Climbing the mountain in my mind to see who I can be (without an eating disorder)

I stand at the kitchen bench and look at the dishes to wash. I see the shopping list out of the corner of my eye. I know that piles of washing are waiting to be folded. Instead of starting to do any of these mundane yet necessary tasks, I turn to the backdoor. With the house empty of children, husband, and pets, for a precious moment, I feel the pull of freedom.

Perhaps I am finally going crazy or perhaps a fog is blurring my vision, but now that I’m out of the house, and in the yard, clarity hits. Gone is the long grass that needs mowing, the dog poop that nobody wants to pick up, the pool that nobody wants to clean, and the scattering of abandoned toys, flippers and towels laying around.

Today, I see a mountain. Not a small mound created by my husband’s latest unfinished home do-it-yourself home task of moving dirt from one place to another. A real, larger than life, personal Mount Everest is standing in front of me.

Frankly, I have had a bitch of a day. No, let me try that again. I have had a bitch of a month. Therapy got tough so I decided to return to paid employment. Work fills my days and keeps me busy. The belief is that work makes the emotional pain easier to handle (not). I am not a quitter. No. Just because therapy got tough, I have not quit therapy; I just added work as another layer.

Five minutes of solitude can work wonders in seeing what must be done

With work tomorrow, I am determined to enjoy this quiet five minutes.

Having recently returned to work after an eight-month break, I am committed to my recovery from an eating disorder. Healing and self-development remain a priority despite my return to the workplace. As a workaholic who, for years, has used an eating disorder to cope with life’s challenges, and who literally burnt out and quit her previous job, saying “Fuck the world”, this is no small decision.

Two days into my new job, I got COVID-19. Not the asymptomatic version. The knock down, can’t roll over in bed, no taste for weeks, please-let-me-die variety that has become “long COVID” (I told my new employer that a pen would have sufficed as a welcome gift) that has left me more depleted than when I started my initial leave.

Eight months off work was not enough time to fully recover, emotionally and physically, from the damage that has affected my mind and my body for decades but once the employment train started, the ego attached to being wanted and sought after was too hard to resist. My mind started playing with me, “What if no one ever offers me another job”, “We will have to sell the house”, “The children will end up having to leave their school” and “I don’t want to be told if I can afford to buy the shoes I like”. So here I am again, pushing myself, determined to do it all.

In this five minute of peace, I hear my therapists’ warning, reminding me that no matter how hard I try, no matter how creative I get, if I don’t start applying the therapy in everyday life, nothing will change for me.

Self-care and self-compassion – these words frustrate me

Buzz words of the 21st century, “self-care and self-compassion”, shriek like alarm bells in my head. No matter how much time I devote to personal development, to change how I think or professing I need a better life, these words are the most frustrating.

Every time I hear “self-care and compassion”, I imagine needles being poked into my eyeballs or grasping a hot iron in both hands to distract myself from the pain of the conversation.

I give 150 per cent to everything I do. Life is busy and full of potholes, so I try to make sure I get everything perfect, just right, to ensure others around me are as settled as they can be.

Despite taking time off work to rest, to eat, to reset, I admit I still don’t know how to be gentle, loving, or compassionate towards myself. Like, I awoke this morning and tried to take these five minutes and instead find a real, larger than life, personal Mount Everest staring at me.

This mountain is somewhat mocking, as if saying, “There is no way you will make it to the peak, not today, not tomorrow, not ever.”

I know that listening to such mockery is taking me around the same loop in my head. Instead of shutting the thoughts down I will spend the next six months in therapy, trying to understand what I am so desperate for, and trying to locate what it is that can be found only at the peak of the mountain.

I will endlessly obsess over body size, bra size and waist size, being mindful that one wrong bite, one chocolate, or one glass of wine will lead to a larger size than I can manage, and I will ignore my need to climb Mount Everest, as I have been doing for many years, by going around it, under it, or ignoring it.

Am I an overachiever,  underachiever or “who-gives-a-fuck-achiever”?

