Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Creativity saves the day

Today started with a feeling of dread. As time goes on in this eating disorder, hope is leaching out of me. I'm doing what I can, but I feel incredibly stuck. I have had the growing sense that I am very slowly going down the plug hole. I keep eliminating stuff off my 'Things to do, and people to talk to' list, because I come away hurt. I'm so blinking sensitive - tears keep leaking out. My world has shrunk and I now live out of one corner of my bedroom, wedged behind my heater.

So before I got out of bed this morning, I decided that no good was likely to come of the day. My grand plan was this: take the kids to school; come home; get into bed; hide under the covers. That's it. I didn't have a single drop of happy in me. 

But then...and thank goodness for the but then...sensible me, the adult one, stepped in. She's a bit bossy, but that's what I need sometimes. She just said: Draw. Something. Anything, it doesn't matter what. You don't feel like it but do it anyway. It doesn't have to be a masterpiece, just do it to keep you hands busy and the doom at bay. With the self imposed pressure of having to create 'proper art' removed, I agreed. I felt very slightly more optimistic. I pondered what to draw - just something enjoyable, something safe. Feathers are nice, I thought. Soft, pretty, easily damaged. Lots of stringy bits. That'll keep me busy for awhile! Again my mood was lifted, and by quite a lot. Ok great, said the bossy one Just draw a fucking feather.

With that decision made, I was off - I started looking at pictures of feathers. Hey, look at these feathers, they're really lovely! Their beauty lifted my spirit, and took me out of myself. I was aware of the improvement in my mood, reminded again how powerful creativity is for me. So I looked up blogs on art therapy, and found lots of people who practise it to recover from trauma or manage mental health. There were paintings, pottery pieces, sculptures. I came across one woman's work that I particularly liked. That's beautiful! Look at the colour she has used! Maybe I could do colour? My things have been a bit bleak and monotone. I know, I could do a series! Maybe I could email her, and tell her that I like her art. I wondered if there might be a place for me in that community and resolved to always draw something to go with each post in my blog, because it's so uplifting.

In the space of half an hour, I had gone from hopelessness to optimism, and dread to excitement. I had a small hope for a connection, and found a potential new way to engage with the world. Further still, my inner self - the sad one, was strengthened, and I didn't need the bossy version of me anymore. No need to call it a fucking feather - poor, sweet thing! I felt protective towards the feather, had a plan for the day, and I liked it. I hurried the kids along, suddenly eager to get on with it all.

Creativity had zapped my gloom with a shot of the good stuff.



Saturday, 25 July 2015

Damn you, body dysmorphia!

In my early meetings at the eating disorder clinic, the doctors and therapists wanted to know how I perceived my body. They asked questions like: 'Do you think you're fat?' and 'When you look in the mirror, what do you see?' I knew what they were angling at - they were trying to see whether I had body dysmorphia. My answer was always a confident "Nope! I don't think I'm fat. I know perfectly well what I look like and have all my faculties about me, thank you very much!". I knew that saying I was fat would sound silly, and I was not having a bar of it. I felt so indignant, that when I began this post (two days ago), I titled it: 'Pah! I don't have body dysmorphia!'. But the closer I examined my thoughts, the harder it was to deny.

When I look in the mirror, I can see angles in places there didn't used to be. There have been times I would catch a glimpse of myself in a shop mirror unexpectedly, and be shocked at the image of the person looking back at me. Crikey, she's looking a bit rough, I would think. It's not like I can't see what's in front of me, and on some levels I get it, but there is something a bit funny going on.

My concept of body dysmorphia had come from those terrible made for TV movies - the type where a girl looks into a mirror and sees a huge, pulsating reflection of herself, accompanied by nauseating music. Well my reflection is perfectly still. I don't hear a taunting voice saying fat. No, I hear: chunky; solid; All Black*. So no problem here, right...? What I think happens, is that there is some sort of communication issue (I'm a doctor in my imaginary life only, so this a isn't physiological fact). My eyes take information in correctly, but my brain twists it all up into gobble-de-gook. And that becomes what I believe.

It's all deeply confusing. At the clinic, I glance surreptitiously at girls in the waiting room and think Yikes, she's very skinny. So thin she might snap. I feel absolutely sure I have never been like that. Yet the doctors used words like 'emaciated' around me, and I felt very embarrassed, like it was all a terrible mistake. I was a fake, a fraud - those words surely didn't apply, I was way too big for that.

