I want to talk about eating disorders and trauma.
The more distance I get from anorexia, the more I notice much of the way in which the anorexic ‘voice’ mirrors that of an a dominating bully, someone who doesn’t really want the best for us and wants to terrify or freeze us into submission. Or an intense, angry critic. In response to such a critic or bully, we become tense, anxious, unable to make decisions or choices for fear of the consequences. And in anorexia that all becomes focused around food. If you have had experiences in life that felt terrifying, overwhelming or which left you feeling less than safe, sometimes food, restriction, can become not only an easy way to (unconsciously) communicate that something is Really Not Ok, but also a way to block off or squash down some of that stuff. Starvation in particular does this very effectively.
There is this idea in some therapies (I think) that we are all made up of different parts or have different states of mind within us. We are all ‘multiples’. So for example we have the ‘anxious self’, the ‘angry self’, the ‘compassionate self’. Ideally these parts would work fairly coherently together but sometimes they come into conflict. In this context, the ‘anorexic’ state of mind is one part of me. It isn’t all of me, but it is a threat focused part of my mind that became fairly dominant for quite a long time. We know the threat-detection system is trying hard to protect us from a perceived threat, which makes me wonder what anorexia may have been trying hard (very badly) to protect me from. Why does that bullying to bullied pattern exist, and why is being so harsh and restricted such a good or necessary option? So it might be that understanding that and finding a way out becomes important in sustaining recovery.
In eating disorder treatment, people are often encouraged to externalise their eating disorder. To get angry with it. I understand why this might be a helpful strategy (‘it’s not you, it’s the eating disorder’) and helpful for parents and loved ones desperate to do something. But the reality that in the very beginning, anorexia often comes from a place of trying desperately to cope with things that feel really difficult. And of course as humans we want to move beyond surviving by the skin of our teeth, but at one time following the rules of anorexia feels necessary. For me, it wasn’t a conscious choice, no one asks for that internal bully to get quite so out of control. But I went on a (an unnecessary) diet in the context of challenging circumstances and I became very quickly caught up in a web of food restriction, numbers and control. And looking back, following those rules temporarily made life feel more straightforward. It numbed feelings of confusion and overwhelm. It initially offered a socially sanctioned sense of autonomy. The problem with the anorexic mindset though is that it rapidly takes up more and more space until you are crowded out by it. But still for me, it makes more sense to see it as a part of me that somehow thinks it is helping by bullying me, and another part perhaps is scared not to obey that.
So sometimes I don’t know whether to be angry and tell the eating disorder part of me to fuck off, or to treat it as a scared child and offer it firmness and kindness. Maybe you can do both at different times. Anger is not a comfortable state of mind but I do think being in touch with anger is helpful because it allows us to set boundaries. Maybe it doesn’t have to be about ‘fighting anorexia’, maybe it is just about setting a boundary, at some point, with that vicious critical ‘anorexic’ bit. A firm ‘no’ is sometimes needed. You can’t fully engage with life and control it at the same time. So if you want to do so you need to set a boundary. In some situations the way we feel won’t be acceptable to others or even manageable for them, but maybe we can find people and spaces to help with that, both externally but also within ourselves. It’s ok for life to feel a bit messy sometimes, it’s ok to take the risk of going against that internal ‘you’re not allowed’ narrative. I also don’t think I can overestimate how difficult this can be sometimes, how strong the pull can feel and how absolutely not–ok it can feel to do this. Sometimes we really need people to help us with this and those people can become absolutely vital, wonderful allies through the process. I could write about this but I think those people know who they are and quite how important they are. I’d also say it’s important that it is the right people, particularly if you identify with the ‘ED – trauma’ link because you don’t need rescuing but you do need a strong ally or ideally, allies. People who don’t see you as forever affected and unable to change and move on. People who get that experiences can be painful and tricky but they don’t have to define us. Resources and resilience matter too especially when they are harnessed. Restorative experiences can mean that we can grow past what happened to us. We need people who get that and don’t label us. People who understand that you need to do certain things (but get that it might not be easy) things like use your voice, rest, allow yourself things you’re scared of, go for long walks, be playful and a bit silly or do whatever it is that means going against the bullying, restrictive, critical patterns time and again until they are less and less familiar, and cultivating compassion and care and hope.
The problem is that when you do this, you eat the food, gain the weight, it ‘looks’ as though you’re ‘better’. And you probably are better in some ways. But that restrictive mindset doesn’t fade as quickly as someone’s body changes and it can wax and wane depending on whatever else is playing out. Sometimes just losing the effects of starvation can make a huge psychological difference (I know it has done for me) but often the post weight restoration challenges can be overlooked. Sometimes at that point the person is using all their will and courage and they have to do that for a long time. So just naming and recognising that can be hugely important.
So whilst that restrictive, ‘anorexic part’ for whatever reason learnt or decided that being a bitch to myself was somehow meaningful or required. I can (am) gently help it to learn that this is no longer necessary. That takes courage because it is unfamiliar and actually society gives us a helping hand to that bully or critics when it sort of tells us that it’s ok to beat ourselves up around food too.
For me, the value of seeing things in this context offers a way out. It offers an alternative even if that can risky and terrifying at first. You can show yourself what compassion and care and attentiveness feels like. You can protect yourself. You can face others. You can offer warmth and kindness in the place of hostility. You can allow the space or limits you need. You can be there for yourself. You don’t have to keep doing to yourself what was done to you.