restless, their minds unconsciously forcing their bodies to forage for food, allowing little sleep as the need for nutrition overrode all other basic needs.

Interestingly, all the men developed ‘abnormal’ eating patterns, becoming ritualistic, taking up to two hours to eat a meal, cutting food into tiny pieces,  mixing food with liquid to make more of it and hoarding food so they could take it back to their bunks and graze on it. Moreover, the thinner the men became, the less able they were to judge their size as being thin or underweight. A few of them even went so far as to express thoughts that others were too fat. Spot the quandary of an Anorexic.

There were many, many physical effects, most of which an Anorexic will experience as par for the course, but in order to explain why it’s so damn hard to ‘just eat’, I wanted to draw from the physiological findings of Keys’ experiment. The state of semi starvation, of extreme self denial, is in itself, a trap. Being below a healthy BMI produces its own set of barriers to eating, making the initial ‘pre recovery / weight restoration’ phase about as difficult as it could be.

It’s really not as simple as it might seem.

Certainly, during the period of re-feeding, the men ate happily (obviously not suffering from an ED) but my point is that whilst starving, the men underwent such changes to the chemical balances in the brain, that food became an absolute obsession and habits previously unheard of, became commonplace.

When an Anorexic tries to recover, they not only battle the mental blocks that the illness creates, they also have strange, unseen physiological blocks.

(Another terrible hidden suspicion of The Anorexic, that their appetites will become insatiable once they begin to refeed, is also borne out in Keys’ evidence, producing yet another barrier).

I could go on and on about this great study in starvation, but it’s all for another post. What I want to convey is that, despite all appearances, recovery is never as straightforward as ‘just eating’. Refeeding, within itself, is fraught with unconscious physiological blocks and hurdles.

For me, personally, despite this knowledge, and armed as I am, I still stand on the wire, looking at that vast expanse that is ‘no man’s land’, weighing up the risk, trying to see where the mines are set, where the searchlight falls.

It’s been ten years raging, this war.

gripping barbed wireI still want to fight…

…but the real enemy

lies in the woodland

on the horizon

I still need to make it to.

THAT’s the pathology of an eating disorder.

THAT’S the physiology of starvation.

… I’ve given up blogging… Anyone stumbling upon this site could be forgiven for thinking that this is just yet another open ended account of a person whose fingers stopped typing, whose mind stopped composing.  I come across them so often. Those who suddenly stop. Dead? Fulfilled? Too busy?

Anyway, as I say, to all intents and purposes, it looks as though I too have joined the unblogged.  The reasons are many but, irritated at the fact I feel something akin to guilt, I am deliberately choosing to keep them to myself. (As though THAT’S going to make a difference).

For anyone interested, what follows is an update.

After thirteen long, gruelling (yes, that is a pun on hospital food) weeks, I finally left the unit where I was an inpatient. In truth, my reasons for choosing discharge over a longer stay were driven by the Anorexia. A fact which I was very open about but also very upset and frustrated at.

The expected rate of weight gain was a minimum of 1 kilogram  per week. If this wasn’t achieved, the weekly ward round discussion invariably resulted in an ‘increment’ being added. In the language of the real world, it means that another 300ish calories were popped into your meal plan, so in addition to your 70g serving of breakfast cereal, you’d have 2 pieces of buttered toast in the mornings, or a pudding after your lunch, then another at dinner… All these options discussed, argued, wept over, refused over a patient’s admission.

My second time in this unit, I got as far as a second ‘increment’ and was defeated by the addition of puddings.

Many readers will scoff and shrug at this point, unable to comprehend the absurdity of the Anorexic dilemma. I get that. I too find it ridiculous that, in an underweight, malnourished state, I refuse to eat a small bowl of apple sponge and custard (though honestly, you could fill walls with the stuff) because I am terrified of what it will ‘DO’ to my weight… I’m scared that that bowl will be the thing that layers itself onto my thighs, adding inches, smears itself around my insides, pushing me outwards, thickening my stomach, disguising my waist.

It’s craziness.

“Not very PC!” cries the world of mental health.

“Not very empathic!” cry the sufferers

But it is. I insist. It is crazy. Which is why, like it or hate it, Anorexia Nervosa is a mental illness, not just a fad or a phase, not an addiction, not a lifestyle choice, not a decision taken by the vain. It’s completely mental. It’s a trick played in the mind of an otherwise very rational being. It almost borders on psychosis; the infliction of unreality, the blindness, the invasive thoughts and sensations.

