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.


* I gathered information about the medical aspects of anorexia from my doctor and therapists, and put it into my own words. Though I love to dish out random, unsolicited diagnoses, I am not a real doctor.


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