How anorexia strikes fear into food and causes life to crumble
When anorexia nervosa (AN) dominated my mind, I behaved in some really crazy and sometimes dangerous ways. I would not dream of behaving like that today, because AN no longer bullies or manipulates my thoughts. But during my most vulnerable moments, I lived life on the edge. Even a cookie could spark a traumatic event.
Living precariously was preferable to facing the gaping dark hole within my self. I managed to stay clear of law enforcement authorities, but doctors would look at me in despair and say, “But June, you are intelligent, you have everything in life going for you (loyal husband, four beautiful children, rewarding career…), can’t you see ….”
No, I could not see, and even if I could, I would not have the strength to ignore the constant messaging drummed out by the eating disorder (ED) that I was worthless and weak. As for my parents and sister – they did not understand me at all. They described my behaviour as irresponsible and embarrassing, and labelled me “a problem.” We drifted apart until there was no coming back. To lose a family is very sad, and this is what drives me to share my story today, because it does not have to be this way.
Life is about rhythms and being in tune with self and others. But when an ED or other traumatic event occurs, and we become so overwhelmed we are unable to cope, we can become disconnected from our healthy rhythm and relationships. Forget the cookie; my life was crumbling.
Mental illness, not me, was the problem
Anorexia led to the loss of my family of origin. I also lost my marriage, and almost lost me. Trauma comes in many forms. It can comprise a personal experience of sexual abuse, physical abuse, severe neglect, loss, accidents, and disasters. We don’t all respond in the same way. Some people may be resilient and not be affected in the long term. Depending on support provided at the time, they may sail on, while our own response may lock us in fear, horror, and helplessness. This does not mean that we are weak and others are strong. It means we are all different.
The point about extreme stress is that it overwhelms our capacity to cope. For years I did not know which way to turn, I over-analysed and was anxious about making any decision. I thought I was a failure for not coping; I did not know that mental illness, not me, was the problem. Only in my late 20s, when experiencing suicidal ideation, did my love for my four young children drive me to share my fears with a doctor. Four difficult years passed while searching for a health professional who could see the tiny part of healthy me beyond the illness, and who gained my trust.
The ED had almost completely zapped my identity. To survive and recover, I needed a rebuild. I had to learn to recognise anorexic thoughts, delete them, and replace them with new, healthy-self thoughts. My diary became a practice ground for this. As we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change. With anorexia nervosa, thinking can be very black and white; it can become extremist. By developing my healthy self, a filter of some much-needed grey was introduced and I gradually reclaimed my life. Along the way, I had a lot of rebuilding, grieving, and healing, to do.
When a cookie is not a treat
A cookie, even a small one, can be incredibly scary when anorexia develops. At the age of 11, I refused a cookie on a social visit with my mother to the home of an elderly neighbour. My mother was mortified at my rudeness; she did not understand that I was terrified. My mind was screaming: If you eat that cookie, you will have to run for an extra hour. Guilt was extreme. Sixty years on, that outing remains etched in my mind. My unexplained fear; my shame at refusing the neighbour’s kindness; my mother’s anger that she vented as soon as we left for home; my loneliness at being misunderstood and nobody to talk to, nowhere to turn – except inwards, where the budding AN was rapidly embedding and strengthening itself in my brain.
Such thinking over time becomes entrenched and interferes with normal development and normal, everyday behaviour can become difficult to handle. When we are misunderstood, we withdraw and our illness voice grows stronger. Interpersonal relationships suffer. Emotional states can become too intense to handle and this is reinforced by helplessness and a need for control. In my struggle to survive I resorted to ED’s faulty control methods such as over-control, self-blame, passivity, addictive behaviour, and self- harm. For 44 years, this was my life.
Our brain is amazing
In recovery, I began catching up on life but relationships with close others – my parents, sister, and husband — remained impaired and, in some instances, were beyond repair. When misunderstood, it is easy to become a doormat of family, of society; it is easy to stay that way; our prisons are evidence of this. I could easily have gone that way. Sanity or insanity – often it was a fine line.
Of the faulty control methods, calorie counting was my main default option. Letting go of AN’s “gear sticks for getting through each day” was frightening. What would I replace them with?
Even when able to acknowledge and accept that my coping strategies were hopeless and doomed to fail, that they would increase rather than lessen my anxiety, I kept using them. Anorexia had overtaken my own will long ago. I had to build up self-trust and trust in others to gain sufficient courage to identify and ignore entrenched eating disorder behaviours. I had to do this to regain me. With guidance from my treatment team, and love and encouragement from my children and their dad, and my friends, and lots of writing in my diary, I did it! Today I can eat the cookie! With pleasure! No fear! No guilt! Our brain is amazing. It can re-circuit itself. Essentially, NEVER GIVE UP.
Repeat that. NEVER GIVE UP. Reach out for help today.