Content note: discussion of ED triggers and strong emotions
I think I have finally had a breakthrough in my struggle with eating distress. This breakthrough has come about through work I’ve been trying to do on the relationship between anger and fear in my life.
One of the most challenging realizations I’ve had to do deal with over the last few months has been an increasing awareness of just how profoundly frightened I am. Once I started to face up to my underlying fear, I also began to notice the way fear and anger form a toxic combination in my life, because whenever I feel angry, I immediately feel frightened. I’m not going to go into all the reasons for this here, so I’ll just say for now that I’ve lived a life in which the expression of anger has almost always resulted in threat and punishment. As a consequence of this, the older I’ve got, the less able I’ve felt to express anger and fear in healthy ways.
When I feel angry, I feel frightened, and this almost always triggers an attack of eating distress. The angrier I become – the more terrified I become – the less I am able to express these feelings – the worse my eating distress becomes.
During the holidays, I spent two weeks with my family in a situation that made me angry but in which, for various reasons, I was unable to express that anger. So, I just got angrier and angrier and more and more frightened until the inferno raging in my head almost had me back to bingeing and purging. I honestly think I would have relapsed if it hadn’t been for my supportive partner making herself available to talk me through it at all hours.
So my eating distress is directly related to unexpressed anger and fear. Why is this knowledge such a breakthrough? Because until recently I’ve regarded my ED attacks as quite random, related to stress, yes, but I haven’t looked closely at exactly what I mean when I say “stress”. It isn’t just any stress, its specific kinds of stress. Now, not only can I map my triggers, I can start to predict and even plan for them. I can start to manage risk and make informed decisions. Any situation that makes me feel angry is likely to be an eating distress trigger because it will also make me feel frightened. For me, this is an enormous step forward because for the last year I’ve felt like my eating distress has been in control. I’m also finally starting to appreciate why my first therapist went on so much about getting in touch with my feelings!
The hard truth of the matter is that eating distress is serving a function in my life. My rage and terror makes me feel helpless and out of control. The eating distress distracts me from the implications of those feelings and, while it may be horrible, it is at least familiar and it provides me with something to do about the terrible, unmanageable feelings. If I can’t express the feelings, I can try to manage them through frantic exercise, through fasting, through making myself sick, all activities which release chemicals in the brain that produce feelings of relief and even euphoria. Such activities relieve my desperation to do something about the unexpressed feelings, even if what I’m doing is harmful and counterproductive.
Letting ED go is difficult because it’s become a deeply entrenched coping mechanism and, without my eating distress, all I’m left with is unexpressed anger and fear. Self-awareness is not a cure, but I’m actually starting to feel thankful that I put on weight after my father died because this weight has forced me to face up to my eating distress and the implications of the emotions I was avoiding through my compulsive exercising and maintenance of a low body weight. In shattering my denial, it’s opened up possibility of full recovery, and that’s a possibility I’d almost given up on.
This new understanding is also helping me to reframe my relationship with my eating distress. I’ve been seeing it as an enemy to be wrestled with, but it’s not really an “enemy”, so much as “information” – my brain trying to tell me something. The feelings of distress about eating, food and my body are all saying to me: “You’re angry, you’re upset, you’re frightened, so here are some things you can do to make yourself feel better and more in control of what’s happening to you”.
The advice may be flawed, but to judge the feeling as “bad” is pointless, and to ignore and repress the useful information it’s giving me about my emotional state would be a big mistake. My eating distress is telling me something extremely important and in realizing this, I’ve also started to believe that one day I may not need it anymore.
Crossposted to Bearing the Weight