If there is one thing that having anorexia in my teens taught me it is the importance of letting go of every tiny crumb of an eating disorder; full recovery just isn’t possible without it.
I don’t really remember how I gained weight and left anorexia behind first time round. I received no professional help or treatment and had no support within my family. Over the course of around a year I did get myself to a healthy weight but I never got to a healthy mindset, which had an effect on my eating habits from that moment on.
I had no idea what my ‘healthy’ weight or ‘set point’ was as I fell ill at the age of 11 and clearly my ‘recovered’ weight at the age of 17, after puberty, was going to be very different. Seeing as the disordered thoughts and behaviours never truly left I now suspect that I never got there.
I remained a slave to the scale and that number had a huge impact on how I felt about myself. This is not the behaviour of someone who is recovered. Neither is not letting myself eat what I wanted when I wanted. I have never been comfortable eating what I deemed as ‘unhealthy’ or ‘treat’ foods. I never ate cake, biscuits, chocolate, crisps or fast food (you get the picture) without compensating. If I was meeting a friend for tea and cake I would skip lunch. I never snacked and having dessert was inconceivable to me, I simply never did it; I only let my guard down at birthday celebrations and Christmas. This is disordered behaviour, though I had no idea that this was the case at the time as it had been the norm for most of my life.
As I had no support to get better and basically muddled my way through ‘recovery’ maybe this isn’t a surprise; the thoughts and behaviour were so ingrained that I never questioned them. I was a slave to my weight and to control. In fact, control pretty much ruled my life. I was profoundly depressed and confused; I had no idea why or what the problem was. It took over 15 years of trying to cope and keep going that I learnt in therapy what was going on: I had PTSD from an abusive childhood, which I had kept firmly under lock and key deep in my brain. I had lived a very controlled life to try and hide the horror and pain. I kept myself as busy as I could, chasing things for external validation especially in the eyes of my parents; I was locked in the cycle of keeping them and everyone else happy to ensure I was safe, even though I had left home. I lived a small life. Looking back I can see that I was never really recovered or free from anorexia, it had just morphed into orthorexia; the control and using it to numb emotions was still very much in place.
Having fallen fully back into anorexia 5 years ago I am now determined to get better and when I say that I mean ‘real’ recovery. I want a bigger life, not one ruled by rigidity, control and disordered thinking and behaviours. I want full freedom, which I haven’t had since I was 11 years old. I am therefore trying to learn from my past.
So what I have learnt? Primarily that it isn’t possible to recover unless you totally let go; gaining weight, although crucial, only scratches the surface of the whole process of recovery, it is a mental illness for a reason. Every last tiny bit of the eating disorder has to go; recovery isn’t possible while holding on to any part of it, it really isn’t. Truly recovering has many facets: not trying to control your weight or weighing yourself all the time; not weighing and measuring everything you eat; not compulsively exercising to burn calories, not purging in any way. It means eating all your fear foods and never compensating. Simply put all of the behaviours and rituals need to go, even the small seemingly innocuous ones: yes, eating everything with a teaspoon or only eating at fixed times is disordered. No excuses, no maybes. None of us is ‘special’, none of us can fully recover in any other way, we can’t cheat the system. I know this all too well and I don’t want to live this limited life anymore.
So what do I want this time round? In one word: freedom. I want to be happy eating anything and everything guilt free. I have already quit weighing myself which has been one of the most liberating experiences of my life, but I have a long way to go. Anorexic thinking still fills my brain, I am holding onto my fair share of behaviours and I remain more controlling around food than is healthy for me. I will not live the rest of my life labelling food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, I will not be scared of cake and skip meals to make up for eating it, I will not weigh what I eat to the nearest gram and no matter how hard it is to do I will not be listening to an anorexic voice in my head (hopefully it will no longer be there!). I will say goodbye to every last bit of anorexia; none of it is acceptable or welcome in my life. Never again.