Roadblocks to Recovery: Only the Lonely

Loneliness is something I have always struggled with. I was never friendless, but I was frequently lonely. Primarily, I felt like I was somehow freakish, and that no one understood me and no one ever would. I was convinced that other people didn't really like me--they merely tolerated me. This, combined with social anxiety, made me feel like the ultimate outsider. It sucked, and I knew it, but more to the point, I didn't think I could do anything about it. I was weird and that was that.

This basically meant that loneliness and I got to be pretty good friends. I usually coped with the feelings by reading (friends made out of words and paper!), by working at school or at other part time jobs, or by telling myself that I loved being by myself. The last one was and is true--if I don't get my "me" time, I start to go nuts. The second I was able to stop having a roommate, I did. I would just as soon live in a roach motel as have a roommate. But, alas, it doesn't mean I don't get lonely.

ED as a loneliness "cure"

Eating disorders are filled with paradoxes and ironies, and the "loneliness factor" is just one of them. My eating disorder made me lonelier than ever- I couldn't stand to be around people because they did odd things like eat and sit down and laugh. Also, friends got in the way of the eating disorder, and so I isolated myself even further. File under: vicious cycle.

Although I was more lonely than ever, my eating disorder made the loneliness feel better. It was good I didn't have friends because then no one would comment on my shrinking frame and empty cupboards. It was good I didn't have friends because then no one would interrupt my exercising or my purging. It was good. It really was.

Back in the summer of 2001, when the AN was picking up steam, I was planning on spending the summer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. However, this was the first time I was really on my own, living in a place where I had no real friends and essentially didn't know anybody. I had spent a semester in college studying in Scotland, but I knew several people from my school who were going at the same time with the same program. Living in a dorm meant that I was kind of thrown in with people. But Atlanta was different. I had my job, yes, but I also had lots of time to myself. I remember worrying about getting lonely, and I also remember my mom expressing her worries about my impending loneliness to me. I told my mom that I would meet people, my cousins were only 30 minutes away, I shared a sublet with another girl. But I distinctly remember thinking that it will be good that I don't have friends because then no one could make me eat.

Thus it was that my eating disorder made loneliness feel less awful. See? All of this alone time was fantastic- I could stare at cookbooks and exercise like a fiend with near impunity. If people were around, I knew my disordered habits would be recognized and I would once again become Carrie the Freak. The irony is that I pushed away the few good friends I did have because I didn't want anyone to get too close. It was so easy to do this in the eating disorder, both because of the nature of the ED itself (you feel compelled to engage in some pretty bizarre behaviors and you also feel compelled to conceal those behaviors from those around you), and because the ED made it easier to let them go. It didn't matter- I had my eating disorder. What more did I need?

Of course, recovery has meant coming face to face with those feelings of loneliness. Although I'm probably less lonely now that I was in the depths of my eating disorder (as measured my interaction with friends and family), it feels worse because I don't have the ED to "justify" my loneliness. There's nothing to take away the sting and burn of wanting to catch a movie with someone and having no one to ask. At most I can tell myself that it's fine I don't have many friends because at least then I can fit in a much-needed nap when I need to! I know the eating disorder doesn't make me any less lonely, it just makes the lonely hurt less. It's so easy for me to slip back in old habits when left to my own devices--in part because they are almost habitual after all these years, and in part because I need people to help drag me out of my eating disorder. The times I have done better in recovery are those times when I have made the effort to be social and reach out. I don't know which way the relationship works, but I know that being more social and doing better in recovery are linked.

Recovery has also meant a shift in how I perceive myself. As much as I'm an introvert and love my solitude, I've had to accept that I'm also a people person. I need social interaction just as much as I need a quiet sanctuary to escape from the said social interaction. Figuring out what to do about my loneliness is another matter entirely. One of my tasks from my therapist this week is to identify some groups or classes that I can attend which might interest me. Common interests go a long way in helping people make new friends.

I realize that even people with no eating disorders can suffer profound loneliness, and it would be silly for me to expect that recovery would mean I would never be lonely again (though wouldn't that be nice!). But I do still miss how easily the eating disorder was able to remove the sting and burn of loneliness and just how much it hurts.

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9 comments:

Flannery said...

"Although I'm probably less lonely now that I was in the depths of my eating disorder (as measured my interaction with friends and family), it feels worse because I don't have the ED to "justify" my loneliness. There's nothing to take away the sting and burn of wanting to catch a movie with someone and having no one to ask."

My. Life.

I love this series of posts. I identify 100% with very single one, and you articulate them so well. I'm linking to this one, because loneliness has been bothering me a lot lately, and this says it exactly.

Cathy (UK) said...

I love these series of posts too Carrie, and I sense they are striking a chord with many.

It is only during/after recovery from anorexia nervosa (AN) that we are able to really determine and make sense of the psychology that underpins it - because when we are really stuck in AN we cannot 'think outside of the box'. Your recent post and people's comments are revealing just how complex the driving thought processes really are...

You describe yourself as 'freakish'. The main trigger for food and exercise rituals at age 11-12 yrs were that I felt I was a 'freak'. I just wasn't like most other girls and I was teased for it. I was a geek/nerd with quite obscure interests. While my peers were into make-up and fashion, I was more interested in doing projects, playing flute and piano, studying and distance running. I felt I was being pushed to grow up mentally as well as physically, and I wasn't ready for it. And so my anxiety worsened and depression set in.

At first, my anorexic behaviours made everything feel better. I felt to be more in control of my emotions and my destiny. I had routines to follow which made me feel I could cope. And so I got stuck.

