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.