I increasingly find myself wanting to make sense of how I was able to (mostly) function as well I did, even when actually very caught up in anorexia. And why both my sister and I, in our own individual ways, seem to have found ways to build on some of our natural strengths, to connect with people we cared about, find a sense of what matters to us, take steps towards building those things, when actually the trajectory could have looked very different.
I have talked previously about experiences of early life adversity. I am acutely aware of the impact of some of these experiences. I sometimes forget that in spite of this I have followed a path which allowed me to complete my education and postgraduate study, work in a demanding job, have enough awareness of my own needs and the needs those I love to move to a role that offered me more satisfaction. Something allowed me to maintain friendships, love someone in particular deeply, attend to and care for others, actively seek out support in spite of barriers and to continue to participate in life whilst fighting to untangle myself from the restrictive patterns I didn’t ask to find myself in. Some would call that resilience. I also know I didn’t do any of this on my own and that my circumstances, the strength of my relationships, a supportive workplace and thoughtful professional care contributed to being able to do this.
For me, the kind of important formative relationship I refer to came in the form of my funny, generous, blunt, Northern Irish aunt. She is a matriarch in the truest sense of the word, and has parented every one of her nieces and nephews from a distance. She showered us with love, stability and warmth. For my sister and me, simply by being herself, she offered us something that felt solid. The most fundamental thing she gave was safety. Literally. Her home was a refuge. From a young age, we felt at ease there, able to be playful in a way we couldn’t at home. There was a lightness that felt different. I suspect without realising it, she did all she could to mitigate against the environment she knew we’d be returning to. She gave us long, regular stretches of time, weekends, evenings. We tried our first pizza with her, pasta, and Sunday bacon sandwiches. She taught us what independence looks like, assertion, and the right kind of power. Not the power that silences, beats you down and crushes you – the gentle kind that holds you, nourishes you and sends you out into the world standing straight, able to meet other humans as equals. My sister carries those qualities within her today, and I wonder how much of that was learned as a five, six, seven year old, from our Aunt.
In CAT there is the concept of a ‘healthy island’, that (correct me if I’m wrong, CAT people) through a process of therapy or other relationships we can find ways to build an attending, caring relationship with ourselves and to move away from (now) unhelpful ways of being. I am very aware that there were some wonderful people in my early life who offered a regular space of noticing, safety and hope. I suspect that these experiences offered a steady, ‘good enough’ foundation from which to build, and I really don’t think the impact of such protective experiences can be overstated, not only developmentally but because of the powerful resource they continue to offer beyond. Some of my adult relationships have continued to offer these qualities (some of them in absolute spades) and therapy has recently served as something similar yet obviously (because – it’s therapy) different. I think there is a lot to be said for the protective people, the safeness, warmth and fun in the midst of things that feel so very difficult. Hopefully we get new ideas of ways to continue to grow those kinds of relationships. Ideas to play with from therapy, from conversations with people we love and respect, from observing and listening to others, from books, even from Twitter chats. Maybe we also grow ideas of our own and try to hold those gently and without being scathing or dismissive. I don’t think of myself as being particularly towards the ‘very resilient’ end of the spectrum. I have always been conscientious, reflective, and ‘responsible’ and I’m not sure those traits are particularly linked with being hugely robust. They do however make me empathic and attentive, and for now I’ll take that. ‘Sensitivity’ isn’t all bad.
I am probably also describing something closely related to that concept of ‘resilience’. We hear that word a LOT and perhaps it can be overused. We describe individuals as ‘resilient’ but really we need to consider how we build a society that nurtures this. Do people feel safe, do they have access to the resources they need, do they have a voice, a sense of choice and control? We might think of ourselves as resilient but perhaps we experienced attuned care, had access to more resources or were temperamentally more able to bounce back from challenges. Maybe we had older siblings who unwittingly served as a buffer for us. And of course some experiences are harmful regardless of how temperamentally ‘resilient’ we might be. Humans are not designed to bear the weight of relentless oppression without it having some sort of effect. They are also incredibly resourceful – we know that people find ways to cope and to survive with even the most horrific circumstances.
Thinking about things in this way also offers a way to reframe some of the things I did as a child I might otherwise describe as ‘weird’. I read voraciously, for example. More than ‘normal’. I spent a huge amount of time at the local library (it was calm). I wrote my own stories. I read anything I could find in order to get to sleep at night. I found the natural world fascinating – trees, animals, and the sounds and sense of space associated with this. So in addition to the less adaptive ways of coping, I found some things that helped and I used them to feel steady. I wonder now this just mirrors the resourcefulness of many young people trying to develop in a less than ideal context. It’s a human impulse to find a sense of connection, to find things that soothe. Those things aren’t always dysfunctional. And it’s funny because actually anorexia took me away from some of those more helpful things and untangling from it means picking them up and fitting them back into life again. The after-weight-restoration part of recovery feels similar to how I imagine the process of post-traumatic growth. It’s not about getting something back, it’s building something different, creating, ‘reclaiming’, finding space, exploring. It’s woolly and a bit messy and actually it takes a lot of courage.
Perhaps the theme is trust and self trust. Beginning to be able to notice when we need space, knowing how to create that for ourselves and knowing that is a valid need. Taking the risk to allow things. Not trying to fit everything together and make the edges match up but allowing things to unfold. Noticing that critical pattern swinging into action and stepping out of it, into ‘good enough’, into compassion, remembering that berating ourselves (or picking at others’ faults) isn’t helpful. And if the idea of kindness is uncomfortable, wondering why it feels so threatening. So noticing, finding space, perhaps making a fundamental shift away from what ‘ok’ looks like to others (do any of us eat perfectly all the time or always manage to relate kindly to ourselves) in order to place yourself somewhere that feels right for you and allows for continued development, change and hope.