Therein lies the bind

I was reading this article from Salon Magazine's advice columnist about a woman in a bad life situation who was also struggling with an eating disorder. In her letter, she said this:

It’s as if when I’m not eating, I feel the pain less, but I know I cannot sustain this indefinitely, and I’m terrified of having to rejoin life. I think if I started eating more, and feeling the pain, I could not go on, yet I know I must, for my kids.

Aside from the kids part (although you could substitute "cat" for "kids" and have something reasonably close), this really described much of my experiences with my eating disorder. You can't starve yourself indefinitely. Either you start to eat because your body and mind just can't take it any more, someone else forces you to eat, or you die. It's not a self-sustaining system.

Yet the alternative somehow seems worse. As torturous as the eating disorder is, life somehow feels worse. Life is messy. And painful. The eating disorder, while painful in its own way, is neat. It has a type of "payoff." Starving made me feel better. Life...didn't. I was good at an eating disorder but I sucked at life. I couldn't quite figure it out.

I don't necessarily think that an eating disorder is a so-called "coping mechanism." I agree with the spirit of what they're getting at, but I would call the self-medicating benefits of my eating disorder more of an adaptive function. It was like I found a volume knob for all of the noise in my brain, and to turn down that chatter, I just had to turn down my eating and turn up my exercise. I knew that the eating disorder didn't help me cope, not really, but it was how I made a crazy, anxiety-provoking world kind of cohere. It gave my world organization.

The worst I felt mentally was when I hit this reader's conundrum head-on. My escaping life was making me miserable, but I was also terrified at actually stopping the escapism and rejoining life. It seemed like a lose-lose situation.

Life is, of course, still daunting and challenging. It's not one of those things that comes easily for me. Those initial raw months after the eating disorder stopped buffering me from my own craziness but I hadn't yet rejoined life were the hardest. It was all of the pain and none of the gain. The eating disorder did dull the pain, but it also dulled the joy. Eventually, though, I've figured out life enough to muddle my way through. I realized I was strong enough and smart enough to face the things that scared me.

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Anonymous said...

I know what you mean. When working out or purging, it was as if there were nothing else in the world. Now, I stay recovered mostly because of time consumption (an ed is so much work!) and all of my responsibilities. I stay healthy and strong because if I didn't I couldn't do what I want/need to do. Although... there are times...


hm said...

So glad that you have found your inner strength and the ability to find joy in your life. Yesterday I felt something like "happiness" bubble up in me and burst out in a smile- it surprised me- and I wondered, is this supposed to happen? Am I allowed to feel happy? Because, if so, maybe recovery will be worth it- if that feeling is one that might happen again if I keep up this exhausting, tedious work. And... the other day I considered cutting and then thought, Who has time for that? I have other things to do. Amazing thought. Amazing feeling. To feel like I can choose to just handle my emotions, rather than succumb to my anxiety and how it dictates I must numb myself. ?? It is strange to be at what feels like a pivotal point- to begin to see possibility and hope- to begin to find the desire to side with "recovery" rather than the "safety" of disordered behavior. Feels like it'd be so easy to slip back to the other side... but am finally beginning to want to be on this healthy side. There is something anxiety provoking about wanting to be healthy too, when you've never wanted it before... and you wonder if it might slip away from you as suddenly as it showed up.

PurpleDreamer said...

"The eating disorder did dull the pain, but it also dulled the joy."

Wow. I never thought of it this way. The ED has for sure kept the pain and the chaos stuffed so deeply that I could function in the false reality I created. I didn't think of it from the perspective that while the pain was being stuffed, it also kept me tightly wrapped in a bubble that prevented joy from entering, too. The alternative does seem worse to me, but I'm starting to realize that it only seems that way because my ED has my judgement (and my senses, to be honest) completely dulled. Wow.

Great post Carrie, thanks for sharing it!

A:) said...


I followed your link regarding adaptive mechanisms and AN and was intrigued to read the comments and find my own post (as A:) and your reply). . .

I never asked you. . . What would you consider the difference to be between adaptive function and coping mechanism?


Carrie Arnold said...

I guess, to me, "coping mechanism" has more of a deliberateness to it. The issue of choice with an eating disorder is much more nebulous- we are neither automatons nor without a powerful illness compelling us to do things. I think an eating disorder can evolve out of an avoidant pattern of dealing with life (guilty as charged!) but it's more that the eating disorder behaviors have positive benefits than something bad happens, and I think "Oh, I know! I'm going to deal with all of this bad shit by running myself to death!"

It's like, I don't engage in eating disorder behaviors specifically to cope with things. I just find that they make me feel better. Once the illness is established, there's no good reason why I do or don't use behaviors. It takes on a life of its own.

I realize that really doesn't make much sense, but there you have it.

Laura said...

You know... I relate to a lot of what you said... but a couple things popped out at me, and it made me wonder if you're remembering the eating disorder in a distortedly positive light? For instance, you said, "Starving made me feel better. Life...didn't." If you really think about it, do you really think starving made you feel better? For me, I know that I thought I preferred to feel starved. I know that I didn't feel as much self-disgust or as much constant anxiety. But I did feel cold, I cried a lot, I had a recording of calorie counts on repeat in my head, and my world was very narrow. That didn't really feel better than life. I just thought it did. And it's easy to explain to other people that you "feel better" in the eating disorder... but you only feel better in the eating disorder when you're still in the eating disorder. But really take a second to pause and try to remember the eating disorder accurately. Did you really feel better in a starved state?

Carrie Arnold said...

Good point, Laura. I guess I was writing the post from the point of view of me when I was in the disorder than me now. I felt better short was a brief respite that got briefer with time, until you're left in that bind where you're scared to let go and scared not to.

Looking back, I can see the misery and futility, but not when I was in the throes. I should have been more clear.

Carrie Arnold said...

Sorry. That should have read "I wrote the post more from the point of view..."

extralongtail said...

I identify such a lot with this pots... Thanks Carrie...

I would certainly describe my ED as a 'defective coping strategy'. But that doesn't mean that I consciously set out to starve myself, knowing that it would bring about a sense of being able to cope.

In the 2 years preceding the onset of my ED, life turned sour and I felt I couldn't cope. I was subjected to serial bullying at school and raped. I was already a very anxious person but these traumas sent my anxiety sky high. My OCD worsened and I developed PTSD.

I was a child athlete and found that I always felt better when I pushed my body hard in exercise. And so I started to do more and more exercise, and in a very rigid manner. That triggered weight loss. And then I started to follow the diet my parents were on; just to test myself. I found I was 'good at it' and that made me feel better about myself. I liked obsessing over numbers... It made me feel more in control of my anxiety.

And so a pattern of thinking and behaviour developed which I got stuck in. I didn't even want to lose weight and I didn't think I was fat. Exercise and restricting made me feel much better; while rest and eating made me feel wretched.

Katie said...

"It was like I found a volume knob for all of the noise in my brain" - ditto! Restricting and being underweight made all the chatter go away, made everything I was scared of seem ridiculous and meaningless, and made my feelings of being totally overwhelmed by the world disappear. If all that mattered was losing weight, there was nothing else which could hurt, confuse or scare me. I didn't really even feel like crap physically until the end, because I was too numb. That was the whole point - I didn't feel good or bad, I felt nothing, and nothing seemed infinitely preferable to everything all at once.

Not that it was that much of a conscious "choice" - that's just how I thought about it at the time. Now I'm much better I am okay about having to deal with the crappy emotions as long as I can have the good ones too :)

Laura said...

Makes sense, Carrie. Like I said, I relate to what you wrote and always enjoy your blog :)

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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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