Chapter 34 – Recovery
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” – Marianne Williamson
I may come across as dark and brooding, but deep down I’m an optimist. I had to be given what I went through. No matter how bad off I was, I tried to imagine a brighter future. Even when I was 80 pounds and could hardly stand on my own, I kept the belief that full recovery from anorexia was possible. Knowing that there were women who had achieved this helped me keep that belief alive. It helped keep me alive, period. The women who had recovered were some of the strongest women I knew. I hardly considered myself among these brave souls. On the contrary, I thought them in a league far beyond my capabilities, yet even today with a body that’s somewhat ravaged by years of self-destruction, I have hope.
I have found some odd similarities in the phases of recovery in talking to others who have gone through an eating disorder. The majority of the people who have had anorexia, for example, had a fixation on eating frozen yogurt. It seems a strange irony that with such severe restrictions on food, we would all include frozen yogurt in our limited diets. Of course, not all anorexics consume frozen yogurt, but it’s interesting to note that many do. Frozen yogurt can be consumed slowly and is filling and satisfying. In an odd sense, it’s the perfect diet food because it’s low in fat and can be consumed in small amounts while still providing oral satisfaction and satiety. In addition, a great number of people who were in the very beginning stages of recovery develop a weakness for cereal, especially granola. One woman I know had severe cravings for bagels, but the majority of the individuals I met preferred cereal. In fact, most of us actually binged on it at one time or another. It could be that cereal provides a wide variety of soothing textures and much-needed carbohydrates, but there seems to be an emotional response to cereal as well. It’s a food associated with childhood, for example – one that often conjures up images of Saturday mornings watching cartoons on TV. Cereal tends to have crunch appeal too, which is not only satisfying but can also help reduce tension. Unfortunately, the damage to the body that results from anorexia is unpredictable, and each body responds differently to the harsh conditions of starvation. Therefore, no recovery can be a carbon copy of another, and healing becomes a unique experience.
In many ways, anorexia is a blatant example of a vicious cycle. The more the body is deprived of nutrients, the more it shuts down and the more distorted the person’s thinking becomes. The digestive system in particular is affected when one is under extreme stress and starvation conditions. As the body ages, levels of hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes naturally decrease. This occurs more rapidly under stress. In the case of anorexia, it’s almost assured to happen rather quickly. The decrease in natural digestive juices leads to an inability to properly digest and absorb nutrients. This disruption can leave one feeling bloated and full, and can actually further starve the body of essential nutrients. In addition, there are neurons in the gastrointestinal tract that help transmit a wide variety of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin. Serotonin, in addition to having an effect on mood, also affects movement in the intestine. Damage to the neurons in the intestines can be caused by a variety of stressors, including parasites or pinworms, and can lead to a disruption of the transmission of neurotransmitters. It is assumed that improper nutrition can damage all cells in the body, including these neurons, decreasing the transmission of “feel-good” chemicals throughout. So even when normal eating resumes, it’s no guarantee that the body will come around and heal itself completely.
When I was in my late thirties, I was diagnosed with anemia, leaky-gut syndrome – a condition that affects the lining of the bowl – and several food allergies. My body is completely wrecked from years of overtraining and starvation. I have had so many stress fractures I have lost count: at least five in my feet, several in my pelvis, one in my heel – the list goes on. I have shortened tendons, stiff muscles, muscle shutdown and chronic back, leg, foot and hip pain. My digestive system is a mess, I fatigue easily, and my immune system is as delicate as a rare orchid in a windstorm. All of this sounds terrible, yet I’m happier now than I have ever been in the past. It may sound impossible to have so many problems and be happy, but considering where I once was, it’s true. I can't stress enough that my worst days now are far better than my best days when I was sick. Any pain or trauma in my life now pales in comparison to the darkness of anorexia. No matter how bad things get, I truly believe it will never be as bad as what I went through. I know it’s impossible to avoid pain and loss altogether, but I am more capable of moving through the hard times and better able to face uncomfortable feelings now. In addition, I feel that my health is returning. With continued efforts to eat well and manage moderate exercise, it’s highly likely that in time, my body will reach equilibrium.
In the meantime, I contemplate how this illness has served me. What was the payoff in staying sick versus getting well? The more I recover, the more responsibility I’m forced to take. As I see it, my anorexia helped me survive. It was a way for me to cope with events I felt were beyond my control. In order for true health to emerge, it’s important for me to find new coping mechanisms, ones that will better serve me in this lifetime. I must find the self-esteem and courage to speak out and stand up for myself rather than use harsh self-abusive methods to get messages across.
These days I’m haunted less by calorie-counting and compulsive exercise, and have relaxed the reins a bit. I no longer starve myself, and I don’t work out when I’m sick or overly tired. I have also cut back on exercise to a more reasonable amount of time per day. If I look at recovery and illness as a U, where the top of one side represents where I was before the anorexia started and the bottom of the U represents my lowest point, I would say I have climbed up from the bottom of the U, but have not yet reached the top of the opposite side. I can, however, see the top, or at least know that the top does exist. In addition, life has become more enjoyable as I let go of something that no longer serves me.
