It’s been quite a while since I’ve updated my blog. I’m now back at work for two half days a week and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s been like starting a new job and returning from a long holiday all rolled into one and I found I’ve forgotten the most basic of things. So difficult it’s been that in fact that it’s been very hard to articulate. Ordinarily things turn out better than the the apprehension but actually it’s been much much harder. This time a year ago, I felt vital, fun, able to achieve and oddly (given my state of health) in control. Now I feel dumbed down, a lesser version than myself and unable to offer any value. This feeling is almost intolerable, so much so that on my latest and third session in work I almost got up and walked out; what stopped me is the knowledge that I can’t actually escape the intolerable, it follows me around like a slimy creature. I am a quieter, less interesting, dimmer version of myself. So yes, I’m sort of ‘back to work’ but at the moment it’s pretty hard to tolerate.
What they don’t tell you in an eating disorder clinic, and for good reason, is that once you actually regain weight things inevitably get more difficult; if I’d known that then I’m not sure I would have even started limping down the road to recovery and I ask myself daily whether it’s actually worth it. Whilst before I gained a sense of control and a ‘high’ from restricting calories, I’ve now lost that crutch and feel a dullness which is hard to shake. I have lost sight of what I am and confidence that I will ever regain any self respect. It is so tempting to return to the emotional crutch provided by skipping meals and every morsel of food I eat takes a huge amount of self discipline. I’ve chosen not to go to a work Christmas meal because of what people must think of me. Eating a snack at my desk is excruciating, I feel the need to hide what I’m doing in case someone comments, so I’m having to eat it in the toilet. I guess lunch will have to be the same, unless I eat out every day.
I hate having to expose the harsh truth about recovery when part of the purpose of this blog is to help others who may be feeling the same way. Let me just say that don’t wish myself back where I was; though I am feeling far worse mentally than I did then, I do at least have my physical health back and that does mean a lot. Hopefully the happiness, whatever that means, will follow soon.
In my latest appointment with the consultant I mentioned my trepidation in going back to work because of the stigma attached to mental health issues and he asked ‘whose stigma? Theirs or yours?’ I have to admit that he had a point, most people won’t ignore the issue because they are condemning of me and my illness but simply because they don’t want to say the wrong thing. The problem is thus my interpretation of the silence; which unfortunately for me is abject shame. I am both ashamed of myself and embarrassed and even though there was nothing I could do to stop the crushing bulldozer of this illness I still feel that it has defined me as weak.
That said, there is a lot that still needs to be done to de-mystify mental health problems and bring them out into the open. There is much in the press and on TV right now on the subject of mental heath awareness and some high profile supporters. I watched (with not a little apprehension) Louis Theroux’s visit to an eating disorder clinic aired on BBC 2 last Sunday. It was sensitively done on the whole but I felt it didn’t even scratch the surface of what anorexia means for those who suffer, (though admittedly I am possibly not the best critic right now). The portrayal of the woman who kept 4 boiled sweets in her cupboard which would last her many weeks as she allowed herself to take them out in turn for the occasional suck was heart wrenching and oh so true. The truth of the matter is that anorexics really really do want to eat but a force much more powerful than simple hunger is there constantly telling you that you do not deserve to. There is a bizarre comfort in hunger. Interestingly, what it highlighted was what I have also experienced, that anorexia is very often absolutely nothing to do with body image.
Overall, it’s positive to see that we are now beginning to openly discuss the once shunned illnesses that do affect so many of us and yet are so poorly understood. The challenge now is to channel this awareness into action so that people are able to access the services and treatment that they need.
My recovery is still fragile, I am holding onto rigid plans which mean I eat enough but I cannot yet let go and allow myself to actually enjoy food. I know that the day I instinctively reach for a biscuit without a second thought may never come but I know that I can keep healthy at least by following a regime. One positive is that I have been given the go ahead to take up exercise again; to begin with 30 minutes of swimming once a week, so am looking forward to getting going with that as soon as I can. Mentally, too I feel stronger and more able to think of other things. And not just food. I just need to hold on to the fact that recovery is so worthwhile, and the further I walk down that road the better.
