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.
There are bound to be days that are more difficult than others. Just when I think I’m almost at the other side, my fingers have grasped the ledge and I’m painfully pulling myself up when something comes along to knock me off course.
It is so difficult to remain unaffected by other people’s behaviour and I hope I have enough self knowledge to appreciate that this works both ways. Friday was a lunch out with the Cotswold House crew. The meal itself was fine but there’s one person who appears to be swimming against the tide and it’s difficult not to find this disruptive, particularly when she blames the others for her lack of engagement with the process. My go-to reaction to unhelpful or disruptive people is to go into my shell and to stop interacting with them. I am not famed for my tolerance and tend to back off entirely but I need to find more constructive ways of dealing with the issue because of the deleterious effect it has on my mood. Any sense of well being I have is so fragile: this weekend I felt I had gone straight back to square one, and the darkness came flooding back.
Time for a confession: Unhelpfully for someone with an eating disorder I have a phobia when it comes to being near other people eating. I do not say this in any lighthearted way because believe me it can cause full blown panic and an overwhelming desire to run away. So for example, at the clinic there’s someone who has two Fox’s Glacier mints in the patient lounge after each meal. She’s a lovely person but the noise of her rattling the mint against her teeth makes me want to scream. The rustle of the packet is enough to set me off, I break out into a sweat, it means that I have to leave the room instantly and if I can’t find any alternative space, pace up and down in the corridor trying to calm myself. If anyone approaches me I have to pretend I’m fine. I can’t very well admit I’m scared of a mint.
This phobia extends to all eating noises. If trapped in a cinema seat (as I was on Friday watching Victoria and Abdul) and someone nearby is eating popcorn I start to shake, I can’t even begin to concentrate on the film. Part of my brain is tuning into every rattle and munch, the rest is judging just how many calories they are ingesting. It’s exhausting. On Friday evening unfortunately we had a popcorn and sweet eater on the left and hot dog and coke slurper on the right. I thought until really quite recently that everyone was affected by this. Turns out they’re not. It makes every meal time a torment, and trains and planes always a risk. Why is it that people need to fill empty hours travelling with food? I just don’t get it.
At the weekend I fulfilled one of my challenges for the week: to cook a meal, which is something I haven’t done properly for over a year . Now cooking is just not my thing. There is good reason for this; I’m just not much good at it. So on Sunday morning I tried to make eggs Benedict for breakfast. I’m embarrassed to admit that I have never poached an egg, so when I chucked them into the pan and bits of egg white floated out of control and swam off around the pan, I felt the familiar sense of irritation and panic that things just weren’t going to plan. The muffins popped out of the toaster and were going cold while the second batch of eggs were doing their own thing, I couldn’t find the ham or take the lid off the hollandaise sauce. It was fine in the end, I did finally make a semblance of a meal but only after beating myself up for being such a failure. A fully grown woman should after all be able to make a perfect breakfast and I hated myself that I couldn’t.
So it’s two steps forward and the occasional step back.
Gobble gobble gobble munch munch munch, a thousand hairy savages sitting down for lunch.
My six weekly meeting with the clinical team went well yesterday in that I now have a release date of 6th October! It was oddly resonant of my days as a newly trained criminal lawyer as I was suddenly transported back into a court room clumsily negotiating a bail application for a client. You don’t get anything for nothing, and it is when I am home relying on my own courage to see me through day to day that the hard work will need to be done. I absolutely do not want to be a repeat offender.
I have found Cotswold House such a hard place to be, but it is only now with the benefit of hindsight and a little more rational thought that I can appreciate how much good the programme has done me.
As I have mentioned previously, I have a lot of bridges to re-build. There are many people who I would love to meet up with and share a cake or sandwich, and that will take courage. Throughout this process I have hidden away and only meaningfully seen my very immediate family and my long suffering sister. This illness likes solitude and being with people and out of my comfort zone I am all too aware that I will be tempted to relapse and start to believe that food is, after all, conditional.
I can’t wait to return to work, it forms a large part of my identity after all, yet at the same time feel very trepidatious. My GP has advised caution, after all it was a contributing factor in my illness and I know that she is right but I fear the empty days ahead without purpose and that I will be inclined to fill them with punishingly long walks and renovating our ever-needy house.
I have to remind myself that I have come such a long way in the past year. I have gone from being so physically unwell that climbing the stairs was a challenge, there were some days that I literally crawled up them rather than trusting my legs to behave. There were some nights that I was so weak that I genuinely thought, and part of me desired, that I simply wouldn’t wake up the next morning. There have been occasions that I very much reached the end of my tether and have tried to ensure that I wasn’t here at all.
Mentally I have reached an understanding of myself that I wouldn’t have thought possible, and though this is only the beginning I have come to appreciate that the events in my past life were not my fault and the part they have had to play, even years later, in dictating my behaviour as an adult is something I can have control over. After all, I can’t change anything anybody has said or done but I can change the way I think about and react to them and their actions.