Most of the girls I know who have suffered through an eating disorder are in a boat similar to mine, somewhere between normal and anorexic. I have heard that most normal people have occasional body-image issues and struggles with food. I had a dream that if I could take a real leap of faith and land in infinite wisdom, I could learn to love my body, my mind and myself. Once, when I was running with a friend, we discussed how powerful the mind is. I told my friend I knew someone who stated that when one puts a heartfelt thought out to the universe, it becomes manifest. We came to the conclusion that if somebody truly believes something, it could and should come true. If this theory is applied to eating habits, it’s interesting to look at what our core beliefs around food are, how deserving we feel we are, and what our thought patterns are regarding what we put in our mouths. It’s not so much “you are what you eat” but “you are what you think about what you eat.” I’m not advocating that everyone go on a chocolate-truffle rampage, or that simply by thinking that consuming all of that chocolate is healthy the body will respond accordingly, but perhaps this theory is not so far-fetched. At least it offers some much-needed relief from the guilt that many of us experience when we don’t eat the most balanced of diets.
What I have noticed for myself in the last few years is that while I continue to dance with my illness, we have longer periods apart. At times, I become so immersed in a moment that I forget to be anorexic. This shows me that there is the potential to string more and more of these moments together. Living in the moment is not easy for someone who has spent years planning every meal, every workout and every second of every day, but every time I am able to live in the moment I know I’m doing the right thing for myself.
Oddly enough, I am happier with my body and more accepting of it now than when I was at my sickest. At 80 pounds, I constantly felt fat. Today, I sometimes forget my body. It has taken some time to learn to be kinder to myself, but I have had many people giving me support along the way. I once had to cut somebody out of my life for being too insensitive about my issues. It has taken a long time for me to be able to hear “you look good” or “you look healthy” or “you look great” and not feel fat. However, before I reached this point in the beginning stages of recovery, an acquaintance who had not seen me in several months met me for coffee. He said, “Wow, you look so…” and gestured with his hands as if he were feeling the weight of a large melon. I shook my head and immediately said, “Don’t even go there.” But he continued. “So meaty!” he concluded, smiling. Rather than throw my glass of water in his face like I wanted, I calmly said, “I can’t believe you could say that to someone who had anorexia for nearly 20 years. That was so not the right thing to say.”
Somehow I was polite as we finished our coffee, but I couldn’t let it go. I fretted about my eating for three days and convinced myself I was indeed fat. It saddened me to know that I could give someone this kind of power and not trust myself to even know whether or not I was at a reasonable weight. In the end, I came to the conclusion that my weight was fine for me. The next time I saw this guy, I told him I didn’t want any contact with him. It was a hard and somewhat drastic move, yes, but at the time it was what I needed to do. I couldn't risk a slide back into my illness. I wasn't strong enough at the time to be unaffected by comments like this. Eventually, I did forgive him, but at the time I knew it was unhealthy for me to be in his company. He seemed completely unable to understand how his comment had hurt me, and it seemed likely that he would spit out more hurtful comments again.
Sometimes, when people ask how I recovered as much as I have, I don’t really have an answer. I wish I could tell others who are suffering from this illness that you do x, y and z and then you are well. Unfortunately, anorexia is a very complex illness. I honestly don’t think that hospitals, doctors or therapists have all the answers. All these avenues can lead to a greater understanding of the disease, but it’s rare that any of them provide the cure. One thing that bothers me the most about a hospital setting is it doesn’t in any way prepare the individual to deal with life outside. Relapses in anorexia are more common than not. However, those who want to get well are far less likely to relapse. One has to want to get well and want it extremely badly before any change is likely to hold. Finding the courage to even express the desire to get well can be overwhelming from the perspective of an anorexic who feels helplessly trapped. Recognizing that the path to recovery is not easy, but can lead to a much better life, eases the tension of taking that first step, be it calling a counselor, admitting to a loved one or contacting a treatment center.
I wish I had the backbone and merit to wear one of those, “I Beat Anorexia” T-shirts with conviction. However, I feel that I allow my illness to lurk around in the shadows too much for me to believe in my heart that I am completely recovered. Learning to trust innate wisdom is the ultimate goal of anyone struggling to be healthy. A forgiving nature toward the self is essential for recovery. When first learning to eat better and let go of the harsh thinking patters of anorexia, I often had to ask myself if I would treat someone else this way. If the answer was no, I knew I was being too strict with myself. Strangely, it is often easier to treat others well. Treating myself with that same compassion and understanding has been difficult. Finding the strength to continue to make healthier choices can sometimes be fatiguing, but it has definitely made me a stronger, more sympathetic person. Maybe one day I will be proud enough to sport a t-shirt that lets people know I conquered my illness. Until then, I’m content to just be alive, all things considered.
I know full recovery is possible. I have seen it. There are women out there who lead full lives, no longer haunted by the anorexia demons that once ruled their existence. But the road to recovery is not easy. If I had known how hard it would be, I might not have made the essential first leap of faith that I did. On the other hand, now that I’m in a much better place, there’s no way I would ever, ever go back.
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