Committing to recovery is hard but not doing so has serious long-term ramifications. For me, and I suspect many, anorexia has me thinking mostly in the moment or the very short term. From counting the calories in each meal to how to survive that family party at the weekend. I don’t think about the longer term, it somehow doesn’t seem important or relevant; if I do it is to fret about events such as Christmas or a meal out where I will have to eat. I can fret for months about such things.
This kind of thinking makes recovery so much harder. Each mouthful in recovery is a fight and eating more can be utterly overwhelming, with even the smallest increase causing sometimes unbearable anxiety. It feels impossible and I have no idea how to keep pushing forward. Sometimes it doesn’t even seem important, I kid myself that I am fine just as I am so I don’t have anything to recover from. Giving up seems easier than letting go.
Focussing on the short term often makes it seem easier to just not take those extra bites as there is no immediate reward. Neither my physical or mental health are going to seem better after one meal, one snack or one mouthful and it is this disconnect that I think makes recovery really complicated. I have to believe that the changes I make now really will make a difference, even if now I can’t see my way out of this mess.
Despite me knowing that the brain is an organ and of course it gets sick like any other, I do tend to mentally separate my mind and my body. I don’t think that this is particularly uncommon, ill or not. The brain somehow seems ‘other’, maybe because it is the home of our personality or what we see as ‘us’. This is something that is a lot harder to say about other organs, which seem more like mechanical parts of the machine that is our body. There are differences though, the brain is much less understood and even scientists don’t fully know how it works and exactly how drugs given for mental illness work. But our brain is very much dependent on our body.
The brain is the master organ, without it nothing else works and the communication is two way with the rest of the body sending signals and chemicals back to the brain. For example, how else would we be aware of pain? If we spill boiling water on our hand it is communication between the hand and brain that triggers the pain response that will have us yanking our hand away from the water. How would we feel hunger if our digestive system didn’t connect with our brain to develop the sensation that we are low in the fuel needed to function? And here lies a problem: there is a gap between effort and reward. Quickly pulling our hand from boiling water immediately improves the situation by limiting damage, but eating that extra slice of bread may make us actually feel worse if we end up overly full and uncomfortable. One reaction to a stimulus will not give us the immediate reward of being recovered.
What should make all of the difference is in fact looking to the future. Do I want to be in the same state in six months, a year or five years’ time? That is easy: no. I definitely don’t, but recovery seems intangible and I barely remember what ‘healthy’ felt like before I became ill. It is a real plunge into the unknown and I have to accept that there aren’t going to be immediate rewards and trust the process. I need to believe that it does in fact work in the same way as the pain response, even if I am not experiencing a direct sensation that tells me things have changed. I have to trust this when my stomach hurts, when I am terribly bloated, when I feel anxiety and guilt, when my digestive system struggles.
When I do look to the future I panic. I have been in this nightmare for too long already and I can feel the years slipping through my fingers. I have to get out of this situation, the thought of being the same person this time next year makes me more anxious than eating does, yet it remains frustratingly hard to actually eat the amount I know I need to. I am beginning to see physical changes in my body and honestly it does make me want to restrict again. Given this, how will I ever be happy in the much bigger body of recovery? I can’t quite picture or imagine it, it needs a sea change in my thinking; is the reward of gaining weight a new way of viewing myself and the world? I have to trust that it is.
It is crucial to develop a positive longer-term perspective as full recovery from anorexia goes well beyond weight restoration; it can take years. I know that I will never get there if I can’t get this perspective; in the spirit of this I have got into the habit of reminding myself that I don’t want to be in the same state in a year’s time when I question my eating. It isn’t easy but it is essential.