Losing your "self"

Although this article was more geared towards parents, I think it really helped me understand a lot better about what the hell was going on in my head during the worst of the eating disorder.

An excerpt:

An interesting area of research known as “theory of mind” posits that your child’s brain really does change as his or her weight dips below the starvation level. Theory of mind researchers are studying the eating disordered person’s ability to read facial expressions to intuit mental states, sometimes solely by looking at the eyes of the person they are with. They’re finding that this ability falls victim to starvation, just as does the body’s ability to maintain strong bones, keep warm, or grow lustrous, healthy-looking hair. A starving person has difficulty attributing emotions, beliefs, and desires to themselves and to others. Without this ability, it can be hard to function smoothly in the social world.



...One test the researchers used showed both people with anorexia and recovered patients film clips of social interactions between people. Test subjects had to scrutinize facial expressions, body language, conversation and context to read complicated emotions such as desire, embarrassment and hostility. When a teen with anorexia looks into her worried, and frustrated parents’ eyes, can she recognize the emotions written on their faces, and compare it to feelings she has experienced herself? Researchers noted clear deficits in this area among anorexics. The test was able to distinguish those currently suffering from anorexia and those who had recovered. So the good news is that this weakness in processing emotion seems to get better with recovery.


Ulrike Schmidt and colleagues are now readying a paper for the International Journal of Eating Disorders that looks at theory of mind in relation to bulimia. In her tests, Schmidt and her colleagues examine study subjects and the ability to attribute mental states to others and ourselves, which they call “mentalizing.” Interestingly, when a group of patients with bulimia were given this test, they were better able to recognize negative emotion than the control group. Schmidt and colleagues have detected enough of a “distinct socio-cognitive profile” among bulimic patients (translation: they do read and process emotions differently) to merit further research.

The fact that patients with anorexia who have recovered seem to regain their ability to recognize and attribute emotions to others, Banker notes, indicates that this phenomenon could well be a temporary lapse into autism-like cognitive behavior. “When someone’s in a state of starvation that kind of empathic, or higher-relational function shuts down,” she notes, news she hopes will “reduce the personal hurt” that comes with the territory of helping a loved one battle anorexia.

Basically, when I am in the grips of the eating disorder, my "self" shuts down.  It's like my own self is too difficult, too expensive for my starving brain to maintain. And so it goes to ground. Hibernates.

When it does come back, it's like your hand or foot waking up after falling asleep--pain and pins and needles. That this phase is likely necessary doesn't make it any easier. What also doesn't make it easier is when you realize just how long you've been absent. When it suddenly hits you that all your similarly-aged friends are married and having babies and you're still not quite figuring out this whole thing the world likes to call "dating."*

It makes me want to get a t-shirt that says "Excuse me, but my brain was on a prolonged leave of absence."

The irony is that my life looked pretty normal. Graduate degrees, jobs, things like that. It didn't look like I was missing out on a whole lot. But I realize that I never really went through the process of making friends and meeting people for almost a decade. Add in the fact that my natural skills at these tops out at "total suckitude," and it's not hard to see how you find yourself at 30, rather adrift in the world.

Even more ironic is that the eating disorder can start to seem like a good solution. If I shrink my world back down, I'll go back to being oblivious about what I'm missing. Not a bad solution, at least in the short term. Until you realize that going back will mean that even more time has passed and you are further and further behind where you want to be in life.

I think this is the "mourning" the therapists tell you about. You don't just mourn the loss of the eating disorder, you mostly mourn the loss of everything that went along with it. The illness keeps you charmingly oblivious to, well, everything, and only as you come out do you realize what you've been missing.

*Honestly, what keeps my sanity is looking at mating rituals in the animal kingdom. I can put them into context that way. Clearly, I'm a nerd...

13 comments:

Cathy (UK) said...

The article you link to is indeed interesting. My understanding from all the research in this area is that the 'loss of self' and the difficulty in reading one's own and others' emotions relates to the extent of weight loss and/or degree to which BMI is lowered. Weight gain has the capacity to reverse these changes.

I know that when my BMI was very low and I was actively anorexic that I was like a robot (or maybe a zombie). My anorexic behaviours were automatic and I didn't really think about them. I wandered around in a sort of cloud. With re-feeding, my emotions returned quite quickly and felt to be overwhelming. I felt deeply distressed that I had not only (inadvertently) damaged myself through AN, but I had caused distress to my parents.

Batty Matty said...