Clothes shopping has been a very odd experience. At my lowest weight, my steps felt light and unsteady. I wasn't fitting my skin properly anymore, and I could see that in the mirror. But somehow that awareness didn't transmit into what I understood about myself. Before all this weight loss, I would flick through the racks of clothing, occasionally pick up the tiniest sizes and guffaw Who could fit this?! It must be for the Oompa Loompas. I didn't know of any actual adult humans that would fit such a size and was certain it would never be appropriate for me. After my dramatic shrinkage, I needed to buy new clothes, so I went shopping. I started trying things on, gradually working my way down the number system, discarding each size as I went, until I found myself confronted with sizes that had previously been unfathomable to me. Well, this is ridiculous, I thought, It's just embarrassing. Clearly, they've made a mistake and screwed up the sizing. But they hadn't. I simply could not accept what was apparently obvious, and still can't. My mind boggles - was I absolutely, horrendously, ginormous before?

Shopping after gaining a little weight (I'm a few kilos up from my lowest weight) is weirder still. Recently I got a call for a job interview - I had nothing to wear, and less than an hour to get ready. I raced down to the shops and into a clothing store. I was focused: Tops. Now. Interview. I grabbed a bunch of items from the rack, hit the changing rooms, and then went out to look in the mirror. The shop assistant came over and scrunched up her face, almost winching. "What size is that?" she asked. I told her. "Yeah...no, that's not the right size. We'll start you off with these", she said, as if to a clueless child, and handed me some much smaller sizes. The clothes I had chosen were far too big, yet I had felt so confident with my newfound weight gain. I really thought I would be my old, regular size - or close enough to it - because I felt and believed I was 'so big'. How could I possibly not fit them?. If I went out today, the same thing would happen. I just can't wrap my head around it, and it really pisses me off.

So I'll say it now: the view I have of myself is distorted, and I know that's what body dysmorphia is. I was reading about its definition this morning, and I found out something else. It is also described as an anxiety disorder, where a person puts their physical appearance under intense scrutiny, and can become obsessively preoccupied with a perceived physical flaw. It was when I read that I thought bollocks, and changed the title of my post.

There is a constant stream of nonsense running through my mind: Why does my thigh look like that? Am I bigger than her? What's up with my rib cage?. It's particularly bad at the moment because I am going to be weighed at the clinic soon. My head is a merry-go-round of paranoia, and no part of me escapes critique. I am constantly trying to get a grasp of what I look like, yet I hate it that I care. Along with all the usual suspects that are scrutinised - stomach, legs etc. there are crucial examinations to be done on less obvious body parts. I am busy, busy, busy, assessing the size and shape of everything, and gauging how each part affects my weight. I rounded up some of these thoughts, and below is some of the actual shit that I am obsessing over.
  • I have a surprisingly large head circumference Indicative of heavy head?
  • My teeth are big: Seriously, these suckers must be weighty
  • Voluminous hair: Even after a vast amount of hair loss due to starvation, I still have big hair. I put it on the scales to check its weight (really hard to do, by the way).
  • I think my lungs are big: Based on the fact I have excellent lung capacity and can hold my breath for a really long time. The bastards are weighing me down!
  • I have two disproportionately large feet: Thorough inspection of all the ladies feet at yoga undertaken. And yep, including toes, mine appeared to be the biggest. 
You see? It's so complex, I don't have time for a job!. Really, I know none of this stuff matters - size, shape and weight have nothing whatsoever to do with the value of any person. Nobody cares what Mother Theresa weighed, or about the size of Jesus's trousers or what Ghandi's body mass index was. It's completely irrelevant. But somehow, I now care about it all - an inordinate amount - and I don't know how it happened. I loathe that my brain is not working as it should - that it is tricking me. It is hard to accept, and very hard to admit to.


*All Blacks are NZ rugby players, and usually very burly.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Recovery begins

Just over four months ago, my mental and physical health was in decline. I was getting scared. Whenever I stood, black dots would crowd my vision and my heart would race as it struggled to cope with basic movement. I was dizzy all the time, and everyday things like crossing the road with my kids, driving, even standing in the kitchen cooking their dinner had become precarious activities. It is one thing starving if I was responsible only for myself, but another thing entirely having three little humans to look after. As hideous as it is to admit this, it was getting dangerous. After a particularly bad few days, where I'd had trouble getting off the couch, something in me snapped. I hit the brakes. There were some hard truths staring me in the face, and I could no longer ignore them, so I wrote them down. Below is what I wrote - it is a sort of declaration to myself, and it marked the very beginning of recovery.

