Reflections on having an eating disorder (short version: it sucks)

Content note: post contains descriptions of eating disordered thoughts and feelings and discussion of my desire to lose weight.

My eating disorder has been getting worse ever since my father died. I manage not to act on the thoughts and feelings, at least most of the time, but they’re definitely getting more insistent.  While I may be keeping the symptoms to a minimum, I’m obsessed with the idea of losing weight and feeling more sensitive to triggers than ever before.

I don’t identify with the disorder as much as I did in the past (thank goodness) and I’m usually able to make a distinction between the thoughts/feelings and “me”, but now I experience it as a tormentor that comes and goes at will. I often feel like I’m being bullied by my own brain.

Here I am trying to write about this in a reasoned, sensible way, but really it’s just hell. Shopping for clothes is a nightmare at the moment. I can’t eat out without experiencing anxiety.  I’ve had to block updates from friends who post a lot about exercise from appearing my Facebook timeline, because any descriptions of competitive exercise or achievements related to exercise cause me hours, sometimes days, of torment.  I’m currently avoiding some of my friends for this reason, which makes me feel horrible, but I just don’t know how to explain it to them without causing hurt and offence.

Then there are the regular morning panic attacks over clothes.  Last week I decided to make a start on addressing this problem by getting rid of all the “I’ll wear it when I’m skinny again” clothes that still lurk in my wardrobe.  Wouldn’t it be great, I said to myself, if I had a safe wardrobe, if I could pick out any item of clothing without worrying if it’ll trigger an ED attack?  So I sorted through my clothes, took out everything I know to be problematic and put them to one side.  You wouldn’t believe the stink my ED brain kicked up about this.  I started waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat of anxiety.  “If you get rid of the clothes”, the ED voice said to me, “You’ll lose all control! You’ll eat and eat and eat because you’ll have no incentive not to”.  “Those clothes are the only thing preventing you from losing control”, said the eating disorder voice.  I’ve compromised by getting rid of the worst items and putting the rest in a bag on top of the wardrobe where I can’t see them.  It’s a start, but the power of the voice in my head is very unsettling.

Thinking about it, I realised that I often put off buying the clothes I need because I’m still fixated on the idea that I’m going to lose weight again one of these days.  This is particularly an issue when it comes to buying bras.  I don’t tend to buy a new one until the situation gets desperate because I’m waiting until I’ve lost weight and can get the “right” size. Why waste the money when my breasts are going to be much smaller soon? This delusion persists despite the fact that my breasts have changed very little in size since I was 14. I couldn’t get them down more than a couple of cup sizes even when I was at my thinnest.

I do wonder every day why I’m so resistant to giving up this thing that torments me and sucks up so much energy that I could be using to do something else with my life.   I’m not going to be able to unravel all the reasons in this post, but a couple of factors have struck me as significant recently.

First, I’m coming to the view that the body shape I’m experiencing as unacceptable is probably my natural homeostasis weight – this is in the region of nine to nine-and- a- half stone.  I’ve inherited my mother’s body type and this was her weight range for most of her life too.  When I’m not doing anything extreme to lose weight, it’s the range that my body always returns to.  But it’s the same weight I was when I was 15 and started dieting, which also makes it the weight I associate with being a loser who no one likes and who has no control over her life.

Unfortunately, my parents (who both had eating problems) encouraged me in my belief that I was “too fat” and should lose weight.  I was a skinny child who filled out at puberty and I think my parents found this difficult (possibly because of stuff it brought up about sexuality as well), but they lacked the self-awareness to realise that their response had more to do with their own body/sexuality issues than it did my weight gain.  What I remember from that time is this sense of concern in the family about my weight and comments from my mother suggesting that I was becoming “plain” (horror of horrors!).  “Plain” might well be one of several terms employed by my mother as a euphemism for “looking like a lesbian”. Whatever the case, my parents were delighted when I started to diet and cheered me on, until it got scary that is.

As an adult, I still persist in this belief that if only I can lose weight, I’ll be happier and feel better about myself, although this has never actually happened.  I know that the more weight I lose, the more tormented I become by the need to keep it off and, no matter how much weight I lose, I always want to lose more. Yet, the belief persists.  Perhaps it’s not so surprising because, when I did lose weight, I suddenly started to get a lot of compliments. I found this intoxicating at the time.  I don’t think I really looked any better than I did before, but people will automatically compliment weight loss whatever the cause (I’ve heard of severely ill and bereaved people being complimented for losing weight).  But there’s probably part of me that wants that intoxicating feeling back again.

I’m also beginning to think that I’ve had two main mechanisms for coping with stress in my life. The first was talking to my father about my problems.  The second is my eating disorder.   My relationship with my father could be beneficial but I was probably too dependent on him as my “safe” person and, now that he’s dead, I’m falling back on the other far less benign coping mechanism of my eating disorder.  Over-exercising, starving, making myself sick … all these activities produce highs that make me feel better when I’m stressed.  And of course, losing weight also gives me a tremendous feeling of control.

But there’s another even more disturbing possibility.  My father also had an eating disorder throughout his life and, since he died, I’ve taken on quite a few of his characteristics.  Apparently this is a weird thing that can happen when bereaved.  I’ve started grinding my teeth at night, just like he did.  There are times when I can feel myself enacting his emotional patterns, like working too hard and then resenting it and (I really hate this one), fixating on untidiness when stressed.  So I wonder, is the worsening eating disorder a strange attempt to keep him alive and in my life by retaining an aspect of him?

I don’t have any answers. There are more posts that I want to write on the subject and this one is really just an attempt to get the thoughts out of my head.  I have been feeling really despondent about what I perceive as my backsliding recently, but Andy was saying to me the other day that it’s important not to start applying my black and white ED thinking to recovery, by which she means not to get fixated on the idea that I can only be “totally ill” or “totally recovered”.