...and lead me not into temptation...

One of the questions I get a lot when people hear about my eating disorder history is usually some variant on: but how did you resist all of that tempting food? (This is usually said dripping with the unsaid phrase of "please teach me how you did this.") My answer is that anorexia made me afraid of food. Not that I wasn't hungry or wasn't utterly obsessed with it, just that the prospect of facing food gave me that deer-in-the-headlights feeling.

Now, if we want to talk about temptation, we can talk about the allure of the anorexia symptoms. I'm not so delusional as to think that losing weight will be a cure-all for everything that is wrong in my life, but I have been so delusional as to think I wouldn't become addicted to exercise, or that I could lose five pounds and be absolutely fine, dammit. Uh, not so much. Eating dinner every day really does matter, and so does making sure I have at least one rest day each week from exercise.

Which is why this study on restraint bias (called The Restraint Bias: How the Illusion of Self-Restraint Promotes Impulsive Behavior really interested me: it seemed to echo my own thoughts that I really wasn't all that vulnerable to relapse. I mean, hey- I've written two books on eating disorders. Surely I'd know the danger signs.

Except that it doesn't work that way.

Ed Yong, in his blog Not Exactly Rocket Science, has a great explanation of this study, and summarizes the study as follows:

The restraint bias stems from the fact that we're generally bad at predicting the future and how we'd feel in circumstances that are different to our current ones. When we're full, we underestimate the powerful pangs of hunger. When we're cold, we can't imagine what it's really like to be sweltering. Addicts underestimate the pull of their drug-of choice when they try to quit.


The restraint bias could also help to explain why people willingly take up activities they already know to be addictive - they simply believe that they're strong enough to resist the addiction. As a powerful example of this, one study showed that heroin users are less willing to pay for the substitute buprenorphine if they weren't currently experiencing cravings. If experienced users underestimate their urges, imagine how monumentally more difficult it would be for a naive person to do so.

Restraint bias is the idea that we often think we are better at resisting temptation than we really are. A smoker may underestimate the strength of their cigarette cravings when they're in a smoky bar. Someone with binge eating behaviors may take home leftover cake for their family to enjoy, pretty sure that they won't be tempted to eat it. Or, like me, you may think you can skip dinner once and it won't become a habit. Or that you will pack your schedule full of activities and jobs, positive that you will still find time to eat.

This is really life's way of knocking you on your arrogant ass, over and over and over again. And the only way to deal with this restraint bias is to learn humility. To accept that one skipped dinner is never just one skipped dinner. To be always aware of the pull of this behavior. This is not to say that full recovery isn't possible. I know there are plenty of people who are completely free of eating disordered thoughts. But efforts to stay recovered and healthy are different than efforts of constantly fighting off an illness.

I never thought I couldn't relapse or wouldn't relapse, but I sure thought it would be more difficult than it was. Looking back, I can see that I was teetering on the edge of a relapse for a good long time, and that it didn't take much to push me over into the "let's starve!" mode. I underestimated how rapidly exercise would become addictive, and how difficult it would be to just stop. I didn't realize that I couldn't just flip a switch in my brain and start eating again. Which is restraint bias at it's finest.

My recovery journey has been humbling and, at time, humiliating. But I think that ongoing self-awareness will help keep me well, and keep me on my toes.

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now.is.now said...

I so agree with this! So much is possible if you have humility and self-awareness. Knowing yourself, being able to predict the outcomes of certain behaviors based off of this self knowledge is SO powerful. You write here that one skipped dinner is never one skipped dinner. Just in the last month or two, I have finally come to that same realization. I used to rationalize skipping meals by saying "I wasn't hungry. You're not supposed to eat when you're not hungry." But I've recently realized that 1) it's very possible I am hungry and just not realizing it, and 2) it's just too risky to skip the meal. Even if I'm not hungry, one skipped meal just makes the allure of skipping another meal WAY too strong. I've realized I really can't afford to skip meals - it's just playing with fire. Because maybe I can successfully skip a meal. Maybe I will eat the next meal or the next day. Maybe I will be able to "handle" the skipped meal. BUT MAYBE (likely) I WON'T. And it's just not a gamble I can play anymore. You're so right: one skipped meal is never one skipped meal. One week without a rest day is never one week without a rest day.