There is a thing in my frontal lobe. It is shaped like a shield, and it sits at the very front of my brain. Last night, it was very clear, and heavy too. It drove me forward, and like a ship rounding a bend I am not heading for the bottom anymore, but propelling myself away from it. This morning, the shield is a little weaker – its weight is diminished as fear crept in overnight, so I am writing this to make sure it doesn't vanish.
The shield in my brain is covered in writing. The words speak of things I know; things that will not change, or problems that will not be solved with more weight loss. In fact the words will only become more significant if I continue starving myself, and their truth will become tangible.
This is what it says:
I know what it looks like for my children to have no mother, because I have imagined it. I felt their loss. This is not okay, and it never, ever will be.
There will be a point - and it is soon, if not already – that I cannot look after my children safely. I can fix this situation by eating and I am strong enough to do this.
I do not deserve to starve because of all the things that happened to me. I did nothing wrong. I deserve nourishment because I am a human being, like every other human being, and I matter because I am here and that is enough. I know how to look after myself, and it is okay to do this.
Some people will know what to say, others won't. Some people will validate my experience, others won't. That doesn't matter. I own this starving body, and I don't need them to tell me if it is real or not. My body is unwell, and so is my mind and that is how things are.
I have the strength to get out of this prison, and I can do it alone. I have support, and will get more soon, but it is me and only me who can carry this through. Nobody else.
There is no way I can have the life I want, if it is a life with anorexia. I will get increasingly sick - physically and mentally, until I can't function. This will happen. Even now, I cannot think or move properly. I don't know what the future holds without this illness, but I do know what it holds if I continue: ill health, loss of the care of my kids, misery, hospital, death.

Writing therapy

Writing is a vent where I can blow stress and sadness out. I write in a journal, and now here in this blog. Written expression anywhere is cathartic and helps me to process things, but the blog and my journal differ. When I am done writing in my journal, I close it up and the words stay hidden inside. They never even venture outside of my bedroom. Like screaming into an empty room, it feels good to get it out - to have done something, but when the noise dissipates, the energy of the words linger. They stay forever in the room with me. Here, in this blog, when I finish my words fly out, untethered, into the universe, and writing ends with an opening rather than a closing. With that comes a very small hope, someone might reach out and catch my words as they float by. Maybe one day somebody will send their words out and I will be the catcher! In an illness that shuts connections down, the internet opens the possibility for connection up.

I had thought today that I would start with some sort of warning, to alert you to the wallowing. Reader beware: self pity ahead. But then I realised that judging or apologising for difficult emotion is part of my problem. Acknowledging feelings, and then releasing them is exactly the right thing to do, and writing is one way I can do it.

Our culture encourages us to keep going no matter what. Get up, get over, chin up, move on, think positive, sort your shit out, join in, achieve, achieve, achieve. This way of being is a pervasive part of the world we live in. When difficult 'life stuff' happened, and I struggled with sadness, anger, hopelessness and grief, I didn't allow myself to stop and work through it, or even really acknowledge it. The overwhelming sentiment from virtually everyone (myself included) was to keep on going. Our culture would prefer we deny, avoid, bury or solve away suffering in whatever way we can, as quickly as we can. The full expression of our humanity is curtailed. Hard emotions just get parked, and with that, we lose our ability to learn and truly heal. My eating disorder gives this thinking (what my kids call) the bad finger. It says Shut. The. Hell. Up. It was keeping on that made me really unwell.

I want a life that is authentic, fulfilling and healthy, so I need to sort through all the hard things. I have to soak in the muck and really get a good lather up in order to understand and repair. It is painful, frustrating, probably uncomfortable to be around and apparently very slow, but if I don't do it, my problems will most likely resurface another day. And god help me, I do not want to be starving when I am 75. I want to be eating dark chocolate truffles, deep fried camembert, and hokey pokey ice-cream. For breakfast. So today, as part of my effort to get well, I am going do something SUPER fun. Yes folks, I am going pro-actively wallow in, and express hard emotion. ARE YOU EXCITED??!!

So here we go:

When I woke this morning, I did something foolish. I weighed myself. Already heavy with sadness and hopelessness, the numbers on the scale just made me feel worse. No matter which way I turn in the prison I am in, I feel like I fail. The walls are closing in on me again.

Above me - the ceiling - is weight gain. It's unbearably noisy up there with the sound of judgement. The judgement comes both from within me, and from lots of people (almost always women) around me. For the most part, I barely know these people, but they have been very vocal along the way - congratulating me as I lost weight, chiding me when I dropped too low, and now they if I gain weight they shout You look SO WELL! They cluck and fuss, hurrying me along Are you working yet? You could do this thing and that thing and isn't it such a relief, you are looking so much better!? Their voices echo the wider cultural message: Quickly now, let's sweep this bad stuff under the carpet and get on. I feel pressure to perform, and I smile and nod in agreement, but their comments, however well intentioned, leave me feeling disconnected. They make assumptions based on the way I look, and it slows or reverses my progress. Recovery needs to come from a place of genuine healing in me, or it's not recovery. Until I can become more resilient to the racket, the way up seems impossible.

