This blog post has been difficult to write. I am writing it with the same aim as all of my blog posts: to fight against the myths surrounding mental illness and physical disability by publishing my experience of living with, and recovery from, various mental and physical health conditions.
We are two weeks into 2017 and I’ve been hit with a truth nugget: I’m still not over my eating disorder. To everyone around me this is probably really obvious but I was thinking that because I’m eating something (what I think is loads, but it probably isn’t) and I don’t look like I’m dying anymore that means I’m recovered. But those are external things. What’s going on in my head and coming out in bizarre behaviour and reactions is definitely not ok.
On 2nd January, after wandering around in the cold finding somewhere that I was happy to eat, I sat down to a vegan salad with sourdough (I told myself I would eat half the slice) and then my companion made a negative comment about his food. This triggered my eating disorder voice off: “if he doesn’t like his food we shouldn’t either, maybe we shouldn’t eat ours, we could get annoyed at him being negative and not eat ours, we can’t enjoy it if he isn’t, he’ll think we’re greedy…” of course it’s not as clear as this, the negative thoughts just manifest as a feeling of dread and anxiety that make me want to run out the door. I felt angry (I thought I was angry at him, but actually I was angry at myself) and anxious and confused and I went very quiet. Afterwards he said “that was weird” and I went into victim mode; at first I was defensive, then I started being self-deprecating saying that I was crazy and difficult. This is a low move, to become self-deprecating when someone is trying to open up a conversation with you about your behaviour means that you make them feel like the ‘bad guy’ and they don’t feel able to express themselves to you. So then I stopped myself. I realised I was being a victim and stopped. This was hard. I tried to be pragmatic; I blamed my quietness on my tiredness, my M.E. and I planned not to exhaust myself on future visits. I apologised for my poor mood.
Then I sat down by myself and thought about it. Why did I react in that way? I realised that I still need a positive atmosphere around food, because I still have a problem with food. My eating disorder voice, ‘Ana’ as we tend to call her, will use anything she can get her hands on and twist it to punish me. I can fight against her, most of the time, but only if I am in control of the situation. At home I plan and cook all the food. When I leave the house I take ‘safe’ snacks with me to supplement food bought in restaurants (usually salads and soups). This makes eating out with me a nightmare for me and for my companions as I often become anxious and withdrawn. I told myself that this control is because I have food sensitivities, which means that if I eat certain foods I’ll feel ill and make my M.E. symptoms worse. These food sensitivities weren’t based on medical tests, just on what I thought I felt, which I realised was probably just Ana manipulating me.
My anorexia started when I was 18 because I was became very anxious about going to sixth-form college and about the symptoms of M.E. I was experiencing. My anxiety was so high that I could barely eat (anorexia nervosa means anxious loss of appetite) so my stomach shrunk to the extent that eating anything was painful. Thus I associated food with pain. I was treated for irritable bowel syndrome and given a special diet of foods less likely to cause irritation to my system. Along with counselling, the safe diet helped me to eat again and gain weight. Treatment of M.E. also involves similar diets as digestion is affected by the illness as the body is not diverting energy to the digestive system. However, it meant I was still denying myself certain foods and punishing myself if I ate them; imagining symptoms that may not have been there but created by my anxiety and manipulated by Ana. I still weigh and measure everything to make sure I’m eating proper portion (not too much, not too little) but I become anxious if I’m unable to do that which shows that I still have a problem.
So in the New Year I decided to take control and have a food intolerance test to find out, medically, what I should actually be avoiding. My safe diet had involved no gluten or dairy and in the past 8 months I had cut out sugar and meat too (I’ve yo-yoed with vegetarianism since I had the virus that I think first gave me M.E.). The test showed reactions to wheat but not gluten, the gluten-free grains buckwheat and millet that I’d been eating lots of, eggs which I’d been eating lots of to replace meat and yeast which also means fermented foods which I’d been eating lots of. I’d been on an anti-candida (anti-yeast) diet over the summer as a test had shown candida in my gut. Yeast intolerance covers so much more than just bakers and brewer’s yeast, it also encompasses mushrooms, vinegar, fermented foods, alcohol and recommends a very low sugar diet including avoiding high GI fruits and dried fruits. I had mixed feelings. I was glad to finally have a definitive answer to what I shouldn’t be eating. Whilst I have been trying to use my intuition to decide what is and isn’t good for me, now that I’ve realised Ana is still on the scene, I have to be careful about which thoughts and feelings to trust. Right now science is the better option. I also felt overwhelmed at the changes I’d have to make, at how difficult eating out would be and upset that I’d been feeding myself the wrong things and hurting myself for so long. I did research, I went on a mammoth food shopping trip and then collapsed in a shaking heap in the evening having an M.E. flare up, a sure sign of how overwhelmed I felt. Anorexia is dangerous enough on its own, when combined with M.E. it creates an even more complicated beast.
I spoke to my psychologist at The Optimum Health Clinic about all the above revelations. She reassured me that I didn’t need to feel bad about hurting myself, being a victim or for my irrational behaviour because I didn’t do it on purpose. My inner child was trying to protect me, at the time these behaviours served me but they no longer do. Also an eating disorder is a mental illness that is trying to trick me, the fact that I’m even in a position to fight it is something I should be proud of. The fact that I’ve now realised what is going on means that I can take action to stop it and recover. She gave me my new mantra “If you can see it, you don’t have to be it”.
So I’ve told my loved ones that I’m still struggling with Ana and need their support. I’ve unsubscribed and un-followed all the healthy food and fitness blogs and Instagram accounts that I was looking at every day. Even following healthy food blogs indicates an obsession with food which is unhealthy for someone recovering from anorexia. I’m going to stay away from magazines and Facebook. The only source I’m allowing myself is recipes for making meals for my new eating requirements, with my mum’s supervision. In the coming days I’m going to do something creative, I’m going to see a fun musical and go to a film about body positivity and I’m going to go dancing. I’m going to keep fighting, I’m going to be ok and Ana can go f**k herself.