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.