Below me is weight loss. I've been down there, had a good look around. I banged my head against the concrete a number of times before I conceded that losing weight was not working. The answers I desperately needed weren't there, no matter how much I wished it were so. I know this, but I am still am drawn downwards. It's an instinct that is proving very, very hard to shake. When I lose weight, I feel guilt and fear for my children - they deserve me well, and that fact will never change. When I am in bed at night sometimes my heart doesn't thud quite as it should. It is slower and weaker than my healthy heart. Stupid heart. So inconvenient, I think, then Poor heart! It hasn't done anything wrong! And I get confused because of course I am too robust and large for that to still be happening.

The walls on all sides of me are the confines of each day. None of my eating patterns are healthy, but I have a variety of behaviours now, so each day is slightly different. I still almost always aim to restrict my food, and that's mostly what happens. On a restrictive day, I under eat and follow a precise set of rules. I feel calm, in control, and very sad. If my resolve to restrict weakens - and it only need be for a second - I hurl a mass of sugar at my emptiness in a frenzied binge. As I shovel food in, panic grows. I know I have to get rid of it. I purge chaos and failure down the toilet along with the contents of my stomach. Once it is over, I feel calm and steady again, relieved to be 'back on track', at least until the next round. Then there is the third sort of day: the wildly confusing 'everything' days. On these days I try and do it all, but feel desperately lost. I pile in junk food; then I have a go imitating normality - I might eat a healthy lunch; then I panic and restrict, putting a halt to it all with black coffee or diet drinks. Eating normally seems utterly out of reach, and whichever way I go, I feel hopelessly trapped.

(NB. You might want to put your gumboots on to wade through the next bit - it gets pretty murky.)

Depression is making things look particularly bleak at the moment. It is creeping over me like a damp, thick mist and I can't see very far ahead. Every minute is too long, and the hours are torturous things which just have to be endured until a time when I can sleep again.

There are things I know I could have done today, to help clear a little breathing space, but they were beyond me. I tried drawing this morning, which usually helps, but my eyes keep filling with tears and I couldn't see what I was doing. Drips fell on the page and smudged my drawing, which made me sadder still, because the picture was ruined. A walk would have been good for me too - but when I stepped outside, I saw the world was bright and bustling - people were out enjoying themselves, and it just reminded me that I was not because I am lonely and lost. So I turned back inside, shut the door and the curtains too. I wished someone would reach in to my dismal day (reaching out seemed too hard), but if the phone had rung I wouldn't have answered because I would have been afraid, not knowing who it was.

At midday I retreated to my bed. It was warm, and the blankets wrapped around me felt almost like a hug. I lay for while, a bundle of sadness, nothing in me but tears. But when I listened closely, I heard words swimming around and they were looking for a way out. So I emerged far enough out from under my covers to type this. For today, writing has been my companion and my comfort.

It isn't a lot, but it is just enough.


Friday, 17 July 2015

The insidious creep

When I first met my doctor at the clinic, she drew me a little oval, which represented my head. She then drew a second oval, representing the eating disorder. She asked me to show her how much head space I felt my illness took up. Here is a slightly fancier version of what I drew:

The doctor explained their goal: to try and strengthen my healthy, rational self, so that I could gradually work my way out from the shadow of the eating disorder. Although there was just a slither of my head not dominated by the illness, they could talk to that part - reason with it, encourage and nurture it, so that eventually, the two parts might separate completely.

Diagrams make it look nice and simple - if only it were like that! This process can take months, years or even decades. For some people, it doesn't happen at all. The healthy part of a person's mind can be overwhelmed by anorexia. Brain physiology comes into play too - starvation diminishes cognitive function and makes thinking more rigid. So for recovery to happen, both biological and psychological obstacles need to be overcome*. It isn't expected that the eating disorder would disappear altogether, rather that a person might be able to reclaim physical and mental health, while remaining aware of the disordered part and the thoughts that come with it. The goal is to keep it at a safe distance, where it no longer calls the shots. 