It’s now over a week since my discharge from CH and I’m just about coming to terms with trying to live normally again after a good long stretch of having no motivation at all. It’s so easy to slip back into old ways and my general busyness has returned in full force. I don’t agree with those who think they know best that this is necessarily a bad thing though unfortunately, my latest visit to my dietician showed that I have managed to accidentally lose a little more weight despite a good intake of cake.
Changing from one state to another is never easy physically or mentally and I am still experimenting with intake and output but I think I need to accept that my body just doesn’t want to be (and actually never has been) the size that the medics see as acceptable. At present I’m still holding onto weight in annoying places; I have a little pot belly and big thighs and the rest of me is like a stick. That’ll teach me I suppose. With my increase in exercise my muscles are complaining like mad ; I think I need a few gym sessions to get things working properly. I never feel hungry or full, which I believe that is quite common in recovery, but it does mean that I am having to rely on being weighed regularly as having no integral fuel gauge I have absolutely no idea whether I’m losing or gaining weight. It’s a case of trial and error which can be exhausting. I’m always having to think ahead to the next meal.
Simple input and output aside, of course there’s always the psychological element too. Eating foods labelled ‘low calorie’ or ‘healthy option’ is always, always a bad thing for a recovering anorexic as it just feeds the part of my brain which wants me not to eat. Leaving food on my plate has the same effect. It makes eating out with normal people who may choose not to finish a meal, or who choose the salad a minefield.
I have no expectations that this will ever change, the connections between food and reward and restriction and punishment have been with me from a very young age. I have always been afraid of cake and puddings and a fear of being fat, it represents a loss of control. However, I have, and can exercise the need for control in a positive way, and, given the distraction of normal life, this the aim.
Food obsessive ramblings aside, I did meet with people from work at the end of last week which was a massive positive step forward and we have devised a plan for a phased return back to work. I am both humbled and so grateful at the understanding and humanity they have shown and willingness to be flexible, it just makes me feel so lucky and much more able to keep on going forwards. I am so looking forward to being slightly useful again.
I should have anticipated the fall after the initial euphoria of leaving the unit but I didn’t and so I’ve fallen cushion-less onto rocky ground. I’m struggling to find meaning in the things I’m finding to do and the sudden lack of support (2 weeks between appointments) has let the old thoughts come crowding back in. The fact that I’m almost at an optimal weight means I am worried about everything I eat in case it’s just too much and so I fear I’m under achieving on that front too. My dietician was actually so right, it only takes one missed snack to fall off the tightrope. Black coffee and lots of walks are my best friends at the moment. I suppose having been pretty much institutionalised since the beginning of May there’s bound to be some adjustment, I just stupidly didn’t see it coming.
I have been attempting to meet up with people but fear I’m poor company at the moment as I have no anecdotes to share except those gained from an eating disorder hospital and they are not that easy to talk about. It makes me into a very dull person indeed. Other people’s lives seem so happy and far removed from mine at the moment that I struggle to find a middle ground.
I’m hoping that I have the strength to readjust and keep on carrying on. I have a meeting with work on Friday and want to make a plan for a phased return which I’m looking forward to and dreading with equal measure. Meanwhile, it’s jobs around the house and craft activities which at the moment just don’t fill the gap.
Tomorrow is another day…
Random, but funny:
I have 30 minutes left out of the 22 weeks and 4 days I have spent here and it feels like the longest half hour of my life. Really, what’s the point? What’s the just one more snack, will it really make all the difference? The answer is yes, of course it will. One more snack will literally and metaphorically always make a difference. If I stop believing that then I will be back to square one. It took a while for me to get my head round this, but I got there!
In the news today is the story of this hoodie which is being sold by Amazon:
This is horrifying for so many reasons not the least as it makes light of an illness which believe me, causes very real pain for so many. Can you imagine wearing a hoodie which made a joke from cancer or heart disease? Hopefully it will be withdrawn from the market, I can’t really see that anyone would think to buy it anyway.
Be back soon…..
Two days left at the unit and though it might be assumed that I am ‘cured’ I have learnt that it’s really only the beginning. There’s still work to be done.
