How do you go from this…
… to this…
… and survive the kinds of words and thoughts that may even be going through your own mind (don’t feel bad, we’re all conditioned to judge) as you look at those photos?
That was the central question that dominated the recovery phase of my eating disorder. How can I stand not only the horrible attitudes and comments that support my eating disorder from others, but way more so, the ones that come from my own mind?
The two photos above document so much about eating disorders that demonstrate not what is wrong with eating disorders, but what is wrong with us – with people, with the culture that continues to glorify them even as we create token campaign after token campaign of how much we DON’T glorify them (yeah fucking right). Even when I was almost too weak to stand, pale and near fainting with malnutrition, I was forever getting compliments on my physique. One girl I knew said she was getting compliments right up to the day she checked into a hospital.
There is nothing wrong with the bottom picture, except that it could never be used to sell anything. There is everything wrong with the top picture. The top picture represents someone (according to the young woman herself, Mischa Barton) drowning in the midst of a mental health crisis. The bottom picture is a normal human female leaving a store with a beverage. Except suddenly, when you put it next to the top picture, it isn’t just that is it? It’s failure. It’s worse. It’s fat. It’s older/uglier/pastier and, in short, REALER than the top one. And no one wants to see that. “Real” is a hard sell.
In this way, comparison weaves itself into our cultural psyche and ingrained behaviours, subtle and insidious, until it’s everywhere – until the “better than” part does not even have to exist in order for us to hate the “worse than” part. How many times have you been down on yourself for not being more like something (or someone) that doesn’t even actually exist? Maybe you even consciously know such a thing doesn’t exist (i.e. a thinner or younger you). But you STILL compare yourself to it.
But what if the two pictures above were not the only options for someone dealing with an ED? What if there was a third picture to look at?
Maybe it’s just because I personally find babies cuter than Mischa, but that’s my favourite picture of the three.
Both of my miserable outlooks regarding my eating/body depended on punishing myself to some degree: either with starvation or with self-loathing. It took me a rather embarrassing amount of time (try almost 20 years) to realize that self-compassion was the only way out of the miserable dichotomy I’d fallen into.
Self-compassion meant focusing on how I felt rather than how I looked. It meant accepting the fact that my body and I are in this together for the long haul – not for the next month or year – and how I treat it will eventually catch up with me. It meant realizing that even when there are plenty of reasons to dislike myself, I can’t afford to crumble and give in to them – because who’s going to be able to hold me up if I’m not even in one piece?
So I let go of the cycle and focused on self-compassion instead. Eating what I wanted/needed, whenever I wanted/needed it. To say it was excruciating is an understatement. An anorexic’s worst nightmare: for three years, I gained weight regardless of how healthily I ate. My naturally quick metabolism was shot – I doubt I’ll ever fully get it back. But when I consider the decade of abuse I put my body through, it’s kind of a miracle that it ONLY took three years to satisfy itself that yes, I was done starving, and yes, it could stop clinging to every calorie I gave it.
This period (as demonstrated above in the pictures of Mischa Barton) is a necessary and unavoidable (not to mention ironic, of course) part of ED recovery. Many never commit to recovery because they can’t stomach (no dark pun intended) the idea of this part of the process – and it took me a few tries to really “commit” to gaining all the weight. Like so many aspects of mental illness, trust becomes key. Trusting in recovery, trusting in hope, trusting yourself.
Over the course of my slow recovery from anorexia, my BMI rose 10 points in three years. If you’d told me that prior to the experience, I would have been flat-out dead sure I could never, ever survive that – surely I’d go mad, kill myself, hurt myself, fall back into old patterns, etc. etc.
But – oddly enough – I didn’t.
In this way, I really do cherish my ED experience. I know that sounds weird. But it gave me some idea of what mental health (versus mental illness) looks like. It gave me some hope that just because I believe something – even when I’m so certain of it that I feel it as a “truth” deep in my gut – does not mean it is true or has to be true forever.
Now, although I struggle on a daily basis with BPD, I don’t consider anorexia to be a part of that struggle any longer. It’s a pretty amazing feeling to have at least one aspect of this multi-facted demon ‘crossed off the list,’ so to speak.
And did all my hope and trusting myself pay off? Yes. Today I am back at a BMI of 20 with a new appreciation for food (EVERYTHING tastes good when you know what starvation tastes like!) and exercise (feeling strong beats feeling skinny by about a billion miles). My metabolism is quick enough that even when I go a little nuts at the holidays or on vacation, I don’t gain weight. My body knows that I won’t deprive it again so it’s stopped craving calorie-rich, unhealthy foods and/or holding on to every pound for dear life.
If you’re struggling with the daunting task of weight gain as you let go of an ED, know that it will get better. Focus on how you feel and I promise your body will thank you for it – even if it takes years to become apparent. Are you willing to cultivate patience in order to give yourself a better life, a better body, a happier soul?
p.s. This post is, as usual, enormous so I don’t want to weigh it down (GOD, I’m full of these horrendous puns today) even more with specifics but if you have any questions or would like any further information about diet/exercise tips for ED recovery, I have quite a bit of experience by now so please feel free to message or email me. 🙂