I have had great intentions to write for the past months and just have not – sorry again to any readers I may still have!
I recently read an interview with two women who have struggled with eating disorders. They both spoke to the idea that they will live the the ED voice in their head forever; that recovery is maximized when one chooses not to engage in what the deadly internal dictator suggests. I have said before that I believe that recover can be achieved to a degree which each individual desires and I still believe that. With proper guidance and unrelenting pursuit of what ones heart really wants (mine was a well life without fear) – anything is possible!
I didn't ever want to live simply behaviour-free but battling that voice and those thoughts on a regular basis. What a life: to look well, act well, but continue to be at war. I imagine the fight would lessen over time but to resolve to that life of struggle is, in my opinion, accepting the suboptimal still.
When I read this interview, I chose to reflect on my experience. I have had classic “eating disordered thoughts” enter my consciousness in the not-so-distant past. This doesn't mean, to me, that I am not recovered or that I am existing in a state of “in recovery”. I believe myself the be recovered – never looking back and not at risk.
To be clear, the “eating disordered thoughts” I speak of are never the kind of severe self-loathing but those of a much more simple and, dare I say, boring variety. To that extent I also wonder what woman, or human for that matter, is not acutely aware of their body at times or considers what they are eating. For sake of simplicity, I will refer to them at eating disordered thoughts because, as an ex ED patient, I am conditioned to refer to them as such.
The thoughts I have on occasion now, serve only as messengers to me. What I have realized when they arise is that I needed to take a solid look at myself and how I am living; they are an indication that I need to reflect. Questions I quickly choose to ask myself at these times are: what am I doing now that needs to be different to honour who I really am? Is there something that I am capable of changing in order to continue living authentically? And a difficult one to ask: what am I not addressing that I need to? Am I avoiding?
Once I take the time I need to reflect and choose my next move wisely, those old thoughts fall away again.
This is the way I have been able to make these thoughts work for me. I did not ever wish to exist with “noise” in my head that I have to think over or fight but it seems that in current treatment, that is the standard for recovery. That is not my recovery experience. There is no “noise” or painful intrusion, just awareness.
The way I see it, is that The System primarily offers patients coping skills. It offers these skills by many names and through a plethora of therapies. I am not denying the importance of developing such skills and implementing the tools taught. Is it not human to benefit from practising mindfulness, assertiveness, distress tolerance, and acceptance? (I choose those only because they are common themes in many popular therapies.)
However, a person who enters therapy with no sense of self has no basis on which to build. If one places no worth on themselves and their life, what is the point of learning any of the above skills and techniques?
I am not criticizing The System for sake of criticism. I do not fault any helping professional or team for trying to help in whatever ways they know and feel best about. I do feel strongly about expressing my understanding of it, now, though. Professionals working with eating disorders try to use evidenced based therapies. I feel that the “evidence” of recovery they set as a goal is placing the bar too low.
Therapists and programs that I experienced in the public system assume an adult mind behind the adult body (in its varying shapes and sizes). A common, though little understood, trait of many with eating disorders is an undeveloped emotional mind. Fundamental to effective treatment is nurturing that mind (and thus the self) to maturity. From there, one can move forward on all the skills above and implement them simply as life skills!
Prior to accessing the program I did, my family doctor seemed to recognize my need for him to be “the parent” and make decisions for me. Despite not being regularly certified or forced to participate in care, I allowed him to make the calls most often. He knew, and I knew, that I was in no position to be telling anyone what I needed.
If one knows their needs and values those needs as well as their worthiness of having them met – what function would eating disorder behaviours serve? Therapies that I engaged in seemed to try to meet me at a point far beyond where I was. There seemed to be two angles. The first assumed I did not know my needs and the therapist wanted to help me identify those needs. After that, we could work on ways to have them filled. However, I had no worth in my own eyes. Helping me realize that I was hurting (and not actually “feeling fat”, for example) didn't mean I would ever ask for comfort.
Due to the deceiving strength of my rational mind – and I have seen it in many others - it was sometimes assumed that I knew my needs and just did not know how to have them met. (Example: I didn't often complain of “feeling fat” because I knew, logically, that I could not possibly be. I knew I was lost, and could say that, but didn't know what to do – so I hurt myself further and lost myself in a familiar darkness). So, sometimes I did know my needs but again, it boiled down to not believing that I deserved to have these needs met.
Give a person who has withstood starvation (or other self-induced abuse in the extreme) some skills – they will likely implement them to an extent and survive for quite some time. The will to stay alive is an amazing thing. Will it be sustained? Who can say? Some people “get by” for their whole lives relying on skills that serve them externally but never find themselves and the wonderful reason they are. Some people are able to start their work with the skills and develop themselves as they implement them. I'm not saying my way is for everyone by any means – just sharing my experience.
I remember feeling such a visceral emptiness when I thought of myself. The idea that whatever was so empty in me could possibly be helped was beyond my imagination.
What I was eventually provided with was a safe place to grow. It was like being placed in a nest for as long as I needed to be there. There were people protecting me and helping me break longstanding habits. There is an element of habit in eating disorder behaviour. It was a place where I was safe to attempt to make many behavioural changes that had been posed to me over the years as part of this idea of “recovery”. With my “structures” being deconstructed one by one, I was left with just my small, raw self. This was terrifying for me but once I accessed that, I was able to begin my real growth and development.
Slowly, I explored “me”. As my mind was ready, I discovered more of what was real. I'm not talking about finding what I like to do and how I like to do it. Though that came too, it was more about realizing that I and all that I really am, and have been since my life began. The core of me: my skills, flaws, imperfections, and talents; a make up that I could value and was deserving of nurturing and love.
Once this was established, I could go on to work on all the things people had been trying to teach me over the years. What was so amazing to me was that I was given the chance to do this in my words, on my terms, and as was right for me. Since leaving treatment I have discovered that many skills I have now are part of what conventional therapies offer. A significant difference regarding the ability to implement these ideas is that I had the time to develop a platform. All the skills taught to me are supporting the platform that is me. What I do reinforces or grows this platform of me-ness. The “me” in this had to be developed first.
I admitted that I have experienced some “eating disordered thoughts”. The difference now is that they are just indicators of the need to get back to my platform, do an inspection, and probably perform some maintenance.
If I was not given the platform of me and been able to take the time to culture love and respect for that me, I know that I would have lived at high risk for relapse if not acutely ill for lengths of time. What is there to fight for when what you think you are is worthy of tolerance at best and/or hate more often? Would you fight for you if you hated you?
I don't have any real solutions to offer regarding common treatment approaches, and that is hard.
I set out with the intention of discussing the idea that living with the mental abuse an ED voice but not acting on it does not have to be what recovery looks like. That would never have been sustainable for me but that doesn't mean it is not for others. It was not desirable to me and I want others who want more to know that “getting by” does not have to be the best that one looks towards.
I know that something vastly different is possible. I can say that the only thing I have to “learn to live with” is the awareness of how I occasionally receive messages from my intuition. I still believe that could change sometime for me. For now, it is how I am prompted to listen.
It takes an immense strength to fight against the behaviours that are offered as solutions by the negative beast in a disordered mind. With practice, that part gets better even with an underdeveloped sense of self – practice always helps! To face one's self as needed and truly, openly reflect, takes a different kind of strength. It also lends itself to a wonderful forward flow of growth and development. I know I wouldn't want to live in any other way.
My greatest wish is that each person could be placed in a nest as needed. To crack their shell and hatch; develop their wings and eventually, when they are ready - fly.
(All images uncredited - my apologies. Random internet finds.)