I have been compelled to dig deep into the past to find reasons for my problems and I have had to face up to some very unappealing truths – about myself and my past. Insight is painful, but only through this pain can I find freedom.
I am looking for an antidote to the frustration. I am unable to properly communicate anything that will provide understanding, and am receiving nothing back but anger and hatred. It has almost a physical presence of its own, separate from, but still him. I have become an expert in knowing exactly what to do to get a reaction; which buttons to press. It feels dangerous and this is strangely addictive, I can’t help but provoke. It’s like poking a snake. I feel relief at finally having an outlet for my emotion but mixed with a great fear.
I want not to cry, the last thing I should do is to show any weakness, I stamp my feet to stave off the tears. I am invincible. I can stand steadfast against the torrent that will surely unleash.
Inevitably the damn breaks, it always does. The red hot anger reaches out and hits me, hard. It strikes all parts of me and somehow displaces me. Distantly now I hear a shout, incomprehensible with rage and finally, I feel a release. I have his whole attention and I am getting the punishment I crave and deserve. A sudden pain in my head as it is struck and I stumble and fall. I am weakened and shaking while the anger around me dissipates, I am pushed into my room and am alone, figuratively and literally locked in. I have put myself firmly and reassuringly in the wrong and feel cowed, regretting my behaviour as I am now trapped. I am desperate for air and space but I dare not leave the room until the anger has fully subsided. I am all too aware that the next stage is my abject apology and I will be expected to take responsibility for my actions otherwise I will be punished further. Why is the apology is the hardest part? I feel that I deserve the punishment. I am a terrible child and a mistake after all.
Later, when I perfect my escape by edging along the windowsill and then jumping off the high ledge to freedom, I will run and run, through beds of nettles to recreate yet escape the pain.
The darkest place I have ever seen was inside me and nothing scared me more.
It must be soul destroying working in an eating disorder unit and anyone who does deserves a medal (or at the least a large slice of cake). It must be so difficult to be unable to wave a magic wand and provide an instant ‘cure’. The atmosphere is full of sadness, tension, frustration and fear. I have a discharge date; I can’t wait to get out of here but at the same time wish I had a magic cure for everyone I am leaving behind. If all I can do by writing this blog is provide just one small chink of light for someone else then it would be all worthwhile but sadly I suspect that I can’t, and nor is it my responsibility. All I can offer is my experience and say that time is a healer; the eating disorder is still there in the background muttering at me but much quieter than it was. The way I am gaining control is simply by repetition. I used to think I was stupid for not being able to quell it sooner when the arguments against were so rational but I have come to understand that it is simply repetition that makes things less stressful and helps me feel in control. Meal followed by meal followed by meal, like steps up a winding road. There is no immediate answer which will have an immediate result. There is no lightbulb moment when you wake up suddenly feeling better.
Acknowledging that it is difficult but still achievable is the first step. I wanted a solution packaged up and delivered straight to my door. It doesn’t work like that. The therapy I undertake is not easy; at first I wanted solutions, and right now, but the treatment is long, and arduous and draining. There are too many opportunities to fail and hate yourself when you are trying to recover, just at a time when you are at your lowest need the comfort of the rituals and behaviours which are in reality self destructive.
On a positive note, I feel like I have more insight into myself than I didn’t the beginning of this process. On a basic, every day level I feel ok though I’m trying not to beat myself up when things don’t go to plan so am trying to overcome the perfectionistic tendency which is my nemesis. When I spend time at home it’s all too easy to slip back into that mindset of needing to get things done and achieve everything on a never ending to-do list.
When I first came in here 5 months ago I found the ward a very safe place to be, it allowed me to eat and a part of me actually looked forward to coming in as it gave me the permission that I wouldn’t give to myself. The fact that everyone around me understood my battle was incredibly supportive. I now feel that it’s time for me to leave but, unusually for me, feel increasingly compelled to keep myself to myself almost as a protective barrier.
So there is hope for everyone but the desire to recover has to come from within. No one else has that power to change you. So be prepared for a long hard battle, you are going up something that paradoxically you have needed for the longest time but it will be worth it in the end.