Seeing the ED as the problem

I'm aware my eating disorder is a problem in my life. I'm not paying The New Therapist (TNT) big bucks because my life is fine and dandy and turning out just the way I hoped it would. I'm also aware that things didn't really start to go to pot until the ED kicked in, full-force. This would naturally lead to the logical conclusion that the eating disorder is a problem. And I suppose, when you look at it in more of a vague, almost existential sort of way, I get that the eating disorder is a problem.

But when I have thoughts about restricting, about hiding food, about exercising, about losing weight...I don't see these thoughts as a problem. It's the things that are preventing me from restricting, hiding food, exercising more, and losing weight that are the problem.

My OCD-type thoughts are distressing, and I view them with a mental "Ew, ick, get that out of my head!." The compulsions aren't welcome, but the (temporary) relief they bring from the obsessing is, and so the cycle begins. If you had a magic wand and approached the teen Carrie and asked her if she wanted the OCD stuff gone from her life, she would have said yes, please, take this away from me.

The anorexia is a little different. I do want the eating disorder gone from my life--it's ruined me in every way I can think of--and I'm no longer in denial about the fact that I do have an eating disorder. But when I have ED-related thoughts and urges to engage in behaviors and even (oh lordie...) actually engage in behaviors, I'm not wishing for some sort of magical fairy godmother to make these thoughts and urges go away. Because these thoughts and urges and behavior seem so logical at the time. Feeling like a fat, lazy slug? Duh- exercise more! Feel that you have to eat too much? Slip those eggs into your pocket.

When I was still working full-time in Corporate America last year and in the throes of my exercise addiction, my presence was requested at a lunchtime meeting. This was problematic because I exercised at lunchtime, and if I was at a Big Meeting in front of Important People and theoretically Representing My Agency, I couldn't very well sit there and not eat. I had several days' warning, which gave me plenty of time to stew about appropriate options. As the day grew closer, I debated whether or not I should fake food poisoning to get out of this dumb meeting. Now, even without any eating disorder I wouldn't have wanted to go to this meeting and probably would have come up with half a dozen bizarre excuses not to go that I never would have had any intention of using. My thoughts about the meeting would have been more like "grumblegrumble...stupid lunchtime meeting...grumblegrumble." I wouldn't have contemplated calling in sick to avoid it. But in my mind, the problem wasn't that I was so addicted to exercise that I couldn't contemplate even taking a small break or changing my routine. The problem was (you guessed it) that stupid lunchtime meeting.

In the end, I went to the meeting, divided up my usual lunchtime exercise and tacked it onto the next two days' evening routines.

I'm often unsure about whether I see the ED as sort of a foreign invader or as just a really f*cked up part of my own brain. In a sense, I suppose that's not as relevant as seeing that voice as something I should fight, something I should want out of my life. I struggle every day to see the ED as the problem, and I haven't been able to do it. I suppose this is what the psychologists mean when they define an illness as "egosyntonic." I want it anorexia to disturb me, to fill me with a shuddering dread whenever I think about ever deliberately skipping another meal or tethering myself to a StairMaster. I suppose that's a start, because for so many years, I actively welcomed the anorexia. Even now, though, I find the idea of "having" to eat a meal when I don't want to or not being able to exercise when I want/need to as being the actual problem, not response. I don't know how to get to the point where I actively start fighting the ED off, because when push comes to shove, the thoughts and behaviors don't seem all that problematic.

How did you integrate the idea of "ED as a problem" into your own recovery?


Johanna said...

Wow, I am totally right there with you. While I can't say it always works, I try to think of the things ED prevents me from doing, or the problems/hurt it causes other people. Example: Not being able to concentrate in class makes my performance go down. Not being healthy makes my parents worry. I suppose these are really just guilt traps in themselves, but *sometimes* it's enough to make me *not* engage in harmful behavior.

Angela said...

Anorexia does feel like a foreign invader to me - I often wonder what happened to the real me; will she ever come back?

But I doubt it; the real me is the me I am now as I enter my fourth year battling this (and I think developing it midlife contributes to the feeling of invasion),

I still don't always see my ED as the problem. It's like I try to bargain with recovery - I want to recover, but only so far and only as much as I want to. Then I want to stop and keep the ED behaviors (and, I'm ashamed to admit, but the low weight) because of what these behaviors do for me (relieve anxiety and depression, not face feelings and issues of the past, etc.)

I try to think about how anorexia has ripped through my life like a tornado, overturning everything and leaving me with shattered ruins. I often think of my life pre-ED when I was free - free to eat, free of the scale and the tyranny of numbers (always numbers - weight, calories, size), free of much of the anxiety, free to pursue my dreams, free of fear, and especially free of the 24/7 obsessions (anorexia really kicked my OCD tendencies into high gear.)