Recovery though, that IS a decision. It’s one I made when I chose to go into hospital, despite my knowledge that I would have to face my worst nightmares. Despite the fact I would end up crawling on my floor, doubled up in an unspeakable and inexplicable agony.

I’m not saying I want a medal. I’m not boasting. On the contrary, when the going got too tough, I ran. But I’m home in a better state than when I left. What I forget every time though, is that the freedom that looks so appetising (pun-tastic here) from the confines of a prison, isn’t freedom at all. I remember now that the prison isn’t a locked hospital ward. It’s not twelve bedrooms down a squeaky corridor, or a cramped obs room where you sit in stillness til your time of rest is over. The prison is inside. It’s there when you’re ‘out’ as much as when you’re in. The difference is that the freedom you smelled on the inside, comes from not pla
ying by the rules you have to abide by when you’re in.

Fprison-bars-handsreedom for me, right now, is what I get when I skip a snack or skimp on a meal. Freedom is exhilarating, dizzying, confusing. It’s less calories than I had in hospital, less carbohydrate, less fat. And I feel great… in the moment…

But in an cruel, ironic twist, I’m still a prisoner. And it’s at the times when I most celebrate my freedom, that the walls move closer and the chains get tighter.

In my last post I think I may have explained that I was accepting a third round of inpatient treatment, which I hope will go some way towards explaining my temporary absence from the blogsphere.

It’s been four weeks.

Four weeks of a graded increase in food.

Four weeks of setting up my small bedroom and equipping it with things that will make it look less like a hospital and more like student digs.

Four weeks of adjusting my routine; of getting used to eating six times a day,  of sitting still in a crowded communal lounge for a total of four and a half hours each day, often subjected to death by American ‘comedy’ interspersed by the even more torturous Jeremy Kyle show and Hollyoaks.

Four weeks of sussing out the eight other patients; logging their individual idiosyncrasies… getting to know who experiences distress at the mention of the weekly menus,who cant touch anything after eating for extreme fear that there exists a phenomenon whereby calories can be transferred onto any object she touches.

Four weeks learning to tread carefully around topics others find ‘triggering’, learning who responds to a hug and who shrinks from it, leaving and receiving little notes of encouragement and kindness.

Four weeks of interacting with different staff nurses and health care assistants.

Four weeks of twice weekly ‘weigh ins’; the unavoidable moment of fear, where figures flutter round, and then pierce, the early morning brain fog.

Four weeks and I feel hopeless and despairing because the pain of weight gain, albeit gradual, feels increasingly frightening and I just don’t know if my courage can hold out for the long haul.

I’m not going to write about all the reasons why I was the least likely host site for Anorexia to burrow into. You’ll just have to trust me when I tell you that nobody could believe it, me included.

However, just ONE of the reasons why I am an unlikely candidate, is the fact that I have always been regarded as being “a block of sense”.

It’s true, I have suffered with lifelong anxiety, something which has only really been acknowledged in more recent years, but as a general rule, certain phobias aside, I really am an incredibly pragmatic, diplomatic, rational thinker.

I don’t mean that I can do all the lateral thinking puzzles that MENSA books torment people with. I don’t have an endless chain of resolved Rubik’s Cubes.  And I don’t sit down everyday to complete the Times Cryptic Crossword, just for kicks.2000px-Rubik's_cube.svg

No.

However, I DO have a high proportion of common sense and very level head.

I don’t mean to blow my own trumpet, and again, you’ll have to trust me when I say that arrogance isn’t something that has been a strong feature of mine, but at the end of a long chat last week, a struggling friend looked at me quizzically and asked, “how did you get to be so wise?”.

At the time I shrugged it off, but later I heard it echo and I wondered… How come I have all this wisdom, and yet, can’t apply it to myself. How is it that I can see lights in other people’s tunnels, yet my own is the darkest shade of black? How can I have such insight into the pain carried by others, while I stumble in blind circles? Why can I feel what they feel, but not what I feel? How is it that people are consistently impressed with my intellect, my ‘wisdom’, when all the while,  my Anorexia is behind the scenes calling the shots.

It was my friend’s question that spurred me to write this post, because I want to illustrate something of the devious nature of an Eating Disorder. I’ve heard it suggested that sufferers of this illness choose to be thin in a ‘supermodel wannabe’ sense; that it’s vanity. I’m here to set the record straight. On the contrary, my illness makes me uglier, far less attractive.

