Walking without crutches

An eating disorder has often been described as a metaphorical "crutch." For me, anorexia helped me self-regulate (or self-medicate) my often crippling depression and anxiety. Some of this was the peculiar biological response to starvation unique to eating disorders--not eating altered my brain chemistry and made me feel better. Some of the response was psychological and more related to the meaning I ascribed to my anorexia: that it made me special and unique, that I could tell myself it didn't matter if I screwed up at X because at least I could be good at losing weight, restricting, and exercising. Looking at it through the lens of OCD, self-starvation was a compulsion I used to alleviate the anxiety of, well, pretty much anything.

Some psychologists posit that you are using a "crutch" because you are "hurt" somehow. Although I won't deny that co-morbid conditions are the rule rather than the exception in eating disorders, I don't know that I buy the blanket statement that EDs are some metaphorical way of trying to heal a past hurt. I may have been a little barmy before AN came around, but that doesn't hold a candle to how whacked out my brain and life are now. Yes, the ED made me feel better in profound ways, but I've known people who were very well-adjusted before they got sick.

I guess the best analogy is this: being predisposed to an eating disorder is like being prone to joint and bone problems. There's a greater likelihood that something is going to throw you "off course," either in terms of stress or mood or whatever, and so you're much more likely to find yourself using a crutch, just as someone prone to joint injuries is probably more likely to wind up using crutches at some point.

But the only way to learn how to walk without your crutches isn't really to sit around and ask what is hurting and why and acknowledge that part of you. The only way to walk without crutches is to...walk without crutches. That's not to say that you won't need a lot of support and training to learn how to do this, but the analogy of a psychological hurt to a broken ankle isn't 100% perfect. You do need to stay off of a broken ankle to let the bone heal. In that case, the crutches are serving a good purpose. They're benefiting you. An eating disorder probably has plenty of adaptive functions, but, on the whole, it's hardly benefiting you.

I've broken my ankle, and I found literally learning how to walk without crutches to be bizarre and painful. And perhaps this is where the analogy is the most true. I didn't really need my crutches as my doctor had cleared me to walk. But I still felt like I needed them as much as I never wanted to see the damn crutches again. Similarly, I often felt like I needed the anorexia when, in fact, that was just another ED lie. Recovery is a lot like rehab, in that it involves the repetition of a lot of seemingly basic tasks until my "recovery muscles" are strengthened.

You can't get there, though, unless you ditch the crutches. Understanding why you're using them isn't much use unless you actually stop depending on your crutches. Using actual crutches to let your ankle heal is a legitimate purpose and helps your body heal. Using an eating disorder as an "emotional crutch" might make you feel better, but it's not helping your mind heal. The eating disorder essentially broke your ankle and than gave you crutches to "help" you out- how kind.

Yes, ask for help. Yes, ask for support and a walking buddy and painkillers and all of that. But let go of the crutches.

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Millie said...

It is a very apt anology and one I've used as well. In high school I was on crutches for a few weeks after badly spraining my ankle. I was so scared to walk again that my doctor had to take my crutches away and demand I walk across the room without them. When I was recovering from bulimia, I had to remind myself that the only person who could force me to "walk" was me.

Amy said...

I've been ruminating today on something my pastor said during a sermon earlier in the summer: "Isn't it time you stopped protecting yourself so vigilantly?"

Adding your thoughts to the thought train. I always tell people they're stronger than they think they are, but frequently dismiss the same idea for myself. Uh, conclusion here...inspirational! (=

Anonymous said...

I remember coming off of crutches after 2 months following a shattered ankle. I was terrified to walk - I was sure that my ankle would break again. That's how my recovery has kind of been - baby steps. Learning how to eat again is like learning to walk. It baffles me that something so "natural" could be so utterly confusing. And frustrates me to no end.

Unknown said...

it is most important to ask for help-- it shows strength. it's empowering. and it's nipping ED in the butt.

insightful, as always.
havea wonderful night,
becca xo

Lisa said...

this is great insight. it's true...very true. i was told the easiest way to get rid of an ED is to love it away...bc at some point, it did something for you....

stay strong

Wondering Soul said...

Hey Carrie,
I just wanted to let you know that I was very struck by the first few lines where yo say that the ED was a crutch to help you deal with the crippling depression and anxiety.

I have realised that this is very much the case for me, and whilst I don't quite understand the hows and the whys, I do know that I have been better able to withstand the anxiety sc I have eaten less. Perhaps because the anxiety makes things feel out of control, whereas the weight stuff at least offers the potential for control (at times).

Even depression has lifted at points... in as much that the 'highs' from losing weight seem to make te lows more worthwhile.

I know I need to lose the crutches but at the moment, I don't think anything else will hold me up.

Loved reading your analogy and very much agree with you tha EDs are not necessarily about a past hurt.


Susy said...

I think this analogy was wonderful. It shed some light on my current situation and my past situations. I always insisted my behaviours could never get better until I was better emotionally, but it has to happen together. Also, through doing a residential program and being forced to throw away my "crutches" I found myself getting stronger way faster then if ruminated over why I needed the crutches and what they were doing for me. Thanks for this, very eye opening.

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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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