Thanks for another really insightful post. When you're a parent or carer, it's so hard watching this kind of thing happen and feel so helpless. My son has been away from the social sphere for 26 months or so. While his friends had fun, learned to drive, went through umpteen girlfriends and did all the things that normal 16-18 year olds do, my son sat at home on his own - and at school he does the same. As a parent or carer you desperately want to do something to help, but what can you do except talk things through and hope that things will change? Our treatment team isn't much use on this count, either.

There is the temptation to withdrawn the sufferer from the things that trigger the isolation i.e. the stress and anxiety caused by being amongst peers - but I'm not sure this is a 'healthy' thing to do.

I am finding your posts really, really helpful at the moment, ED Bites... (oh and BTW I'm awaiting delivery of your 2 books today!!! I know, I should have ordered them well before now...)

Love, Batty xx

IrishUp said...

Wow! Great post, and a lot to think about here.

Carrie, have you read "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" (just rolls off the tongue!) by Julian Jaynes*? The hamster** grabbed a couple of files and just made a cross-reference! Your post makes me think of the bicameralism because of this:
"A starving person has difficulty attributing emotions, beliefs, and desires to themselves and to others. Without this ability, it can be hard to function smoothly in the social world." and your description here "Basically, when I am in the grips of the eating disorder, my "self" shuts down. It's like my own self is too difficult, too expensive for my starving brain to maintain."

Briefly Jaynes' hypothesis is that before ~2-3000bc, humans didn't experience metaconciousness. From the wiki link below:

"...cognitive functions were divided between one part of the brain which appears to be "speaking", and a second part which listens and obeys - a bicameral mind. ... It is important to note that Julian Jaynes saw bicameralism as primarily a metaphor. ... The metaphor is based on the idea of lateralization of brain function although each half of a normal human brain is constantly communicating with the other through the corpus callosum. The metaphor is not meant to imply that the two halves of the bicameral brain were "cut off" from each other but that the bicameral mind was experienced as a different, non-conscious mental schema ... The bicameral mentality would be non-conscious in its inability to reason and articulate about mental contents through meta-reflection, reacting without explicitly realizing and without the meta-reflective ability to give an account of why one did so.
"

" ... this phenomenon could well be a temporary lapse into autism-like cognitive behavior. 'When someone’s in a state of starvation that kind of empathic, or higher-relational function shuts down ...'” This observation fits in with Bicameral Mind theory nicely; starvation radically changes consciousness in a way that looks like how Jaynes describes the bicameral mind. Bicameral Mind theory also posits that ancient people who were capable of meta- and self-consciousness would be at distinct social advantages over their peers.

OoCBBM is quite the tome (even longer than this comment!), but a great read. Disclosure: I haven't read it since 1980, so I'm sure I'm leaving key stuffs out. But I'm going to dig it up the next long rainy weekend!

*wiki link, it's a decent summary: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicameralism_(psychology)
** my metaphor for some of *my* cognitive processes.

Anonymous said...

I can totally relate to feeling totally lost and behind in the world of "social life achievements". I am now in my 30s too and my eating disorder started when I was 14 or 15.

When I would do better with my ED, I was then panic stricken to face the fact that despite doing excedingly well in school then work, being completely self-sufficient and having my own place, car, etc. and seemingly having it all together, I was terrified of dating and normal social gatherings like parties, bars, etc.

And the older I got, the more awkward I felt as it seemed I was expected to be even more outgoing and experienced with guys. Friends from high school and college were in long term relationships, engaged, married, having kids ... and here I was awkward and naive as I was as an early teen.

That alone would be enough at times to send me tumbling back into ED behaviors. No time to date if I live at the gym! Makes it look like I have something important to do. Too vulnerable to date and uncomfortable in receiving male attention that I am clueless on how to respond to and don't want to open myself up to anyone by revealing I've struggled with an ED for so long that my social development is a decade or more behind so it's far easier to slip back into the protective armour of the eating disorder and block out the world. ED was only too encouraging fostering thoughts that my body should be smaller before I let anyone see or heaven forbid touch it ... as if once I stepped fully into that world again I'd let anyone get that close anyway.

Eventually I went through a period of time where I decided that I was going to be just fine if I ended up being a single cat lady. I enjoyed the company of my friends and their significant others. I engaged in more non ED hobbies. And in my mind I relieved myself of the pressure to keep up appearances and to go on dates in a botched effort to prove I could and there was nothing wrong with me. Only after I went through this time of being ok on my own did I then feel really confident in trying that whole dating thing again. I think it was easier because I knew I could be ok and comfortable on my own and didn't have the pressure to have an instant relationship.

T said...

I can totally relate to feeling totally lost and behind in the world of "social life achievements". I am now in my 30s too and my eating disorder started when I was 14 or 15.

