Overcoming core traits

One of my recovery friends on Twitter this week had this to say:

"It is more & more evident that to recover from an ED is to overcome core neurological, psychological, personality traits."

And I had to agree. Another one of my recovery friends, Finding Melissa, sagely questioned whether one could really overcome such core traits. Rather, said Melissa, the task is to learn to live with them. My therapist put it slightly more informally: I have to learn how to use my traits for good instead of evil. Fighting a war with yourself dooms you to lose, in some way, shape, or form.

And that's really what the hardest part of recovery is--not the eating and the weight gain, but the task of Know Thyself. Know your own personal triggers. Know your vulnerabilities. Know your weak spots. Know who you can turn to in a crisis, or before a crisis. Know the signs of relapse. Know the signs before the signs.

My recovery from anorexia has changed me profoundly- I'm not the same person now that I was before, nor would I want to be. Although I have changed in very profound ways, I still have the same personality and temperament. I am still frequently anxious and irritable (irritability, I've come to learn, is always a sign of anxiety), I am still perfectionistic, I still have many instances of black or white thinking and other cognitive distortions. These are not likely to change, even with therapy. A therapist once asked me, "Did you always have a need for control?" The truth is, yes, I did. The truth is, I still do.

So maybe I won't ever completely overcome my inborn personality traits, and that's okay. But the work of trying to live with them in peace and (relative) harmony is exhausting. It's grueling, excruciating work. And I don't know anyone who is in recovery or who has recovered that hasn't done it. Recovery changes us, but we're still the same people.

Well you have suffered enough
And warred with yourself
It's time that you won...
--"Falling Slowly," Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova

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now.is.now said...

I love the quote at the end!

KristineM said...

I read both of Jenni Schaefer's books this week, "Life Without ED" and "Good-Bye ED, Hello Me". My daughter has been suffering from eating disorders for the last 11 years, and I thought I had a pretty good idea of what she was thinking and feeling. She has been fairly open with me, and, of course, her ED behaviors and statements spoke volumes. But, after reading these books, I am humbled by the overwhelming immensity of the disordered thinking and negative feelings of the ED sufferer. The enormity of the work that must be done to recover is incredible, even with the firm support of many others. I wish you, Carrie, and all the other people suffering from ED all the strength you need in this journey.

Cathy (UK) said...

I have to say that for me, personally, the statement at the beginning ("It is more & more evident that to recover from an ED is to overcome core neurological, psychological, personality traits.") simply doesn't make sense. It just doesn't.

'A leopard cannot change its spots'... I firmly agree with that when it comes to temperament and character. However, that doesn't mean that we cannot recover from an ED. Rather, what it means is that we must use those same traits that made us vulnerable to developing an ED (and entrenched us in that ED) for a different and more healthy purpose.

Before anorexia nervosa (AN) I was anxious, obsessional, perfectionistic, frightened of change and frightened of people (because I found people hard to understand and I had been mercilessly bullied for my 'geeky' ways). I had an undiagnosed ASD. When I eventually started to recover from AN I hoped that with weight gain I would become a socially confident person who was no longer so stressed by 'life'.

However, weight gain made little difference to my ASD traits; in fact it made things worse because I felt more visible and vulnerable in a bigger body. I looked OK and so people expected me to be able to cope.

My traits are fixed but I can work with them and capitalise on the skills that I do have. I am slowly learning more social confidence so that I needn't hide from the world through AN. The worst thing a therapist can do is to try to normalise a person's inherent traits, because (1) it's an impossible task - and (2) the person feels a failure if they cannot change fundamental aspects of who they are.

We can learn to change specific behaviours, but we cannot overcome core traits, especially those that are neurological in origin.

Katie said...

I agree with your therapist - I think I've learnt to use my powers for good rather than evil ;) specifically, I have turned my tendencies towards obsessiveness and stubbornness around on themselves. I approached recovery like it was a military operation: I never allowed myself to negotiate the healthy goals I'd set for myself, I prepared in advance for what I would do if faced with previous triggers, I actively worked on keeping my motivation up and I policed my thoughts, labelling anything to do with food and weight as eating disordered and refusing to listen to them. It was rigid and exhausting but it was absolutely necessary for the first few months as I was gaining from a low weight at home with very little support. Now it's not so hard, because some of my self enforced recovery orientated habits have become second nature. I always loved your analogy of anorexia being like a computer virus, it made sense to me to think of my task being to reprogramme my automatic responses and keep an eye out for vulnerabilities in the system. I keep a sort of tough love approach up now - I don't think it's helpful to deny my inborn traits because that will just cause unnecessary stress and probably make me MORE anxious, but I have a zero tolerance policy for those traits leaking through to my behaviour. It's only to be expected that I will have anorexic thoughts creep through my head sometimes because I have only been close to weight restored for four months, but it's not ever OK to act on them. It's natural to feel anxious about being at a healthy weight weight, but I won't let myself buy into the anxieties, dwell on them or do anything ED'd to decrease them. It's a difficult balance to strike, but it's definitely getting easier with practise.

Betherann said...

Thanks for sharing this. Now that I'm in recovery, I find that the same behaviors that twisted my mind and life before are still present. Now, however, I also have the ability to make a choice to be healthy. It would be easy to slip back into disordered behaviors -- but I have decided to do otherwise. That, I think, is the essence of recovery.

Jane said...

I really like what Cathy says here:
"Rather, what it means is that we must use those same traits that made us vulnerable to developing an ED (and entrenched us in that ED) for a different and more healthy purpose."

Kim said...

Yes, I do think it's all about knowing ourselves, and accepting ourselves, and using our "negative" traits for good. I assume I'll always be somewhat sensitive and antsy (because I don't remember myself any other way, even way before anorexia). I think that's ok. Those traits make me a good writer, for one. I don't think it's possible to overcome traits, really. I used to think this was the goal -- to transform myself into a carefree, easygoing, relaxed, anti-perfectionistic human. Um, that goal could instigate a lifetime of fighting with myself!

Sarah said...

Just have to de-lurk and comment that this post made me have a sudden realization that irritability is always about anxiety for me, too. Never put it together before. Thank you!

M said...

I'm the Twitter friend ... and what I meant *wasn't* about changing our core selves but acknowledging inborn vulnerabilities and learning to make choices that defy an eating disorder ...

Learning to make peace with and cope without turning to what can seem like a default setting (ED behavior) ... to learn to examine thoughts, then learn whether maybe I couldn't think about things differently ... to know that my first instinct may be one thing, but that may not be the best thing.

To recognize that I might have a special combination of factors that make me more vulnerable to this particular illness, and that means I might have to take special care/have incredible diligence and vigilance to take care of myself and be healthy.

I was saying exactly what I think many are saying in the comments section here ... recovery from an eating disorder doesn't cure your problems or change who you are ... it just gives you a fighting chance (and requires an extraordinary fight, if science and experience are telling ... and I think they are).

Indeed, there is growth and change in the journey, the struggle, the experience ... but that doesn't mean one is a wholly different person.

I think it is more that one has had to be wholly attentive to an intimidating confluence of factors that can sometimes find a small percentage of the population struggling with starving to death or otherwise killing themselves with food-diet-body disorders and all their unpleasant relatives.

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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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