I am old enough, smart enough and ugly enough to work out there are three types of people. There are the overachievers, the underachievers and those “who-gives-a-fuck-achievers”.

Most of my life I’ve been convinced I fall firmly into the underachiever category. At school, I was not smart, I stopped trying and I wasn’t extra good at anything. My sister was the golden child and I stepped out of the way.

Throughout life, I have proven to be overall convincingly average. I have not created worldwide change, I have not established a start-up company, I don’t meditate each day, nor do I donate my time or money to homeless shelters, flood disasters sites or global hunger programs.

Somewhere, it seems, I accepted “average” as enough and never questioned my desire for more. Yet as I pushed myself, as I became more unwell, without knowing, I took the slippery path from underachiever into overachiever. Somewhere along the way, I decided to be the overachiever of underachievers (beat that).

Believing I was an underachiever, while actually being an overachiever, has led to me beating myself up for being pathetic and hopeless. Never managing to get anything right, never being enough, never trying hard enough, never knowing how or what I need to be achieving, to begin on the path to try. While I have felt like an underachiever, I have been the best at being unwell, a state that is hard, too hard, to sustain. With more eating disorder and mood unit visits than I can count, two Intensive Care Unit (ICU) stays and a 15-year career that screwed me over, I cannot maintain the pace of an overachiever with regard to my health.

My eyes remain fixed on that mountain

As this idea germinates in my mind, I wonder whether to hang out the washing, do the shopping, wash the dishes, or catch up on office work before my therapy session. But I can’t take my eyes off the bloody Mount Everest in my yard.

I must decide whether to keep pushing myself in my average life, convinced I am hopeless and have no choice, or to start thinking like a who-gives-a-fuck-achiever. If I choose to change, I will be smart enough to know that what other people think of me, is none of my business and that everyone around me is so busy thinking about themselves, they are not wasting a moment thinking about me.

The words I keep avoiding, like “self-care, love and compassion”, are becoming an angst that rises between living and driving myself mad. Again, my bloody therapist has a lot to answer for as I hear her voice again (I want to ask for a refund but knowing her, she would tell me I owe her double as she is speaking to me outside of hours, even if it’s just in my head).

I can agonise about body size, bra size and waist size or the wrong bite, the chocolate, or the glass of wine, or I can ignore my need to climb the Mount Everest that is now sitting at my back door but either way, I have nothing to prove to anyone anymore. I have an itch I can’t scratch, and I have not been able to find it.

This argument I am having, it is so big the bloody mountain is entering my home, clear as day. I can’t ignore it anymore; I can’t walk around poking needles in my eyes or going to sleep and hoping it will be gone in the morning. It is here, staring at me, mocking, as if to say, “There is no way you will make it to the peak”, not today, not tomorrow, not ever.”

Now I can see it, I need to be well enough to climb it. To do so requires reassessment of many things (not just if I must wash, work or shop for food, frankly I could not give a shit about that).

I realise that who-gives-a-fuck-achievers are the smart ones and perhaps it’s time to strive to be one of those.

I must conquer this personal Everest to learn who I can be

I cannot ignore my personal Mount Everest. The need to climb to the peak is not driven by pleasure. I will not climb for challenge (my life has had enough of that).

I must do this climb to discover what waits on the other side. To see who I can be.

There is no “around”, there is no “ignore”, there is no “deny”. I must conquer this Everest. I might reach the top and fall off. There are risks but, damn it, I must try.

About Karen Louise

As a mother of four children, I have, until recently worked full time in a high-profile job. As a high functioning professional and mother with a diagnosis of a severe and enduring eating disorder, life has continued to throw many challenges my way. Now, at a crossroad in my life, I want to live authentically, with purpose. Writing allows me to give voice to the battles that lie within.

As I continue working towards recovery, I am faced with the reality that nothing changes if nothing changes.

I hope my skills and hard-won experience will help me move in a direction of eating disorder and trauma recovery and allow me to create change, in not only myself, but also in eating disorder advocacy and eating disorder education.

All articles by Karen Louise

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