Over the past semester I took the opportunity afforded by assignments for my Abnormal Psychology class to reflect on my recovery from Anorexia Nervosa. Here I have compiled some of the snapshots and insights I gained.
A Collection From a Semester of Reflection.
Eating Disorder as Addiction
(An excerpts from my Addiction Essay written for my Abnormal Psychology course)
“I can’t stop worrying,” my shoulders shake with weak sobs as I press my frail hard body into my Mother’s hug. “What do you mean, honey?” I can hear the concern in her voice; I’ve finally got her attention. What do I mean?! What do I mean? I can feel the truth words bubbling in my core; all the abstract thoughts that I won’t let out have become a toxic soup of denial held tightly inside. I want to shout, “I can’t stop! I can’t stop worrying about food. I can’t stop worrying about weight. I can’t stop worrying about my appearance.” But I know if I start I’ll have to purge it all, telling the truth about my 900 or 600 or 300 calorie intake goal each day, about almost fainting on my runs and going up stairs and while shadowing doctors, about the recipes I obsess over but whose product I won’t eat, about how cold I am all the time, and about my scale rituals every Thursday morning. I’ll not only tell the horrible truth about my behaviors but also about myself, that I don’t care about anything anymore, I can’t make decisions, I lack feeling, I’m scared, and more than anything else I CAN”T STOP. I no longer have the control. I don’t know how to put on the brakes but I know something is wrong with this cycle. But…I can not say all that, not yet. Partly due to my lips pressed so tightly together against my mother’s shirt holding back the poisonous tide writhing inside me that they are turning blue but partly because none of those thought are fully formed in that moment. I only find clarity in retrospect. However, that morning is a turning point. I do let some things out in a small terrified stream and together with my mother realize the nature of this controlling force inside me. They call it Anorexia Nervosa; I’ll call it an addiction.
My brother’s gentle hand rubbing my bony back only causes me to cry harder. I’ve woken him with my quite sobs and he sits next to my curled body on the purple covered bed asking, “What’s wrong?” My answer of “I’m so tired” does not even begin to communicate the deep exhaustion of the constant vigilance that is my life in recovery; I must continually monitor the negative thoughts my eating disorder feeds my brain, confront the foods I have come to fear, and wrestle with untangling myself from this addiction. I feel that I can never rest. I cannot step away from a bottle or a joint or the casino. I must engage and fight my addiction every day. Four and half years later that constant vigilance has taken a back burner in my brain; it still exists and always will but I no longer must engage in battle with every meal. This, if nothing else in this essay, shows how an eating disorder is an addiction. Addicts speak of the knowledge that they can always go back to the alcohol or the cigarette or the hours of porn. I live every day with the knowledge that I could go back to filling the gaps in my life with eating disorder behaviors. Nonetheless, I once again have a choice and I choose to be a stand for recovery.
Past and Present
(An excerpt from my Response Essay written for my Abnormal Psychology course)
I can see myself in her eyes. While I never became quite as emaciated as the anorexic woman staring out at me from the projector screen early on a Tuesday morning in my abnormal psychology course, I know her because in other ways I was her. As the intervention episode being shown during our eating disorder unit progresses, showing the skeletal woman exercising constantly, I am thrown backwards in time.
Running through the cornfield I can feel the burn in my legs and the onset of the slow high of emptiness. I have barely eaten today and yet the minute I returned home from my community college classes I compulsively slipped out the door for a long run. Despite my exhaustion I push myself to keep moving across the uneven ground as I calculate calories burning and quarter miles run in my head. I feel light headed but through the fogginess the voices that drive me forward slip through: “You have to exercise every day. Keep going.” “Maybe you can run only three miles today as long as you do sit-ups later.” “If you don’t finish your run you really shouldn’t eat as much for dinner.” My foot catches on a clot of dirt or an old cornhusk as suddenly I am on the ground with blackness streaking and spotting my vision. I blink hurriedly, feeling nauseous. “Don’t faint! Don’t faint.” I repeat these words to myself unfortunately frequently recently, head between my knees in bathrooms or biting the inside of my cheek standing in choir or on my runs. My vision clears and I can see the bright blue sky blotted with white clouds. Unexpectedly I am exhilarated. The sense of emptiness of having nothing left gives me a sense of power and, strangely, a burst of energy. “At least I can succeed at this,” I think as I pull myself from the ground and begin to run again.
Back on the projection screen the family of the woman with anorexia discuss her disorder as they socialize in the back yard while she hovers in the kitchen keeping herself proximal to food and distal to family. When her mother enters and asks a question about the lasagna she lashes out defensively and I see it in her eyes again.
I planned, cooked, and organized the Thanksgiving meal that year but, unlike the rest of my family, the experience was far from filling for me. I spent weeks reading myself to sleep with the stack of cookbooks and magazines that had grown next to my bed over the previous months. I tried to sustain myself with dreams and words of food instead of the real thing. I spent two days cooking, enjoying being near the food of which I would eat little. Mashed potatoes, sweet potato pie, fake turkey, gravy, salads, Greek olive bread, stuffing, cranberry sauce, fig red wine tart, chocolate swirl cheesecake, pumpkin pie, whipped cream, and on and on. It smelled like heaven and looked like a cooking show. When we sat down for dinner I looked about at the loaded plates and smiles of my family, basking in their enjoyment of the food. However, my mother noticed my scarcely populated plate. “Zoe, aren’t you going to eat more?” The defensive hackles my eating disorder had installed raised immediately and I lashed out, “I’m not that hungry. Really, I’m fine!” I could see the concern in her eyes and the questioning gaze of my relatives. “I’m fine. I’m fine. I ate a lot while cooking,” I made excuses and left the table as soon as possible to return to my kitchen full of food, quietly clearing plates and soaking alone in the guilty control I had over food. I was not filled in either body or in spirit.
I did not expect this flood of memories to bubble to the surface as I watched the intervention episode clip in class. I am solidly recovered and see extremely little potential of relapse. I thought that I had processed everything that needed to be processed. However, I have apparently buried some of the harder moments from when I was struggling; there are some things I do not want to remember. Now, on the one hand I have realized there is still work that could be done to come to terms with my past. Sometimes I cannot believe I did those things, the girl I see in the episode woman’s eyes is a shadowy reflection of a past self who I fortunately forget is there most of the time. But those memories will surface throughout my life and I will have to deal with them. On the other hand this experience shows me how much work I have done. I now run for joy without feeling faint. This Thanksgiving I felt true fulfillment from my plate and from human connection. Perhaps the fact that those memories are buried shows my competent coping. The fact that I live my day-to-day without thinking constantly about food, weight, or my past experience indicates that my life has new value and meaning. For that I am grateful.