I’m writing to explain that I CAN’T EXPLAIN how it is that my rational mind understands that I can’t be fat. It sees the figures on the scales at weekly weigh-ins at the unit. It hears the calculation of my (stupidly low) Body Mass Index, and yet, the Anorexia wraps itself round it all, and perverts it, twists it and denies it.

Lots of people ask the question, ‘do Anorexic’s see themselves as ‘fat’? It’s a massive (no pun intended) concern for those seeking understanding.

I know I’m not fat. Many seasoned Anorexics KNOW this on some level. I do however, feel that I look ‘normal’. I don’t see ‘underweight’. I don’t EXPERIENCE ‘thinness’.

So, I’m shocked beyond belief at a picture my dad takes of me.Picture altered to make background less recognisable.

I can’t recognise the scrawny person in it. She can’t be me. surely?

This is what I want to purvey. This is what I want to educate people about, because I think it’s the hardest aspect for those who watch, to understand. A person may have an IQ higher than the year they were born, but their perception of themselves can be as skewed as the government data on employment. Even with this photo, and the fact that I’ve lost weight since. I still cannot compute that I really look like that.

Such is the complete distortion of an otherwise rational mind. It’s one thing to know something in your rational mind, it’s another to experience it as ‘being real’. In this sense, I make the (somewhat controversial) assertion that Anorexia has an element which is akin to psychosis. This is where the illness becomes a mental health problem, rather than a ‘state of mind’.

 

 

I know I’ve been quiet. A post is long over due…

It’s been so hard to discipline myself to write. My mind is like the end of a badly but piece of rope… I can’t seem to get all the fibres to line up enough to thread them through the nerves that make my fingers form the letters.

In recent weeks, I’ve talked to a number of people who have had little or no understanding of Anorexia. After each, I’ve sworn to write with the intention of educating people who are interested and want to gain an insight into what it might be like to live with the illness, and also to live next to it.

I am going to try to put a post together over the next few days so watch this space!

frayed-rope-1960x900_34210

It’s very, very difficult to describe the mental torment that can suddenly twist itself in and around the brain of someone suffering with an eating disorder. I’ve struggled to find the words.

You can perhaps imagine the immensity of my relief when I stumbled across a talk given by an American doctor called Laura Hill. I was searching through TED, looking for interesting talks. when I first heard her. I was amazed when she began to describe ‘the noise’ in MY head, when I am faced with choices about food. I had that overwhelming sense of awe and relief and terror that you get when somebody describes your innermost, thus far unarticulated, maybe even unformed, thought traces… You know the one, right? That whole ‘strumming my pain with his fingers, singing my life with his words’ thing?

What she proceeded to do blew a hole right through me.

She had a tape recording of what she called ‘the noise’. The noise experienced / heard by an Anorexic whenever they have to think about selecting food from a menu, a supermarket shelf, a fridge, freezer, list or lunch bar. She played this raw cacophony of voices, a medley of ordinary conversation, accusatory interjections and deeper inner ‘voices’ commanding, bargaining, questioning.  Listening to it, I feel as though she has somehow wired up my brain and translated every thought, every voice, every snippet of inaudible agony, into words and sentences. It’s the chaos of the calories, the constant mathematical equations, ratios, percentages that need to be calculated in order to work out how much energy is allowed, or NOT allowed. The numbers that fly in and out, unable to find a carpet of reason on which to rest, the foods that fall into the red, the orange and the green zones of safe and unsafe foods; the protein, the fat, the carbs, the fruits; whether I’ve been more active or more sedentary; the form the food takes…. All these factors dart like pinballs across the Anorexic’s mind, making a noise that you could drown in.

It’s noise of the kind that you might expect in the psychotic mind. Noise that, for me,  doesn’t stop unless I make the decision to abstain.

And then

silence

complete peace.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m0M-lbItSqk

I tried to put together a video using Dr Hill’s sound clip. It’s not brilliant. I’ve never done it before… But it might make someone else feel understood… or give a little insight into what is happening in the mind of a loved one as they try to pick a snack, or a meal.

It might help somebody understand why it is so very difficult to recover. It’s not just as simple as ‘eat’, because just thinking about eating invokes the noise.