What this exercise did, very quickly, was allow me to see my illness as a separate entity. In other words, it was something I had rather than something I was. It helped make sense of an illness that defied my logic. Rationally, I did not want to be like this - I had kids to look after, a house to run and a life to get on with. And I really liked food! I could see that my behaviour and thinking had become completely warped, yet I felt powerless to change it. But even at my worst, I was able to use logic and voice my objection to it all - even seeing the humour in some of the absurd stuff I did. Trying to weigh half a teaspoon of marmite is just silly. So is putting socks on the food scales, lest my weight be a wildly inaccurate 50 grams out at the doctors office. I could laugh at it. And I could do that because it wasn't me - I was still intact. Once I understood this distinction, the eating disorder started to take on a form of its own in my mind, with a shape and a voice. I started to recognise when it spoke.

The eating disorder is a hateful tyrant. It spits out a constant stream of abuse - all the things you might expect around size and shape. It gets loud in there, and it's exhausting. For someone without an eating disorder, this might be hard to relate to. Hearing voices is bad, right? But I think most of us probably have a version of this voice, even when we're completely healthy. It is the critic inside you, and it might be so much a part of the woodwork you are barely aware of it. It may be a sarcastic overseer with a droll sense of humour - the one that says You dick if you say something you feel silly about. Or the voice that says You can't, because you don't have the talent, brains or courage. Maybe it's the voice that keeps you drinking when you know you should stop, and then abuses you as you lie in bed hungover the next morning. In (really unofficial and just invented right now) psychological terms, it's the Generally Unhelpful Shithead part of your psyche. In anorexia, the voice is amplified to such a degree that healthy thoughts are crowded out, and balance is lost. It is unrelenting, in control and focused on body size. In this Tedx talk, Laura Hill, the speaker, does a really good demonstration of the noise these voices make, and what it feels like to have them in your head.

As my awareness of the voice increased, I got curious about what the illness looked like, but it lurked in the shadows, was slippery and hard to catch. I imagined it dark and sinewy, with fingers like spindles that worm their way into every crevice. The more I thought about it though, the clearer its presence grew, and I decided to draw it. This is what it looks like:

What a nasty bastard! It is a he, by the way, but I usually call him it. 
He is civilised on the outside, all buttoned up and neatly attired, but the clothes can't disguise what an evil, shouty beast he is. Once I could look at the eating disorder on the page in front of me, I could see it for what it was and do some judging of my own. The tangible form separated it even further from me. My odds had improved.

It is very difficult battling something so insidious. At this very moment, the eating disorder is busy at work. It is slithering around inside my head, tightening things up. I know this, because in the last few days, I have been restricting my food more. I have also reinstated some behaviours that I had been having a little success letting go of. When this happens, I know it is trying to talk. I tried to work out what it was saying, and I think I figured it out.

You see what a creep it is? It comes in and steals the words right out of my mouth.

The eating disorder doesn't like my blog. All this exposure is making it nervous. It says Stop all this yapping about trying to get better, I'm still really sad and I will show you who's boss. It's like an intense game of chess, and my opponent is very clever. I might not be winning, and it's certainly not fun, but at least I'm participating in the match. I'll go now and figure out my next move. It's dinner time.


Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Strange behaviour

Being trapped in an eating disorder has radically changed the way I behave. Lots of the shifts I made were small to begin, and outside of an eating disorder, would have been benign. But these little changes started to stack up, momentum built, and pretty soon there was a huge mess of things that weren't me swirling around. There were whole systems in place governing the way I behaved. Choices no longer felt like my own. For now, a good deal of the time, I am not acting like the person I identify as, and sometimes I do things that go against my values. I'm going to tell you about a few of them.

I used to love milky tea, very sweet, with three heaped teaspoons of sugar. I always had to say the 'heaped' bit really firmly, otherwise people didn't understand that I actually wanted five teaspoons. I have replaced it with coffee, taken black and bitter. It's a simple change, no big deal in itself. But as well as switching from white to black, sweet to bitter, I have swapped pleasure for punishment. I ignore my preferences and refuse myself comfort. The pay off is control: I can curb my appetite, reduce my calorie intake, and fill in gaps in time so that I'm not thinking about food quite so much. So it's not about the tea or the coffee, but the exchange of emotions. The sense of calm that control brings me right now is far more seductive than the fleeting bit of pleasure I would get from a sweet cup of tea. Denial has come to feel good, but it's just pain in disguise and it's dangerous because it's addictive.

