Climbing the mountain to freedom of self: I had to believe I deserved better

Developing a healthy, happy and intimate relationship with myself, let alone someone else, was a challenge when healing from my eating disorder. For many years my pattern was to avoid self-love and to push away people who wanted to love and care for me. Such attention was foreign and made me feel uneasy and suffocated. Instead, I lived on the periphery of mainstream life and was drawn to relationships with people who appeared charismatic and exciting, and had a sad story to tell, but whose traits colluded with those of my eating disorder.

During the process of disconnecting from my eating disorder and reconnecting with my true self, this behavior seemed to externalize the chaos and camouflage the disconnect and emptiness of true self raging within. My psychiatrist kept saying, “keep trying, all this means is that this relationship/situation is not right for you.” The learning curve, in connecting with my emotions and authentic self, was long and winding. My eating disorder already had caused many disruptions, including the loss of my marriage and of being alienated from my parents and sister. Coming to terms with these losses in a way that allowed me to heal, reintegrate my fragmented self, and move forward required developing skills to function positively, without feeling drawn to self-harm as a way of coping with unpleasant or painful emotion.

A shard in my soul

Feelings of anxiety and fear had been part of daily life for so long I did not know how to live without them. They ran deep; sharp; like a shard in my soul. The eating disorder had been my body’s way of trying to survive and suppress these debilitating painful emotions, which sadly had seeded in my early family environment.

Recovery involved learning to manage my fear and anxiety in more healthy ways. I cope today by focusing on self-love, on cultivating my writing passion and on connecting with like-minded others. Daily self-care includes talking with family and friends and going for walks, for nature is a great nurturer.

Initially, on the healing path, my mind raced with competing thoughts – could I live without the feeling of emptiness? What did I need to do?

My challenge has been to climb upwards and beyond the negative force that was the bane of my life, and replace it with a healthy force.

Like many other people who have had an eating disorder for a long time, I required much patient and gentle persuasion to understand and accept that I did not “have to settle” (i.e., based on some sort of intrinsic deficit or inadequacy) on a relationship with myself, or with others, that was lacking in support, understanding and compassion.

Mapping the path

My complex, emotional, and sometimes exhausting set of situations was summed up by the:

  • certainty that unhealthy living/being–including self-abuse or abuse by others–was not good for me or anyone, including my beloved family; and
  • certainty that to do nothing would ensure the future, and any growth/potential, would be characterized by uncertainty.

Climbing the mountain to freedom of self required acceptance that:

  • the “force” (long-standing tendency to be anxious and fearful) could be nullified and replaced with a healthy force, and there would be no chance for a different outcome if I didn’t take the unpleasant, even frightening, risk to find out.
  • I deserved the opportunity to live safely, securely, and in emotional stability, in a way that would allow me to move beyond deep-set fear and anxiety.

Pushing through the wall of fear

Longstanding feelings of unworthiness and vulnerability had increased susceptibility to exploitation in relationship and work environments. I tended to feel for the “under dog,” having experienced this myself.

I had to believe that just because things had been awry and difficult, due to feelings of inadequacy or deficit, I did not have to accept that this was my station or lot in life. I had to believe I deserved better, and was worthy of the respect afforded to a “top dog.” I could raise myself up the mountain, by opening myself to the challenge of experiencing, seeking and accepting better.

Letting go of, and avoiding, triggering and negative people was a vital step.

There was no guarantee that I could replace the negative longstanding tendency with a positive, but I would never know if I could push through this wall of fear and climb beyond it in self-growth unless I tried to do so.

Avoidance of “toxic” relationships required developing self-awareness, acceptance and respect, and learning to practice detachment, to avoid entanglement in intimate liaisons and situations that were not in my best interests.

Reaching out saved my life

I remained stuck in the eating disorder “bubble” for years. I wanted to escape, but did not know how. Reaching out and asking for help took courage, and saved my life. The reintegration with self required first and foremost, re-nourishment of my body, and secondly, of my mind-in-connection-to-self-and-to-others, so that reintegration could start taking place.

The U-turn is documented in my diary. For instance, the pages record the making of lists, positive instead of negative, to strengthen self-awareness. “ED” fought to keep me prisoner and there were many slips, but perseverance in learning distraction and diversionary skills helped me to climb the path to freedom.

The lists revealed promising intention, but putting them into action did not come naturally or easily. ED had been “central driver” of thoughts and behaviors for most of my life, so every self-love activity was laced with guilt. I could see what I needed to do to be “me,” but could not yet feel or relate to it. In many ways, I had to start over in learning how to live. To heal, authentic behaviors and thought patterns for daily living had to be restored, and sometimes manually and consciously re-learnt. Only then could I travel a self-driven path.

A therapist who listens

An understanding therapist who looked beyond the physical symptoms of the eating disorder symptoms was vital:

Our problem is there are too few good specialists and, as long as we keep banging on about BMI and “criteria,” we are in danger of losing sight of this illness being more than about weight. Just open up any journal kept by an ED sufferer and here you will see the stages that occur when the obsessionality of symptoms moves towards the interpersonal struggles. It’s all there!

– Renee*

The diary can be a self-help power tool

Using your diary to record your thoughts and feelings can help previously unseen patterns to emerge and those that are dysfunctional can become obvious.

The clues are derived from data that you collect. In essence, self-monitoring is an important mechanism of empowerment and insight, and so is central to recovery.  

– Alison*

Above all, never give up on your quest to be true to your authentic self, first and foremost. I find that through ongoing nurturing of my connection between mind and body, everything else, including peace, contentment, happiness, and initiate relationships, with self and others, flows from this. After years of being lost in an eating disorder, this revelation and outcome is priceless.

It is sad to see how eating disorders rob amazing people of their sparkle and vivaciousness – and have unbelievable costs for relationships, health, happiness and careers. What gives me hope is that we know it is possible to provide early intervention and to help people recover.

– Megan*

Indeed, with the right help and much courage, it is possible to recover at every age.

For more on this topic, see The Diary Healer

*Quotations are from participants in The Diary Healer.

Recommendations for further reading:

Anorexia Nervosa – A Recovery Guide for Sufferers, Families and Friends

Getting Better Bite by Bite – A survival kit for sufferers of bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorders

June Alexander

About June Alexander

I have written nine books about eating disorders since my recovery (my “reconnection with true self”) from anorexia nervosa and other long term mental health challenges in 2006. In 2017, I graduated as a Doctor of Philosophy (Creative Writing). My contribution to the eating disorder field was recognised at the 2016 Academy for Eating Disorders International Conference in San Francisco where I was awarded the Meehan/Hartley Award for Public Service and Advocacy. I am currently a co-chair of the NEDC Steering Committee Evidence of Experience Group, a foundation steering committee member of the annual World Eating Disorders Action Day, and an Advisory Panel member for F.E.A.S.T.

All articles by June Alexander

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