In spite of all that, I still often don't want to let go of ED and I still give in to the urges to restrict and engage in other ED behaviors. I've likened ED to a bad-boy boyfriend - you know he's not good for you, but damn he's attractive at times!

Cathy (UK) said...

I spent nearly 30 yrs of my life being 'ruled' by anorexic thoughts. When these thoughts started, at age 11, they seemed like a good idea. After all, I was do healthy things wasn't I - like exercising a lot and avoiding 'unhealthy' foods? Environmental messages supported the notion that my eating and exercising plan was healthy. Low fat/calorie foods were labelled as 'healthy', and exercise was viewed as a wholesome pursuit.

The trouble was, I over-did it. I couldn't do without it. I depended upon my behaviours for my self esteem, and I HAD to stick to my eating + exercise 'rules'. The weight fell off me and I hardly noticed it. Others did notice it, of course. By the time I was forced to change my behaviours for the sake of my wellbeing I was 'hooked'/dependent on them.

However, I only saw anorexia nervosa as a problem (and started to hate it) when I was disabled with both heart failure and osteoporosis. Somehow my body had been quite resilient, for many years. However, when life stresses led to me eating less and less 6-7 yrs ago (at age 37-38 yrs) and my weight fell a bit further my body started to fail badly. The physical pain, dizziness, nausea etc. were unbearable. I was actually relieved when a doctor in A&E told me 'enough-is-enough'. He saw ED as a problem and (finally) so did I.

Do I have the urge to restrict and to over-exercise now? Yes, of course I do. However, every bit of me recognises that these behaviours are BAD, not good. My deterrent is the memory of how awful I felt when I was at 'death's door'.

mariposai said...

For me it was the form that the eating disorder took, rather than the eating disorder itself that became the problem prompting me to seek help. Whilst I was restricting, I could have happily carried on until the end, but it was when I entered a phase of binging and purging that I decided I wanted out. Even now, one of the main motivators for not restricting is to avoid entering the binge-purge cycle again. I often wonder if my eating disorder had not deviated from pure restriction alone, whether I would be recovering today....

Sarah x

Oscar said...

its very hard to disinguish between An and ME(or you). It becomes so over wellming that you think it is you. i'm pretty much 75% AN. what it wants drives me to not socialise/restrict/exercise. need to keep "blocking" it out and challenging ourselfs. its very very hard to risk take, i cant even risk a mini mars bar!

EvilGenius said...

I had the same mindset for years...the ED was just fine, the problem was the difficulty of integrating it with a 'normal' life. similarly to Cathy, I started to see it as a problem when it threatened to totally destroy the semblance of normality I had left.

also though, to get me through tough situations now I tend to think of the 'problem' as lying with the reaction I have to challenging the ED rather than the challenge itself. that is to say, having to eat a meal out with my family isn't a problem, its the fact that it's liable to cause anxiety. and that is purely linked to the ED...I just tell myself that when I'm recovered I won't feel that anxiety anymore. I think it got easier for me to do this when I started facing up to things that scared me...seeing the crappy feelings I had about doing that as a 'problem' was a lot easier than trying to convince myself that feeling 'safe' and 'good' about following anorexia's rules was a problem!

Abby said...

Once again, I could have written this myself (especially all the work "problems and obligations" that interfere with my routines).

I completely echo what was said above, "It's like I try to bargain with recovery - I want to recover, but only so far and only as much as I want to. Then I want to stop and keep the ED behaviors (and, I'm ashamed to admit, but the low weight) because of what these behaviors do for me (relieve anxiety and depression, not face feelings and issues of the past, etc.)"

I am willing to see things as a problem and even admit that they are, but I only want to try and "fix" things to the point that I'm comfortable. As soon as it gets hard, when the urges hit to run or restrict, I see anything getting in my way of that as the "problem," not part of the solution.

Maybe it's just completely taking a leap of faith that the solutions we've been using to cope with that anxiety are obviously not working, and that the answer may just be simpler and "healthier" than we think they are. It's a trust thing--I have to trust someone or something other than myself, as that seems to be the "real" problem right now!

jessa said...

Mood is my biggest trigger to my ED. I began restricting as a solution to a problem. I was depressed out of my mind, on the edge of psychosis from it, and I stepped out of my real life into the ED life. The ED really was an improvement on my real life, even with all the misery it brings. For me, the ED thoughts and behaviors are very difficult to control until the ED life is no longer an improvement on my real life.