Usually, I love to cook for people. I can spend a day or more faffing around in the kitchen doing all sorts of unnecessarily lengthy food prep. I look forward to these occasions, enjoy the planning, cooking and then the sharing. In this illness, the contrast is stark. I avoid social situations that involve food, because it causes me so much anxiety. So if I have guests, either they go without, or just point them in the direction of the toaster and I make myself scarce. It's terribly embarrassing. This is not who I am or how I want to be! A few weeks ago, I was having a friend around, and the prospect of providing food loomed. My mind set in the beginning was good - I thought I was ready for the challenge and off I went to the supermarket. I thought: I'm going to buy some snacks, and eat with my friend. Yup. I'll just eat the food, and it will be fine! Very quickly, though, the familiar pattern of thinking took over: You know, I could just have a little bit. Just so it's not awkward. But what can I eat? I can't remember what to buy. Hmmm...too many calories in that...I can't eat this...or that...or that... Oh, I know! I'll just make my friend something nice and I won't have any. He'll understand. What do normal people eat? Maybe a homemade flatbread thing, or pita bread and dippy thing. Which dip? But no, that's too delicious, I might want to eat it and that would be an unmitigated disaster. Oh, I could make a pizza! That would be nice! But would I be expected to eat some? Could I make it for one person? Would that be weird? Round and round my thoughts went until they were just a bunch of little, tight knots. I left the supermarket empty handed. On the way home, I stopped to buy some beer, because at least I could offer my friend that. As I went up to pay, I nervously grabbed a bag of crisps and chucked it on the counter. There. Done.

For me, one of the oddest things about the eating disorder, is that I am knee deep in maths. With weight, body mass index, calories, measurements and nutritional content to keep track of, there are constant calculations going on. It is a prison of numbers. And you see I hate maths. If someone tries to talk to me about numbers (dates, prices, GST, whatever) immediately my pulse starts racing and my head fills with the sound of loud baby cries. I can see that the person's mouth is moving, but I can barely hear them because of the baby (this is not even made up)(and it happened when I wasn't even bonkers). I don't do numbers. So how in the world could this have happened? In my normal life, I don't weigh myself, gauging my health by how I feel. I don't count calories, because, well, that's just really boring. Measurements can be handy when baking, but I even then, I was a bit lax. Of course technology makes all this maths a lot easier to deal with. App's which record, calculate and graph "progress" completely enable eating disorders. They allow for intensely detailed control over your disordered life. This was all at my fingertips and actually became an integral part of my illness. When I encounter a difficult situation, feel stressed, sad, lonely, or get strung out with the kids, I look at my App. I do some calculations. Numbers are chilling me out. Now that is weird.

This last one is hard to admit, because I'm ashamed. For a long time, and with an almost irrational passion, I have hated soft drinks. Some might even say, that when it comes to these drinks, I'm a total buzz kill. I hate the companies and what they represent, feel abject horror when I see kids drinking them for breakfast in the school ground, hate the chemicals and the plastic. And don't even get me started on diet drinks. I mean, what is it, exactly? But now? Oh my god. I have a walk of shame, and it leads me straight to my recycling bin. It is full to the brim with empty diet drink bottles. I try to hide the awful truth from myself and my kids by covering them with newspapers and old bits of cardboard. I have to scrunch it all up tightly to get the lid down, and believe me, it is a big bin. Worse still, when I am in the midst of a binge (and binges do happen, though I haven't spoken about them yet), the diet drinks have taken on some sort of cleansing role. It's like: Stop. Drink this. Clean yourself up. Clean up? Seriously? With that crap?

Sometimes I don't feel like I am getting anywhere, or that progress is painfully slow. I worry that the eating disorder is just changing form, rather than releasing its grip. But I want to reclaim some of the old me and I am taking small steps towards ridding myself of some of these behaviours. My reliance on the numbers, for instance, is starting to lessen. The App, with all my recordings and graphs, hasn't been used for a few days. It's like a baby learning to walk - I'm all unsteady and unsure. I need to practise being me again, but at least I am beginning to try.


Monday, 13 July 2015

Getting help

At the end of last year, I had got to the point where I knew I was in deep, and needed help, so I took myself off to see my doctor. I knew very little about treatment options then, and there is still an awful lot I don't know. What I am pretty sure about, is that restrictive eating disorders are very difficult to treat. There is no one solution that will work for everyone (annoying!), and if your health is in immediate danger, you'll be put in hospital with a tube stuck up your nose to feed you. My doctor gave me my bits of paper for a referral to the regional treatment facility with a small giggle and a 'Good luck!'. 

The clinic I go to, which specialises in eating disorders, is attached to a local hospital. They offer a full spectrum of outpatient support, bringing in various specialists as you need them. There are psychiatrists, psychotherapists, doctors, dieticians and more. It is very self directed - in other words, it is up to me if and when I want to access the help of any one person. There is no-one enforcing anything there, at least for those who aren't in immediate medical danger. I can shape what my treatment looks like.