I am not the most social person on this planet. I am not in the least antisocial, or, (God forbid) a sociopath; I just feel very awkward and anxious in the company of people I don't know well. I have a mild ASD and find people difficult to 'read' (body language and subtle expressions). I worry about saying the wrong thing because I am actually incredibly sensitive and I care about people. I am never sure whether people like me. I get exhausted when I'm with people for 'too' long and need more solitude than most. Fortunately I have some lovely, understanding friends who recognise that my need for solitude is not an expression of rudeness, or me being uncaring. Sometimes I do feel profound loneliness.

I totally agree that common interests are essential to finding a group of people that can become our friends. I wish you well with this. You are a very talented woman with a lot to offer the world.

James Clayton said...

Definitely: these posts have been really thought-provoking and resonated a lot. Thanks for posting them up!

In brief, I've cpome to realise that I hate loneliness. I've deluded myself for years that I wanted to be on my own but it's not true - it's just what the ED was telling me. I like solitude and peace, but I know that recovery is impossible cutting myself off. I've found that I love people and being sociable. If I cut them off and am left with only myself (and am not enjoying my own company or feeling good about myself) then things descend into a downward spiral.

Emma Kay said...

Carrie, I have just started reading your blog, and I have to say that every post resonates with me! Your most recent one best articulates what I am going through right now. If you haven't already, you should look at meetup.com to search for groups with similar interests.

A:) said...

I agree 100% with this.

I told my therapist yesterday, I didn't feel as lonely when I was actively AN -- but she said she remembered differently. I think many times we have this nostalgic view of the ED, that is not necessarily reality.

I am less lonely now than I was in my ED, but I am still so lonely and I feel it more because I don't have my ED as solace. I can't say, "well, I don't talk to anyone because I am so think and freak them out -- It doesn't matter anyway, I have my ED." There is no excuse.

While AN means extreme lonliness + a disease, recovery simply means loneliness.

This is a large part of what drives my AN and what is so difficult in achieving lasting recovery.

My closest relationships are my family and my support team. How sad is that?

Stella said...

I can relate so much to this. It seems like the loneliness is easier to bear with the ED because ED thrives in isolation and actually tells us that we WANT to be alone.

Quite ironically, I wouldn't be as alone in recovery if I hadn't pushed everyone away while struggling with my ED. I am actually struggling a lot with this right now - the fact that I am so alone and that, in a sense, it is my own fault.

Anyway, I have been a lurker on your blog for a while, and I just wanted to say hi and tell you that I really enjoy reading your blog :)

anne said...

There is a huge difference between loneliness and being alone. Being alone can be pleasurable. It gives time to reflect or be creative, to grow, to do inner searching, to experience the beauty of nature. It is usually something you go looking for and desire. It's basically a positive thing.

Loneliness, on the other hand, is not. It is a feeling of being separate, of unhappiness. It is not a good feeling. It seems to go hand in hand with depression if it persists.

How to get out of it and change your feelings? Its like that "one bite at a time" (which I know is very much easier said than done). Do one small thing that scares you. Connect with one person even in a small way. Keep busy even if it feels forced. Forced things become more natural with practice (e.g. Fake it till you make it). Take that class, join that club, volunteer at something totally new and different, try a new hobby,get involved in a group with other people, listen to happy music, read a happy book, go to a comedy). There's really no magic other than this. And, I'm not suggesting doing all this at once.

The only way out of loneliness I know of is to connect and through time. It takes time to form friendships. And shared experiences. Big and small. It's okay to start small. That's where most of us do. Just starting is the key.

And it's okay to be shy, to feel nervous inside. When you find people that like you for you, you'll know because those nervous feelings will not be nearly as strong. Positive small steps. Positive self talk. Positive reaching out. Compassion for others. And yourself.

And don't forget to have fun. Then solitude will be a pleasant, chosen place to be and loneliness a less frequent visitor. If it wasn't for loneliness, we might not be motivated to get up, get out, do. Loneliness can be good if it motivates us to act. It can be not so good if we get stuck.

My guess is that you are the only one thinking that you are 'freakish', that no one likes you and that no one could possibly understand you. If you put yourself in a room with 20 other people, I doubt even one other would be thinking that. They might think "She's shy" or "quiet" or "nervous", but your own words, in your own mind, are likely much, much harsher than anything anyone else is thinking. That's where the positive self talk--the reality check--has to come in. You can't KNOW what anyone else is thinking--there is no way. So, why assume it is so negative? It is just your own shaky self-confidence speaking aloud to you in your mind. You have to change it, change the words it is putting there, practice it, make little steps. This sounds hard, maybe it is hard, but you can only know by practicing just like you'd practice anything else. I think its possible to learn these skills, to begin to change. Maybe not easy, but quite possible.

Sarah said...

"My eating disorder made me lonelier than ever- I couldn't stand to be around people because they did odd things like eat and sit down and laugh. Also, friends got in the way of the eating disorder, and so I isolated myself even further. File under: vicious cycle.

Although I was more lonely than ever, my eating disorder made the loneliness feel better." and "I know the eating disorder doesn't make me any less lonely, it just makes the lonely hurt less."

I feel like you read my mind, Carrie. Last weekend I was so lonely -- it was a bone crushing loneliness -- and I "coped" with it by using behavior that turned into a cycle that lasted for days. It's such a paradox -- the more I feel lonely, the more I have to isolate myself so I can use my behaviors to alleviate (temporarily) the horrible feeling of loneliness.

I'm glad to know I'm not the only person who struggles with this.

This has been a great series of posts.

Anonymous said...

I just want to say thank you.

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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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