What I have tried to do is to argue with this noise, shout back at it, reason with it… But this is rarely helpful and I have often resolved to skip the food in the desperate rush to close down the clamour.

What I am now trying to do, is to allow the noise to exist without giving in to it. Allowing it to happen but still allowing nourishment of some kind. I hope that the practise of this will eventually afford me a ‘quieter noise’, a lower volume if not complete peace. One day, perhaps they’ll research this illness more and find a drug which will block out the noise and the panic, but for now, I will continue to work towards recovery despite the noise.

Does anybody else identify with this? If so, what helps you and how do you deal with it?

If your default state of mind involves a relentless drive towards perfection.Rebel

If the eye flinching, wincing, mincing voice of piercing criticism carries through veins and synapses

If your head is bent and darkened by the brightness of those around you

If you cannot bear the bird that longs to nestle in your palm, for fear that it will turn and peck your sockets hollow

If your thoughts are spurs and feelings, whips that lash your saddened soul

and your mind set is a thirst that’s only quenched by a glass half full

then hear the call and heed it

Rebel against your own state of mind.

“Rebel against your own state of mind…”

The background noise penetrates my concentrated, musical rhythm of ‘knit one, knit one below, knit one, knit one below’…

A glance at the TV brings an advert into sharp focus; a sleek grey car wheeling across a dramatic rural landscape. It seems obvious that it was a car ad but really, it might just asRebel well be the Scottish tourist board (or another bloody Party Political broadcast – Please no more!)

It’s not important. What matters is the fact that I’m having to count my stitches again because one sentence has lodged itself in my mind. It’s vying for my attention, playing on a continuous loop which forces me to stop counting and think properly about how this one sentence resonates deep within me, and how relevant it is in the context of my recovery and, perhaps, recovery in general.

My state of mind is founded on a determination to recover.

But it’s complicated.

‘Complicated’ because I swing between an absolute conviction that I WILL beat Anorexia and that I CAN and AM; and the absolute desperation that highlights the impossibility of it all, the futility of trying and the agony of succeeding at weight gain. (Yes, the presence of absolutes is noted).

The twisted paradoxes that lie like fatal, open jaws, are manifold and make the journey towards recovery all the more perilous for those who crawl along the path.

I want to eat, but I don’t want to gain weight.

I want to gain weight, but I can’t let myself eat.

I pick up my food, but I can’t put it in my mouth.

I drool over supper that I scrape off my plate

I eat all my meals, but I can’t keep them in

I cut off my nose…

Irony after irony. Stacked up, an impossible pylon to climb up or climb down.

I’m losing my thread (which won’t come as as surprise). The point is, in order to recover, I have to rebel against my state of mind.

Anorexia has become a default setting, a default state of mind. It is no longer possible for me to remember when I didn’t much care what I ate, when life wasn’t just about food, or no food. Even when I am absolutely convinced that I am going to crack it, determined that I can do it, the resolve can evaporate before I can pull the top off the yoghurt.

Rebel against your state of mind.

This six word commands a practise that might help in the battle towards restoring some of the balance that the eating disorder has stolen. Rebelling against your state of mind means a battle, a defiance, a disobedience.

Making peace with my state of mind will be about as successful as Chamberlain’s approach to Hitler. Appeasement is not an option.

I realise this post is a slightly bizarre conglomerate of thoughts and metaphor. Out of the habit of writing, I am at once struck by how much Iies unexpressed, and how tangled and tangential, my thoughts.

A peacemaker would beg forgiveness but in a spirit of rebellion, I post this anyway and pretend I don’t care.

… As Miranda’s mother says. (For those who don’t know, this refers to an uncomfortably comedic British comedienne’s show, ‘Miranda’)

I’ve taken a bit of time away from the blogsphere. Mainly because being an inpatient isn’t particularly conducive to writing. Then again, having an illness like Anorexia seems to make it nigh on impossible so, either way, I hope it explains the rather large gap between posts.

I’m out of hospital now. Not “better” in the stand-alone sense…. but “better than”…2013-08-12 08.34.49

Recovery is hard work. When I was in hospital, I longed for freedom.

Now I’m out, I realise that I’m still imprisoned.

BUT

I still have hope perched in my soul.

I can take up arms again now my arms are strong enough to carry them.

I want to thank readers who have been kind enough to message me and mail me. I have been so touched by your concern. Many thanks for all your thoughts and prayers. They have helped me stand when I have been all but bent double.