There is a middle ground where my real life's waves of goodness and suckness hover around the balance of goodness and suckness of the ED life. When I am in that middle ground, I can be all about recovery one day and all about anorexia the next. It gets confusing for me and for those around me. It is really just about which life, real or ED, looks better that day. My ED life tends to have a much more stable balance of goodness and suckness than my real life, so it is more likely to be changes in my real life that make ED life look comparatively more or less attractive. Most of my friends don't understand having a real life so miserable that the level of suckness in my ED is attractive.

Currently, my real life sucks more than stepping into the ED. I try to control my ED behaviors, mostly to keep me out of the hospital, which would make both my real life and my ED life more miserable. It is hard to do real life when the ED has a more favorable balance between goodness and suckness. I think that is part of what makes recovery so hard, living real life anyway when the ED still wins in the goodness/suckness category. It becomes easier when real life wins at least once in a while, but it is hard to feel confident until real life is winning on a regular basis. There are some things I can do to keep my mood up, but there are some things I have absolutely no control over that shoot my mood straight down. That makes it hard to feel I have control over the ED.

Kim said...

I think what's difficult is that, like you said, the obsessive thoughts are so bothersome that engaging in behaviors just FEELS better. That's the kicker. What's so bad for us really makes us feel less anxious/depressed/etc. I can very easily see that restricting is bad; but I don't often sit and think about the problem of the thoughts that lead to weight loss. I kind of accept those too easily. I've stewed over plenty a lunch meeting, thinking up excuses. I bitch and whine about the damn lunch meeting, when I know the problem is really my inflexibility. Yes, even without anorexia in my life, I wouldn't enjoy a lunch meeting, but I wouldn't risk my career to avoid it! There is a lot of bargaining in recovery -- I want to be at a healthy weight, but I don't want to do X; I don't want my relationships and career to suffer, but Y just isn't necessary.
As far as the foreign invader issue, I've never seen anorexia that way in my life. I know most people think of it as this other thing, this cancer, in a way. I've always just seen it as a sort of twisted part of my brain that I have to learn to manage.

Eating Alone said...

My T always ask's me "How's that working for you?", that's when I know its a problem.

See all the things that I wanted to do but didn't do (ED has rules about what is allowed) is my way of seeing it as a problem.

Jessie said...

So I guess this says it all about how I've done with seeing ED as the problem--I sitting here reading this and thinking, "God, I hate those fucking office lunches. They cause problems for so many people who just want to eat the way they want to eat away from everyone else." Uh, right. I still make up excuses to get out of office lunches. And I like the people I work with. Anyway, thanks for reminding me that it's not the damn lunch that's the problem :)

Katie said...

This is exactly what changed for me last year, I stopped seeing my eating disordered thoughts as logical and started seeing them as the problem. The problem now is that I'm not entirely sure HOW that changed! I really wish I could give people a step by step guide or something because things have been so, so much easier since this changed. Although I do still get anorexic thoughts wandering through my head now I am weight restored, they don't make me anxious, I don't see them as true and I have no desire to act on them. It feels incredible given how entrenched I was in the disorder only a little over a year ago, and I was ill for a pretty long time too.

I think part of it was getting angry with the eating disorder. Not bitter, because that never helps, but I stopped seeing the anorexia as the solution to all my problems and started realising just how much it had stolen from me. I started not only knowing intellectually that it was an illness but really feeling the truth of that, and wanting to rebel against this thing that made me stray so far from my own values and hopes. I always felt as if it were just a part of me before March last year, and I am still not 100% sure what changed that, but now I have proof because I love living without the eating disorder, even if that does mean having to actually deal with my anxiety/PTSD.

Sorry, this is a subject that makes me want to write an essay!

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with this post. I'm not going to launch an essay about how right you are but NOT doing behaviors is still part of every waking moment since they just FEEL so right despite me not wanting to do them and authentically wanting to be well and be rid of ED.

Finding Melissa said...

This is a great debate and really important. I wrote this piece about recognising my ED as an illness a while back (; and, whilst I think that this is only one aspect of the recognition, it was part of my changing perception.

A lot of the other comments resonate with my experiences, especially in relation to not being able to deny the harm of the eating disorder and, also, getting angry with it.

If I go back, it was quite a cognitive based process at first, which is really unusual for me. Everytime something was hard, I asked myself whether the thing itself was hard, or whether the ED was making it harder. Just by asking the question, I raised the possiblity that the "problem" might actually be the ED; and, eventually, this process created an element of distrust around the ED (was it really such a great friend) which, whilst horrifically uncomfortable, made it more possible for me to consider giving it up.

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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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