This is your brain on anorexia

My brain feels like mush. The cognitive affects of my ED are some of the most annoying for me to face. The physical stuff, I can usually manage. But not being able to think straight, or to read and feel the text somehow evaporate in the short distance between my eyes and my brain--this drives me nuts. Even the simplest of tasks, whether it's brushing my teeth or crocheting, leaves me feeling like this little guy here:

So what do you think a complete geek like me does when she gets frustrated and exhausted? That's right- she turns to PubMed.

I found this study on the reversal of cognitive markers of anorexia with weight restoration rather fascinating for both my current state of mind and current state of body. Granted, the authors studied adolescents on their first presentation for AN treatment, neither of which are true for me anymore. That being said, I'm not entirely sure that these reversals would have been different for longer-term patients, although they may have taken longer.

Like Ancel Keys found in the Minnesota Starvation Study, adolescents in the acute phase of AN showed slower sensorimotor responses to stimuli and were more affected by others' interference. Working memory, however, was not impaired. After weight restoration, the adolescents' performance on the first two tasks were significantly improved, and "relative to controls, they were significantly faster on attention and executive function tasks, exhibited superior verbal fluency, working memory, and a significantly superior ability to inhibit well-learnt responses."

So although eating right now is making me want to bash my head in (metaphorically speaking- my head is pretty darn hard and I would fear more for the wall than my skull), one of the advantages to eating is the reassurance that my brain will work better. If only I could get an off switch for the silly thing...

What helps you along in recovery? It doesn't need to be existential or even particularly significant, just what you cling to when the going gets tough.

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j. said...

One of the things that helps me in the effort-to-continue-to-eat-more-often (I hesitate to call it recovery, honestly, because I still feel like utter, hopeless shit) is the fact that there are some foods that still just taste good. If that means I eat nothing but ice cream and homemade bread, whatever. It is infinitely better than nothing.

The other thing is that I can generally get away with "lacing" safe foods with more food. My morning coffee has sugar, cream, and a couple scoops of ovaltine, as well, and if I've already made up my mind that I will eat something I can usually add more (ingredient) than I usually would and just pretend I haven't.

Both of these are pretty tied to my /baking habits -- and I do sometimes comfort myself with the fact that once I've started to up my intake I'll have more energy and be able to do more of the stuff I love to do, like cooking and baking.

Peregrine said...

This completely resonated with me, because eating 'for my brain' is what has kept me eating--as much as I hate that--for the last few years of recovery. I've been thinking about this a lot lately because I live on the east coast, it's hot and humid right now, people are wearing less clothes, and every bit of body-consciousness is coming out of the woodwork like an angry volcano. I've realized that although I don't necessarily feel any better about my body since I was extremely anorexic (in fact, most days I think I may feel worse because now I'm not trying to 'fix' my body), I'm better able to cope with that discomfort knowing and FEELING how much better/faster/sharper/more aware my brain is. That's a tradeoff that keeps me breathing in and out, in and out through the panic that strikes me at all the usual mind-bullshit about gaining XX pounds or being XX size now. Eating for my brain helps me to get ANGRY at this condition, at the social factors in place that support the hidden, biological ones below the surface, and at the fact that none of it ever seems to end.

But with a brain that works I can get angry, and sad, and thoughtful, and instead of imploding into a panic attack or a total meltdown, I can sit through it and write about it, or make art, or read something beautiful. It's a better way to be.

I have a good brain. I believe in that. I don't think I have a good body--I probably will never be able to think that--but having a good brain keeps me connected to the place in me, the core part of me, that wants to live, that never, ever wants to give up.

Kim said...

I relate to this. Eating to "think straight" is one of my main motivations. I also eat so that I can really BE with people. My anorexia makes me so self-absorbed. I don't beat myself up for it anymore, but it's just a fact. I can't be a good friend/lover/daughter/etc if I'm in my ED thoughts. Another thing that helps me (and this sounds weird) is this idea of, "I can always go back." I guess I think if things are REALLY that terrible when I gain weight, I sure as hell know how to lose weight again (and would probably enjoy the project). However, I realize I'm MUCH happier when I'm eating well. That keeps me going. There are always pitfalls though and it takes time to get back to the motivating things again.

