It’s strange how so much can change in so little time.
In my last couple of posts, I’ve addressed the challenging nature of battling an active eating disorder. I felt so completely helpless and out of control. I could feel myself spiraling further into self-destruction and although I also felt a sense of urgency to grab hold of something – anything – to prevent further descent, I could not figure out how to do that.
However, it would appear that a series of well-placed events and interactions have finally opened up the space I needed to slow, if not stop, my free-fall into anorexia.
After my double session last Friday, I felt unsettled. Having an ED is sort of like living inside a very well fortified castle. I think that somehow the workshop at Renfrew, combined with my conversation with my psychiatrist about ED-specific treatment (where she recommended residential treatment), followed by an email, phone call, and two-hour session with my therapist somehow had enough force to breach the castle walls.
I couldn’t quite understand what had happened, and I still don’t really get it, but I just sensed that the eating disorder was struggling to maintain its hold. Restricting suddenly felt difficult, where it normally is effortless. I found myself questioning if starving indefinitely is truly what I want for myself and being curious about other options.
Then I saw my nieces and nephew.
As I’ve blogged about previously, my eldest niece has been struggling with stress and anxiety for a while now. The last time I visited my sister, I encouraged and helped her to find a therapist for my niece. She’s been going regularly ever since (roughly six months at this point) and gradually building trust and rapport with her therapist.
When I asked my sister about the work my niece has been doing, she said the therapist identified the main problem as rules. My niece has rules – the rules imposed at home, school, dance class, etc., as well as her own self-imposed rules. It turns out that any deviation from those rules is a source of tremendous and unmanageable anxiety for my niece. My sister had thought there was an issue of bullying on the school bus. However, upon further investigation, it appears that another student was breaking the rules (standing on the seat, yelling, etc.) and when my niece asked him to stop, he refused. She was so distressed by his insistence on breaking the rules that she interpreted it as a personal attack against herself.
She also has been struggling with body image issues. Her therapist mentioned this to my sister and then shortly after, my niece announced she was “fat” while trying on her dance costume. At this point, the therapist is encouraging my sister to make weekly appointments for my niece. She also advised my sister and brother-in-law to compliment their children’s bodies, other people’s bodies (of all shapes and sizes), and specifically for my sister to compliment her own body in front of her kids. When she told me this, she looked terrified. My sister has pretty poor body image and regularly refers to herself as “fluffy”.
And then there’s my Aunt. The woman I grew up watching suffer from anorexia. I never truly understood what was wrong, since my family refused to talk about or address the issue, but I observed her strange rituals around food. She always ate less than everyone else, she ate the same very specific foods, she played with her food, she was sullen and distant during meals, and she had extremely high anxiety surrounding food.
This woman also lives with my sister (and thus her children).
So as I synthesized all of this information, I felt something begin to shift. It didn’t happen right away, but by about the third day of our visit, I knew I had to stop. I thought about the meals I had eaten thus far in front of the kids – a bowl of strawberries (while my wife ate a meal she bought at the train station), nothing (while everyone else ate subs), sweet potatoes and popcorn (while everyone else ate a prepared meal). The girls asked me questions. They noticed. They thought it was strange.
So here I was, my anorexic aunt on one side of me, my rigid, stressed out niece who is already struggling with her body image (at 7 years old!) on the other. My aunt was a tremendous influence on the development of my ED. I grew up with an eating disordered aunt and although she was weird around food, no one talked about it.
I decided that I was NOT going to be the eating disordered aunt who was weird around food, yet no one talked about to my precious niece. No way. I have an obligation and responsibility to that child (and the other two) to be a positive role model. She will emulate me because she admires me. I want to be someone worth admiring and I want my behavior to be something she should be emulating.
Seeing those beautiful children and spending time with them is always a joy. I love them beyond words. But something about this specific visit was especially significant. I think that being able to identify with my niece while also seeing her absolute innocence allowed me to forgive a part of myself. For what, I am not sure. But I feel an openness where I previously felt a tightening self-loathing.
I think loving her allowed me to love part of myself that I previously found unlovable.
And I also was able to see how destructive my ED has been to my relationships. I started the trip feeling fatigued and distant from my family. It took so much effort and energy to stay engaged and excited. Not for lack of love of enthusiasm, but because I was starving and using most of my cognitive energy to maintain my own arbitrary, yet rigid, rules around food.
After one particular meal, I had to go lay down on the couch because my hunger was torturous. As I struggled to just exist, I kept reminding myself that I am supposed to have an eating disorder, so I cannot just eat something because it looks good! In essence, I was convincing myself to hurt myself and ultimately talking myself into hating myself.
Which is normally a natural process. I don’t usually struggle to reinforce the ED thoughts because they just flow out on their own. I thought about how ridiculous it is to do the work of the ED for it. And I realized that the problem is that, at least in that moment, I did not hate myself enough to starve myself. So why the hell was I trying to get back to that place?!
So on Friday night, I just decided I was done. I am done.
I thought about it for a while and then brought it up with my wife. I just said, “I am done having an eating disorder. I don’t want this. I don’t need it. I’m done.”
It took a while for it all to sink in, but when it did she began to cry.
And then I deleted the app on my phone that I use to count calories. For every single meal since that moment, I have eaten whatever sounded good to me.
It is not a cure for my eating disorder and this is not over. I have a lot of work left to do and my therapist and I are working hard at that. But I am done. Everything I do now will be part of the effort to recover and repair my relationship with myself, my body, food, and the people I love.
I am done starving. I am done hating myself. I am done hating my body. I am done obsessing about food. I am done skipping social events because I’m anxious about food. I am done spending all day counting calories in and calories out. I am done lying and manipulating (myself and others). I am done with rules and rituals. I am done being trapped in a self-imposed prison.
It’s over, ED. I win.