Entering the waiting room for the first time, I felt very self-conscious. The walls are decorated with big cheery letters, and board games fill the shelves - all things aimed at making young people feel comfortable. Was I going to be the oldest? The fattest? The most fraudulent? Look at her, I heard them think, in this condition at her age... Did she never want to grow up? Does she want to be a model or something? Because...ummm, it's a bit late. My discomfort didn't last long though - the receptionist was friendly didn't give me a second look. There, I was exactly who they expected to see in exactly the state they are used to people being in. I was normal. I was boring! It was fantastic.

I have been having psychotherapy at the clinic for a few months now. It is unstructured and mostly undirected. It feels like a soft cotton cloud of support, all fluffy and nice. The therapist sits quietly, occasionally making gentle suggestions or acknowledgements, while I do most the talking. Sometimes I feel like I'm just crying 'poor me' over and over for an hour. The style of therapy is deep and open ended. At times, in my quest to get answers, I get just the teensiest bit aggressive. I try and get things moving with some motivational talk: 'Come on people! Chop chop! Let's draw up a fucking chart and put some ticks and crosses on it! Let's nail this sucker!'. But they don't do anything - they just look at me kindly. It makes me want to go stab out my eyeballs with a sharp instrument. At least that'd be action! There'd be blood and gore and movement! Somehow though, psychotherapy is having an effect. I have a much deeper understanding of my eating disorder than I did before I started, and I am not where I was five months ago. When I talk at length and without guidance, I wander into the recesses of my mind and my history. Once the contents are out of my head and in the room, I can stand back and have a hard look at it. Is it a good thing? Does it deserve a spot in my brain, and should I tuck it back in, or should I try and get rid of it?

I haven't taken up some other help they have offered as yet. I don't want antidepressants, nutritional supplement drinks or a meal plan. They don't feel right for me at the moment (especially not the meal plans - I'll be damned if I am going to commit to eating. No way José!), and I need to be in control. So long as I can keep myself healthy enough, they are able to respect my choices.

Alongside the psychotherapy, I have been going to see a psychologist, Penny (not her real name) - a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist. This style of therapy is practical and direct. It grabs your messed up thinking and behaviour by the balls and twists. I had been seeing Penny for a number of years, long before this all happened, so she knows me very well. She was there all last year, as I steadily lost weight, trying to steer me away from this. It was her who prompted me to go and get more help, and her who has kept me out of a hole buried six feet underground. Penny shows me what is already in my heart - that I want to survive and live, and turns my focus to where it needs to be.

Even though I have been having treatment for months now, it was only recently that I discovered some unhappy news about therapy. I found out that it guides you towards change. Deep-seated, excruciatingly difficult change. OUTRAGEOUS. This is not what I'd signed up for! I was very comfortable living in hell, thank you very much! I needed help, sure, but I wanted it to be painless and straightforward. Just some goddam answers that I could slap on, and be on my merry way. I don't want this difficult, murky shit! And I most definitely don't want to start actually eating properly again. Screw this, I thought, I'm outta here.

Except, I didn't get out. I'm still there, and I don't like that change is happening. It's very unpleasant. The ill part of me thinks its just a big conspiracy to make me fat, and there is no way in hell I am falling for it. The healthy part knows that this is for the best, that my children deserve a well mother and that I don't deserve this life either. And despite the uncomfortable nature of the things we deal with, my psychologist makes me feel and be better. I have yet to decide about the psychotherapy - the deep, wallowing, vague stuff. Every time I go, I feel like it might be the last time, but then I think Once more. Because what will happen if I leave? I am still restricting and stuck. What if I go downhill? Will I be able to achieve a full recovery, and be free of this for good, if I don't go in deep and explore all the dark corners of my mind? Or have I done enough to scrape through?


Saturday, 11 July 2015

What's it all about?

When I first sought help, the referral psychiatrist asked me if I could "Just eat some more." I was quite shocked, but his apparent lack of knowledge around eating disorders is pretty commonplace. And I get it - it's a really baffling, frustrating illness. God, I'm in it, and for the life of me I cannot understand how it has such a hold over me. There is so much confusion, so I'm going to try and explain a little of how it is for me.

People often think that eating disorders are about wanting to look skinny, or perhaps they're the result of a diet gone wrong. For some, I'm sure it starts that way, but it wasn't like this for me. In my healthy state, I never placed much value on external appearance, and I didn't believe in 'dieting' in the traditional sense. At least, that's the mind set I chose as an adult, and I stuck with it most of the time.  I'd have never admitted to an unhappy body image. As I lost weight, a lot of people assumed it was a positive thing. I would deny that it was something I wanted, and tell them the weight loss was stress related. Still, the applause I got (from women, in particular) as I descended into an eating disorder was deafening. I don't blame them though. It's the world we live in.