Anonymous said...

I thought I was the only one that worried about the effects of the a.n. on my brain! I am in grad school and trying to get into my career field, so being able to create coherent sentences again is one of my biggest motivators. As is not wanting to go through refeeding ever, ever again!

Lissy said...

i work on letting go after eating. i practise distracting my mind and keeping busy after i've eaten a good meal. otherwise, i'll dwell and dwell.

i do contemplate skipping the next meal or binging, but these days, i do neither. i eat the next meal, and then do my best to let it go.

Laur said...

I have thought about this with regards to you!
You have an amazing brain and I hope that restoring full function serves as great motivation!

Carrie Arnold said...

School was a HUGE motivator for me- my year in grad school was rough, and my desire to make it work was what kept me going.

The other thing I want to do is travel more, which I can't do unless I'm comfortable with lots of different food and I'm physically healthy.

Jessie said...

One of the things that surprises me the most is how much better my brain really does function with food. I always felt like I was performing fine for the most part even when I was starving, but I'm realizing how much better my thinking works now. Some things that I keep using to motivate me: Singing--when I was very sick I physically could not sing in any decent way at all. Writing--I was always writing but it's much easier to do now and much more enjoyable. Reading--I love reading and when I was sick I pretty much stopped reading all together because my brain was essentially mush and I just could not concentrate. I'm re-reading some of the stuff I read when I was sick and it's almost scary because I don't remember the things that happened in these books at all.

Good luck with your recovery, Carrie, and I wish you all the best.

chylo said...

I know you're a scientist, so maybe you already think about it along these lines.

When I gave up purging, I realized that I couldn't even reasonably evaluate what my life sans purging would be like. I had been puking so frequently for so long that OF COURSE the immediate withdrawal felt like hell. I had no idea how I would feel once my body & mind had adjusted.

So it was a two week experiment. I felt undeniably better. I went back a few times-- but having that solid piece of information saved me from going 'blindly' into the puking habit again.

There's a very big difference between knowing in some objective & reasonable way that being non-eating disordered is desirable and actually FEELING it yourself.

In that two week reprieve, I felt it. And it felt good. The experiment was done-- not puking was better than puking.

A few years later I relapsed into anorexia w/o purging, and I've had a harder time pulling myself out of that. I don't want to follow a strict plan, because that seems rigid & disordered. All the things that helped me not purge or not over-exercise were about waiting for the feelings to pass. And now? I wait for the panic re: dinner to pass, it passes, and I still haven't eaten dinner.

Another thing that's really helpful for me: remember how good you feel when you do what's right.

I don't always feel good when I make myself eat dinner, but when I do, it's all too easy to gloss over that because duh normal people should be able to eat dinner & go on with life.

I think it's important to celebrate that normalcy & embrace it. To explore it. To write it down in simple words to remind you of how good it feels to be okay. And tuck those notecards into your wallet or wherever so that you'll have some tangible reminder that YOU are not your disorder, YOU are getting better.

Everytime you realize something feels better because you are eating-- acknowledge that. Hold onto that.

Hold onto your values. Think about what you want in life that's in line with them. Think about the positive gains from recovery rather than the negative consequences you might avoid.

For me, that means appreciating how my brain processes information on a full stomach, how I can stay in the library for hours and be focused rather than thinking of the exams I might fail & the medical leaves I might face. It sounds like an insignificant distinction, but it's been helpful for me.

This may not work for everyone-- but I also think about how selfish the ED is.

It isn't doing me any good, and it sure as hell isn't doing the world any good either. I sometimes feel like I don't deserve to eat, or it doesn't matter, but WTF? My not eating solves nothing, for me or the world.

My eating frees me, and I hope that my career will have some impact too.

This is from Roth [everyman]:

Beyond his window he could see the leaves of the trees turning as the October weeks went by, and when the surgeon came around he said to him, 'When am I going to get out of here? I'm missing the fall of 1967.' The surgeon listened soberly, and then, with a smile, he said, ,'Don't you get it yet? You almost missed everything.'

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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