Opening up, reducing the amount of compartmentalising we do, it’s massive in eating disorder recovery.
My husband came to my therapy session this week. This is HUGE. A friend commented that the degree of anxiety it caused me is quite telling. What is so difficult about having my husband, who I share the entirety of my life with, sitting in the same room as my therapist and talking about my eating disorder. I don’t know. It is just not something I have EVER done. I have always tried to manage things myself. It’s my issue, after all.
For a long time I’ve had a habit of keeping things separate, without even really realising it. Especially, but not solely, when it comes to eating and weight. I recognise this is about protecting myself, but it is also about protecting others from things I feel they are either unable to, or shouldn’t have to, cope with. Sometimes, sharing seems unnecessary, not because I want to hold things back (though sometimes I do) but because it feels like the most responsible option. I have also worked very hard over the years to function and keep going, and I definitely do not see myself as a ‘patient’ or someone who is very ‘unwell’. I don’t want other people to view me as that – or certainly not as only that either.
Having too clearly defined boundaries is a questionably useful strategy. People generally develop ways of coping because at some point they were necessary, useful or the only available option in order to survive and function. So at some point, it must have worked. I don’t think it’s unusual for anyone growing up in a family where there is addiction. Of course I didn’t want to bring friends home from school when I didn’t know what situation I’d be bringing them home to. I had friendships, but I controlled the things I exposed my friends to. Many people with eating disorders keep their difficulties well away from from family members, friends, work. Initially this is because it’s an intensely secretive, private coping strategy, later, because you’ve heard enough misguided comments to know that sharing runs the risk of hurting you and probably the people around you. And of course, if we’re honest, it also makes it easier to control things, or easier for the eating disorder to remain in control.
This strategy carries a cost. It’s very hard work, for a start. Eating disorders are exhausting. Not only physically, but emotionally. SO MUCH headspace is taken up with food, weight, numbers, fear and guilt. Keeping things separate, holding things back, is exhausting too. But when not doing that means that you run the risk of being seen for who you really are when you’re not at all sure how you feel about yourself, it can feel very necessary. Or, when you face the possibility that others might feel responsible or pushed into roles you don’t want them to take on. And of course people do judge, make assumptions and generally believe the skewed or inaccurate media portrayal of things. So letting some of that go is a very real risk. Especially when it involves the people you care the most about. But I have to admit, sharing a little more, as I have been doing recently, also feels like a relief. Everything might seem to be breaking down, but that also makes things feel a little bit more coherent, part of a whole. It was also very helpful, afterwards, to have Dan’s encouragement to choose the higher calorie snack I (grudgingly) ‘need’, and I know that wasn’t a choice I would have managed to make myself in that moment.
So, this week I took a tiny, if still controlled step away from keeping it all separate, and it felt surprisingly ok.