Tag Archive: Recovery from Eating Disorders


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I don’t really know who Lamott is, or where hope becomes important in her story, but once upon a time I copied this out and popped it in a back pocket where it remained until I fished it out some months ago.

I don’t have too much to say, except that to me, hope is one hell of a risk. It seems to require me to swim against the tide of mental reasoning and learning; perhaps in different seas altogether.

I admit, I find it exhausting. I think that I find it easier to throw my hands up in the air and quit, than to hang on to the cliff edge with torn up fingernails.  Funny that Hope is so often thought to be light, so feathery and fragile, so beautiful, so pure.  Stark contrast then, that the hope in me is a ripped, time worn, tear stained,  piece of paper pulled out of my old jeans’ pocket.

Hope is a risk. It might fail me. It might demand too much, grow too big, get too brave. It might start to grow secretly, against my own will…

… but if I don’t have any, my life will always look the same. The world will always look the same. My body will always feel the same.

Hope is a harbinger of change. Without it, we stop swimming altogether. The only alternative to swimming against the tide is to stand in stagnant pools, or to drown.

I don’t intend to do either.

Re the quotation that I carried round so long;  I’m still here in hospital (I showed up). I’m eating (trying to do the right thing).  I’m waiting and watching and working.

I’m just hoping to see the sun rise as I fight the tide.

I’ve been in an Eating Disorders unit for the past month or so… part of the reason for my silence here.

I got out a week ago and so I’m dipping my toe back into the Blogsphere….

Watch this space!

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

It was clear from an early age that I wasn’t ever going to make a scientist. Certainly, the most memorable things from my physics lessons involved throwing wet paper towels at each other, and the time when I fell off my stool because Leon Kavanagh pushed me too hard.

It’s really Mr Thomas that I blame for my ignorance on the topic of magnetic force. He had bad breath and liked to lean over your shoulder to illustrate his point. Awful as it is to conform to the stereotype of the bored teenager, surely it’s even more awful to conform to that of the fairly greasy, and very definitely sleazy, Physics teacher!  All this to excuse myself for what follows; a very unscientific reference to a very scientific process.

It’s possible that if you belong to a certain generation, you’ll have had one of those arched magnets lying around the garage. You know the ones… a U – shaped piece of metal coated, in part, with bright red plastic.bare magnet

I loved ours. My dad’s. As a kid, I’d be content to mess about with it, trying to get to that point where I could move the screws / nails without the magnet actually picking them up. You know THAT point? What was it that was SO satisfying about THAT point?!

Anyway. The magnet is something I often refer to when I’m attempting to explain something about the nature of Anorexia and, moreover, the PURPOSE that it serves. Because it does HAVE a purpose. And just because there may be no apparent reason why a person is dogged with this illness, doesn’t mean that it’s a completely random occurrence.

Although I am writing mainly about Anorexia Nervosa, sufferers with other eating disorders will identify with the fact that before they even had a hint of their illness, they were chronically anxious. In my own experience, I had suffered with almost crippling anxiety and panic attacks for many years before Anorexia hijacked my brain. I have heard so many other patients refer to their inability to manage everyday anxieties, stories of phobias, extreme panic, fear.

Whether it was recognised in childhood or not, I would hazard a guess that it is actually an anxiety disorder, generalised or specific, that underpins Anorexia.

And so, a sort of Anorexic blueprint, is born.

The child who is very frightened about being left alone to survive in the playground; the one who studies to be the best and so is the best and then lives in fear of not being able to keep being the best; the person at work who is held up as being exemplary, and is terrified of being ‘found out’ because he or she has no self belief and feels like a fraud. Anxiety. Anxiety. Anxiety.

You may be reading this and identifying the fact that this is something we ALL experience. Perhaps it is… but everybody manages their fears in different ways, and Anorexia, whilst still being a severe and enduring illness, often begins as a means for managing fear.

Imagine a tabletop covered in iron filings. Horrible little bits of grey, scattered all over  Try to scoop them up and they go everywhere…

Now imagine that each of the filings is a different ‘free floating’ fear.iron_filings copy

So many different things to cope with, too many. It’s all very out of control and you can’t rest because you’re in a constant state of hyper alertness; a state where heightened anxiety is natural because everything, EVERYTHING feels like a bit like a threat… a challenge… The filings don’t shift, if anything, they seem to multiply.

Anorexia is a magnet.

And it’s bigger than anyfilings drawn to magnetthing else.

And it’s really powerful.

Due to a force that I should at least have some understanding of (but don’t because I didn’t bother in my Physics lessons) the filings are immediately drawn to it as it hovers over the tabletop, sucking up every little shred of metal.

It’s what Anorexia does. All the individual anxieties stick to it…. fuse with it… until, one day, they don’t really exist any more and all that’s left is the illness. One giant entity. One focus. One fear.

That of never being able to be thin enough.

Simple?

Yeah. About as simple as physics.

The hardest thing is the terrible realisation that you’re not holding the magnet any more and that it, in itself, is far, FAR stronger than you; As if somehow, cruelly, the incorporation of all those little grey shards, has strengthened the force that then turns on the sufferer him/herself and begins to diminish them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

record-player2

… And we’ll all sing along like before…

Goes the song.

Irritating when your internal MP3 is stuck on the same track and no matter how hard you shake it, it won’t stop. Trying to get away from it is just about as effective as trying to go on holiday without your head. And don’t we all wish we could do that at certain times in our life. Take enough hallucinogens and maybe it’s possible, but they’re not exactly cost effective and the insurance you’d need to take out is ridiculous.

No.
No way around it but to play enough music to flush this one out of the system.
This particular musical ghosting is a song by Del Amitri (who for some unknown reason, I always confuse with Dire Straits). An especially depressing number, aptly named, ‘Nothing Ever Happens’.

I guess it’s the theme of repetition that lends the song to my worn out inner ears; and for good reason.
On Wednesday, I retrace my tracks to the very same unit I was in over Christmas.

Yep.
That’s right.
Wednesday will see me standing outside what is going to feel like Hell’s doors.
And to be clear, it’s not that nothing will have changed, because I have. My illness has. My thinking has. I’m not on exactly the same rung of the ladder as I was in December.
What is hard, is that it’s the same old hole. The same darkness. And, pretty much the same distance to the light. (So maybe I AM on the same rung…)

Hence, ‘we all sing along like before’.

Last time I came out  ran away because I couldn’t stand the increases in my diet. I left with a BMI of 15. Clearly not recovered in any sense really… Although it felt like it.

I want this to work… which means that I will have to work. Very hard.

It will be bearable, though it won’t feel it.
It won’t kill me, Ironically, it could save my life. But it won’t feel that way because the process of weight restoration will involve the slow death of a part of this illness, so it will feel like it.
In all the darkness, I must somehow manage to fix my eyes on a light I will not always see.

In order for recovery to take place, you have to believe that, just as there is always a sun and a moon, there is a new life beyond, and there is a different person behind, the illness / addiction.
The courage it takes to make this leap of faith is immense and for me personally, I don’t know if I can sustain it.

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.