As the Power-Threat-Meaning framework is launched today it seemed fitting to repost a version of something I wrote a year or so ago when I first heard about it. For a good while now, I’ve viewed my ‘stuff’ through a ‘social/trauma’ lens, very aware of the impact of power, difficult relational experiences and what could be termed oppression within my early life. My ways of surviving this mainly involved food, or the restriction of it. I do think recognising the importance of restrictive pattern as a survival or coping strategy matters, however doing so in a way that offers the possibility of moving beyond this matters equally. Understanding things in this way feels validating, but it also offers a way to move on and out of patterns that – certainly for me – have come to feel stuck, limiting and stop me living in the hopeful way I wish to.
I’ve taken the main headings and summarised my understanding below, so it’s unfinished and fragmented but maybe that’s the point.
‘What happened to you?’ (How is power operating in your life)
Difficult early life experiences. At home — general sense of chaos/danger/threat interspersed with violent/aggressive incidents which were terrifying. Being left alone with that and not being sure that the ‘safer’ adult would come home. Other difficult experiences.
Directly saying I didn’t feel safe and having this ignored, dismissed (by people who you are taught as a child to trust/seek help from) or seeming not to be seen (by extended family, by teachers).
As a child, feeling responsible for ‘managing’ the adults around me. Trying to keep the people I depended on as emotionally ‘together’ as possible (by being compliant, trying to anticipate and meet the needs of the key adults in my life, trying to not get in the way or make things more difficult – and therefore automatically dismissing what I might feel, need or want because it was too much and there was no space for this. Existing to meet others’ needs and having little sense of being seen, valid or deserving of space, opinions, care. And this set me up for other experiences later.
Existing within intergenerational patterns of addiction. And trying desperately to resist that but mirroring that in the compulsivity that anorexia creates.
‘How did it affect you?’ (What kind of threats does this pose?)
Relationally – not feeling safe. Actually, not being safe physically or psychologically. Feeling trapped in a range of ways.
Feeling dismissed/not seen. Not knowing what I needed or not being able to acknowledge that because it would make things worse. Feeling ‘too much’.
Not feeling in control or having a voice or sense of autonomy.
Social and economic. Being aware from a young age of how things like alcoholism was perceived and the fact that having an alcoholic parent made me different. Later, unstable and inconsistent housing and the fragile sense of safety that brings. And the threat that comes with living in a woman’s body in a world that seeks to create dissatisfaction in all of us.
What sense did you make of it? (What is the meaning of these experiences to you?”
‘I’m different, unacceptable and intolerable’. Other people will despise and reject me. I do not deserve kindness.
‘I am responsible’. ‘I have to hold things together or everything will fall apart’.
‘My needs don’t matter’.
Good things don’t last, care doesn’t last, stability doesn’t last and I don’t deserve it to’.
‘I am contaminated. The people I love might get dragged into that too.’
Working hard is the way out. I’m in control of that.
What did you have to do to survive? (What kinds of threat response are you using?)
I cannot remember NOT being anxious as a child. I was constantly tense, hypervigilant, watchful. Complete overwhelm of course provokes the opposite response and that happened too – shutting down, cutting off, spacing out, ‘escaping’ in other ways.
Anxiety — worry, excessive planning which probably started from having to plan like that, ‘how will I cope if… x happens…’ And the need to have an escape plan. Nowadays getting super caught up in the details, which is also, to me, a way of ‘anorexia’ keeping me stuck by taking up energy I could be using working against it.
Pleasing/appeasing. Assessing and striving to meet others’ expectations, which led to my own needs being dismissed and unseen.
Compulsivity – Restrictive, highly controlled eating. Weight loss as a source of control and achievement (which very rapidly took on a life of its own – I do think anorexia does that, it becomes a monstrous thing that torments you ). But for a long time I found reducing my body to be satisfying – the sense of achievement was proof that I could do ‘something’. Restriction and being a low weight also numb feelings, and now I am a higher weight I am somewhat more in touch with my feelings, although I know I won’t fully be until I’m a properly healthy weight for my body. I do wonder whether controlling food was also initially a way of creating space around myself.
Doing everything possible to feel less repulsive and more ‘clean’ and acceptable — restrictive eating formed part of that, but also hand washing. For me this extended to controlling the immediate environment — cleaning, tidiness, dislike of clutter.
Striving. Working hard, very hard. Getting things ‘right’ as much as possible. Achieving as highly as possible academically and in other areas. Some of this is positive/adaptive — and some of it is tormenting. Not getting something right still has the power to completely break me down. But again, at one time it helped.
And what about the way out…
When thinking about changing or revising these (now largely unhelpful) survival strategies, one huge thing for me has been contact with services who have on the whole been compassionate, understanding and really really tried to help. Over the last couple of years I’ve been really listened to, people have taken the time to map out patterns with me and help me to understand and change those, and have helped me to think about accessing further support for the things they’re not able to help with directly.
The other day I wrote myself a note, that, ‘whatever happens, the best thing I can do to step away from the critical, dismissive reciprocal roles and the similarly punishing patterns that spring out of those are; to follow my meal plan fully – because that’s a kind and ‘nourishing’ thing to do, to work against the pull to get caught up in and focused down into the details (and that can be anything), to care for myself psychologically, which includes doing all the things that make it feel more possible to eat enough.
And I’ve started reading for pleasure again. Reading the words of others who have found a voice and begun to take up space, people like Rupi Kaur and Nikita Gill. And taking risks and being more ‘reckless’ with food. And trying not to let anorexia trip me up in other ways when I do that, because it does. Finding ways to have more noticing and being seen, trying out the idea of feeling tolerable or ok, finding ways of attending to myself and recognising that as a result of where I’m at I might need different things to others and maybe part of that involves really focusing down on food and shutting out all but a few very meaningful things, in order to get to where I actually want to be. And remembering that what ‘ok’ looks like for me might be different to others, perhaps ‘more’ than some, and that might be ok too.
Survival strategies can turn on you and trap you and that is what restrictive and controlling patterns do. ‘Anorexia’ is a monstrous thing, it can become tangled into almost every aspect of life and self. It began as a form of resistance to and a barrier against oppression and feeling trapped and now I am in a position of needing to resist IT and finding allies around me and within me in to help me to do that.
Resistance, for me, involves risking kindness, risking allowing more, daring to consider that I might be ok. Playing with new ways of relating to myself inside and relating to others, and defining myself in relation to things other than the things that sometimes still feel too big and too dark. The kindness of other people – my husband, friends, colleagues, therapists, services and strangers has been a huge part of this beginning to shift. It’s a slow chipping away, but I’m hopeful.