You know, all humans have things like this... behaviors they have to avoid because of the chain of events they cause.... it just so happens that, for people with anorexia/eating disorders/restrictive eating, the behaviors they have to avoid are seemingly simple things like "don't skip dinner" and "don't work through lunch." The more I think about it, it's nothing to be ashamed of, really. Because we all have our things we need to be careful about. Other people just have different things....

Cathy (UK) said...

All very true... Having struggled with longstanding exercise addiction/dependence as part of anorexia nervosa I now know that I can NEVER, EVER set foot in a gym again. Once I get on a treadmill I will exercise to the point of exhaustion. I 'have' to because this 'thing' in my head 'makes' me.

At one time I would have finished my workout even if the gym were burning down and I burnt with it. Why? Because if I didn't do my prescribed workout I felt terribly anxious, tense, aggressive towards myself... basically unbearable angst...

With regard to the initial paragraph in which (Carrie) you describe what is commonly known as 'wannarexia' - i.e. people wondering, and perhaps secretly wishing, that they could restrict food in the way that someone with anorexia nervosa does.... This is really common. I have had people say to me (when I was very ill) "I wish I could have a dose of what you've got". Err, no they don't. Like you I was petrified of food and eating.

Type 'anorexia' into google, and if your computer is configured with the drop down menu of top hits you'll see 1,000s of hits that relate to people searching for 'anorexic diets' and other 'wannarexia'-like web pages... It just goes to show how many people do not recognise that anorexia nervosa is a mental illness rather than a lifestyle choice.

Libby said...

This reminds me a lot of how I learned I had to schedule piano practice time during college. When I was in high school, I'd practice when I had time... when I walked by the piano... whenever I wanted to... And I got plenty, plenty, plenty of practice (enough to give me a RSI in my wrists!). But then came college, and my lifestyle changed. I no longer had a piano at my fingertips all the time. I had to walk to the music building. I didn't have as much free time. And at first I wasn't practicing enough. But I learned that if I was to block out time for practice onto my schedule grid right with my classes and meetings, then I would get it done. I had to be conscious about it.

One big step I made this year was scheduling time for dinner on the nights that I work late. In previous years, I'd work, work, work, straight through both of my jobs, never pausing for a sandwich or anything. Then I'd come home at 10pm, exhausted, and be faced with fixing dinner at that point. Not a great situation. This fall, I consciously scheduled in a dinner break on all three of my late work nights. And what a huge difference it's made. But it had to be such a conscious thing. I still find that amazing and amusing. But let me tell you... I am so proud of myself for having done it. It's made a huge difference in how I handle food lately in general... because on those three nights I removed the temptation to not have a proper evening meal. It's scheduled in.

Great post.

Anonymous said...

What you say is so, so, so true. This is the reason why I've relapsed so many damn times.

I think I still have this idea in my head, or maybe I'm just telling myself this, that I can still "choose" one day, if I really, really wanted to, to just start eating normally again, whatever that may mean. I'm not sure of the extent to which I believe that, but I know for a fact, the idea is definitely there in my head, and it's been there since the very beginning. "I can always stop if I want to." And that's sort of given me the permission to do whatever I want, eating disorder-wise.

What you wrote here rather woke me up to that, I hadn't thought of that, before. I hadn't taken a good look at myself in that area before.

Thank you, Carrie.

Joy said...

i have SO much trouble with this. i know, rationally, that purging is not ok, ever. but my ED says, just this once? just this meal? or what if i just skip THIS dinner? or run 10 miles because i had ice cream yesterday?
but it's never once.
one skipped meal leads to a binge, which leads to a purge.
which leads to relapse.

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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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