The most confusing thing for me is the conflict I have between what I thought I believed, and what I actually believe. Intellectually, I completely reject the negativity around body image that our culture is soaked in. All the pseudo science, the do-this-do-that diet, the thigh gaps and bikini bridges - I wasn't buying it, no way! These things had nothing to do with what good health, or even looking good, meant to me. I see my friends as beautiful, and they come in all shapes and sizes. They are beautiful to me because of who they are. Their stories, their spirit, their generosity and humour make them beautiful - and I don't just think it, it seems like it has an actual physical manifestation.

For the most part, I felt okay about myself - I didn't hate my body. If I was going out somewhere, and I made myself all shiny - brushed my hair, maybe painted my toenails, I could even feel good. Outwardly, I had an attitude of acceptance. A sort of  "Hey, here I am, I'm forty, my body has housed three babies, get-those-ridiculous-low-waisted-arse-showing-jeans-away-from-me, I'm OK" kind of thing. Aside from some excess wine, I was healthy. I have never liked junk food, and preferred fresh, colourful, home-made things. Beetroot, rocket, haloumi and chickpeas were my favourites. I went for walks and did yoga. It looked pretty solid, that picture. That woman, with that attitude, had remained intact and functioning through all kinds of trauma.

The thing was, and I am only beginning to learn and accept, is that there were gaping holes in that picture. When a series of major life stressors became too much to bear, I snapped. Layers of 'me' - my rational choices and thoughts were stripped away, exposing a belief system and emotional identity that was very problematic. It told me that I wasn't okay as I was. I was not acceptable, and never would be. I am embarrassed to admit, but along the way, I had taken in all of the body image bullshit that I believed I had rejected. And somehow, I thought that if I got smaller, thinner, bonier - if I got less, I would be better. I would be heard and my thoughts and feelings would be worth something. It felt as if thinness had power. All the pain and deprivation was deserved. I didn't know I had this messed up thinking in me, and I am not very happy about it!

These flawed, unhealthy beliefs that lay deep within me are what drove me. They are what makes this an disease of the mind, and one that is very difficult to treat. The power of this illness blows me away. I have endangered my health, drained much of the joy out of my days, and made myself live out, and actually become the exact opposite of who I thought I was.


Friday, 10 July 2015

In the middle of a muddle

Hello there. This is my first post, so I'll start with some basics. I'm a forty-two year old woman, and I live with my three children in a very small house, at the bottom of a hill in New Zealand. I am stuck in the middle of an eating disorder, and trying to find a way out. I have set up this blog in the hope that it will help me recover. It is such a solitary journey, so I hope also that I might meet some fellow travellers along the way. Here's my story.

I'd had an eating disorder when I was much younger, in early adulthood. I really thought the starvation business was behind me, but I was wrong. Last March, the heavy weight I'd been carrying on my back for a few years became too much to bear. The last drop of hope I had was squeezed out of me, and I began a rapid descent into the bleak, hateful world of disordered eating. I restricted my food intake, created a prison of numbers, and focused all my energy, emotion and thought to losing weight. And lose weight I did.

I won't talk about specific numbers regarding my weight or BMI on this blog (it isn't helpful for me or anyone suffering from an eating disorder who might be reading this), but I will say that my weight loss was significant. At my worst, more than a third of my body weight had vanished. It has taken me to very dark places, and I've been scared - that I had gone too far, that I was losing all control and that my health was in danger. My body and life were unrecognisable, and I didn't feel like a woman anymore. The numbers I saw on the scale were frightening me. I had to imagine my children living without a mother.

The fear that I felt at my lowest weight propelled me forward, beginning a sort of 'recovery'. It is where I am now. The eating disorder changes shape almost daily, and it's messy. I swing wildly between restriction, binging and vomiting, with very brief glimpses into what 'normal' eating might look like. My weight changes direction as often as my mind does. I want out and then I don't. I think I can and then I know it's impossible. I thrash around in a cage of my own creation, yet it seems to exist outside of me. It is incredibly frustrating - I want answers. I ask the therapists, I read, I listen, I Google and scour you tube, searching for the solution. Show me the way, and I'll do it! Just give me a diagram and let's get this done! What I know though, and what I hate, is that there is no one definitive solution. And the answer for me is, infuriatingly, in me. Somewhere.