When I would do better with my ED, I was then panic stricken to face the fact that despite doing excedingly well in school then work, being completely self-sufficient and having my own place, car, etc. and seemingly having it all together, I was terrified of dating and normal social gatherings like parties, bars, etc.

And the older I got, the more awkward I felt as it seemed I was expected to be even more outgoing and experienced with guys. Friends from high school and college were in long term relationships, engaged, married, having kids ... and here I was awkward and naive as I was as an early teen.

That alone would be enough at times to send me tumbling back into ED behaviors. No time to date if I live at the gym! Makes it look like I have something important to do. Too vulnerable to date and uncomfortable in receiving male attention that I am clueless on how to respond to and don't want to open myself up to anyone by revealing I've struggled with an ED for so long that my social development is a decade or more behind so it's far easier to slip back into the protective armour of the eating disorder and block out the world. ED was only too encouraging fostering thoughts that my body should be smaller before I let anyone see or heaven forbid touch it ... as if once I stepped fully into that world again I'd let anyone get that close anyway.

Eventually I went through a period of time where I decided that I was going to be just fine if I ended up being a single cat lady. I enjoyed the company of my friends and their significant others. I engaged in more non ED hobbies. And in my mind I relieved myself of the pressure to keep up appearances and to go on dates in a botched effort to prove I could and there was nothing wrong with me. Only after I went through this time of being ok on my own did I then feel really confident in trying that whole dating thing again. I think it was easier because I knew I could be ok and comfortable on my own and didn't have the pressure to have an instant relationship.

Jessie said...

You're one of those people that are always right, and it could be annoying, but somehow, it isn't. How do you manage it?
When I was at my worst, I was in a daze. Everything in my life was simple. Would it help me with my weight loss? If not, don't worry about it. It's not worth it. I thought about every possible outcome of every possible situation, and if it would end in me having to consume so much as a calorie. If it did, I avoided it like the plague. Everything I did was methodical. I ate nothing over ninety calories, and I could eat a maximum of three times a day. I exercised everything off obbsesively. It wasn't fun, but it's where I was comfortable. Where I AM comfortable. I was numb. I didn't feel anything, except the cold. I didn't worry about boys- how could they like me anyways? I was way too fat. I didn't care about my friends- if they got too close, they might find out my dirty little secret. And we couldn't have that. I MISS that. I want it back. I don't like feelings. I don't like sadness, I don't like happiness, I don't like anger, I don't like irritation. I WANT MY NUMB BACK.
Excuse my rant. My point is, I see what you mean. You're doing great in recovery Carrie, keep it up!

Mary B said...

I'm going through a really rough time with my eating disorder right now, I definitely needed to read this. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I <3 nerds! Be proud of your nerdy side and embrace it fully!!!


The nerds shall inherit the earth (as I always tell my daughter anyway and it has served me well!)

EmilyH said...

I know I hurt a lot of people when I was deep in my head. I lashed out/emotionally disappeared to my employers, my friends, and my family. I wish they could understand that, like you said, it wasn't my true self. I don't know where I went, but it wasn't me.

Anonymous said...

This is a great article, thanks for posting. Explains a lot about what I went through when I had anorexia. EDs made me so self-absorbed and out of it, emotionally and mentally, that I lost out on a lot of social development. I didn't even date until I was in my 30s!

Carrie Arnold said...

I've come to the conclusion that I'm totally okay with dating...as long as the applicants come from the listings at the Humane Society. Talk about unconditional love! LOL

char48 said...

I really get this - I'm more severe depression with some ED characteristics, than the other way round, but when my mood drops I completely lose who I am....and even when I come through it's as though I've lost a whole year, or however long, that I won't get back and can't catch up from. I guess you just have to remember that lots of us are the same, and it's not a case of being the only one struggling along at the back.

wendy said...

Carrie - What an important post for you to describe the mourning felt about losing out on life while under the trance of the ED.

I often copy and send your posts to my 25 y/o D and just recently she expressed the same feeling as you

that she woke up from a coma like state and feels lost knowing how much she wasn't participating in life throughout her adolescent and early young adult year.

It's having to learn all the skills in dealing with the world and feeling so negative about herself compared to her peers.

Of course, her friends and peers have no clue what she's gone through having AN for over a decade.

My D is trying to be kinder to herself, and give up all the "shoulds" while she takes one day at a time and tackles her fears in dealing with the world, finding out who she is and what she wants for her life.

So, once again, your very articulate description will ressonate with her. You have been an inspiration to me when we first began refeeding at age 22.

Every step of the way, your words of wisdom helped me to help her.
Now your words of wisdom help her directly.

You are my hero - 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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Have any questions or comments about this blog? Feel free to email me at carrie@edbites.com



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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