Slowly, self-care has moved from “doing the things you need to do to keep functioning” to “buying loads of luxurious stuff and pampering yourself”. In doing so, it’s stopped being helpful for the people who need it most – having a bubble bath is lovely, but if you feel crushed by your own sadness, it’s not going to make you feel OK again.
I was very interested to find out about exercise bulimia, not least because I believe that I suffered from it for years. It’s reassuring to have a term for this kind of eating disordered experience. When I stopped showing the more conventional symptoms of bulimia, I thought I was better, but then I started engaging in exactly the kind of behaviours described in the article above. I exercised compulsively in my late twenties and early thirties, and my experience of exercise is still hijacked by my eating disorder. I find it very hard to exercise without making it into a sort of penance for eating. It’s a difficult condition to address because we tend to view exercise as being always beneficial.
This devastating article about boarding school trauma helped me to better understand my father. He was sent to a brutal Catholic boarding school and suffered from a lot of the symptoms described on the survivors website. He was a workaholic and terrified of abandonment. He struggled to maintain friendships outside of the immediate family circle and couldn’t give up the cigarettes that eventually killed him. He was sent to boarding school at eleven, which is older than most of the men featured in the article, but what makes my father’s case so horrible is the fact that he was abandoned by his mother at the age of five. I just can’t imagine the trauma of that second abandonment by his father’s family. On reflection, I’m surprised that my father managed to be as functional as he was in life.
Content note: description of self-harming behaviour
For a long time now I’ve felt deeply ashamed about some of the things I did during the time when I was experiencing the worst of my mental health problems. I’ve tried very hard to forget but I still find myself lying awake at night in a cold sweat of shame and horror, replaying it all in my head.
When I look back at that time in my life, I can see that it was characterised by an absolute inability to identify and cope with the strong emotions I was experiencing. I still struggle to identify emotions, but back then, well, the phrase “emotionally illiterate” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Because a lot of my emotional responses were based on past trauma, they were disproportionate to the events that were triggering them in the present. I was sort of aware of this at the time, but I didn’t understand what was happening or why. All I knew was that I was experiencing unbearable emotional pain. I felt like I had a volcano inside me that was always threatening to erupt and, when it did erupt, that I was utterly in its power. I couldn’t seem to control either the emotions I was feeling, or my own behaviour in response to them. The experience of being driven by emotions that you can’t even name is quite terrifying.
Depression snuck up on me and took over my life these last few weeks. I had so many things I wanted to do, blog posts to write, books to read, people to catch up with. Instead, I just about managed to do the essentials at work and stagger home in the evenings to sit on the sofa and watch Star Trek.
This particular bout of depression got me thinking about how to identify that I am depressed and then how to support myself through an attack. Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that my own depression is probably transposed anger. Rage always seems close to the surface when I’m depressed, which suggests to me that it’s the underlying emotion in my case. Growing up, I had a lot to be angry about in my life, but middle-class girls are not allowed to express anger in healthy or assertive ways, so like a lot of them, I turned my anger against myself and, inevitably, depression, self-harm, and eating disorders followed. I hate the depression, but maybe it’s easier to cope with than facing up to my anger and the causes of that anger. Right now I’m dealing with the emotional fall-out from a very difficult holiday period which brought up a lot of issues around my family. In fact, I think I’m just starting to really get to grips with what really happened in my family, something that has only started to become possible since I’ve lost the buffer-zone represented by my father.
The second Christmas since my father died and I feel like all my attempts to manage the situation have come to nothing. I find myself plunged into grief again. I realise now that my mistake lay in imagining that I could “manage” the situation in such a way as to avoid experiencing painful emotions because, let’s face it, that’s what I really wanted to achieve, even if I didn’t admit it to myself at the time.
Content note: death, bereavement, grief
One of the problems with being bereaved is that the grief starts to kick in just as society expects you to be getting “better”. My father died in May and I didn’t really start to feel bad until August, since when I’ve felt progressively worse. And I know it’s only just beginning; I don’t really believe that my father’s dead and still feel like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.
One of the most difficult things to cope with (and write about) recently has been the resurgence of my eating disordered thinking. I’ve had problems since I was 14 when a bout of binge-eating lead to weight gain which was followed by dieting that quickly turned into anorexia nervosa. The situation improved spontaneously after I had therapy when I was 17 and I was pretty much OK until I left university when stress triggered off disordered eating again which, by my mid twenties, turned into bulimia nervosa. I managed to stop that when I was around 27, but continued to exercise compulsively and maintain a low body weight. This culminated in what I can now admit was really a period of exercise addiction between 2007 and 2008 – of course, at the time I said it was about “health”, not weight, even though I was doing far more exercise than was required to be healthy.
Several factors over the last 12 months have resulted in my gaining what I feel to be an unacceptable amount of weight – these include simple changes like moving closer to work so don’t have a long walk twice a day and not being able to afford a gym membership, as well as more complex factors like Dad’s illness and death which led to erratic eating patterns and my not feeling well enough to do as much exercise as I did in the past.
So, now I find that I haven’t recovered and weight gain of maybe half a stone (I’m not going near a scale!) produces levels of anxiety in me which feel about equivalent to suddenly finding myself in a burning building. The most depressing thing about it has been the destruction of my treasured illusion of recovery by the realisation that all I was really doing was holding off the illness by maintaining a low body weight that felt “safe”.
I am quite stunned by just how bad it is. How can you explain to other people that you really do feel like the most important thing in the world is losing weight? How can you explain that your main worry about your grandmother’s funeral is being under pressure to eat and other people watching you eat? How can you explain to friends who are heavily into fitness that, although you still care about them, you need to distance yourself from them at the moment because they are triggering the hell out of you? I know it all sounds utterly, utterly irrational to people who don’t have eating disorders, but I suppose that’s the nature of a mental illness.
I’m fortunate that my partner understands, having grown up with an anorexic mother herself. We’re mainly focussing on reducing the anxiety as much as possible at the moment, but I am reluctantly coming to the conclusion that I probably need more counselling on this issue because, while I’ve had quite a lot of therapy for other problems, I’ve never had any specifically for the eating disorder.
Although this has been a nasty wake-up call, it probably has been necessary and ultimately a good thing for me to realise that I’m not better now that I have time to work on it. I find that there are so many things I want to write about in relation to the experience of having an ED that I’m wondering if it would be a good idea to start a separate blog about it. I’m not totally decided on this – it would be nice to have an outlet where I could blog whenever something came up, but it might also be too many writing projects.