The Voice of ED

Many people with eating disorders report a "voice" in their head that tells them to starve, to binge, to purge, to exercise. This voice hisses and spits while they look in the mirror and try on clothes. It congratulates you on every pound (half-pound, quarter-pound) lost. Jenni Schaefer calls her eating disordered voice "Ed," and considers it separate from herself. Ed is the voice of an eating disorder, and not the voice of Jenni.

I think this can be a tremendous therapy tool, and have tried it myself, except for one tiny detail: my eating disordered voice sounds exactly like me. I can be sitting in the car and driving, trying to figure out how many miles I have left before my destination, whether I should pull through the car wash, whether I might need the oil changed, and slide seamlessly into a diatribe of self-loathing about how much I ate and how much more I should have exercised. It sounds like me and it talks like me and it can talk for is it me?

What makes it even harder for me is the fact that I've been hearing this voice, in one form or another, since long before I ever had an eating disorder. It was the voice that told me I was a loser because I couldn't write the cute bubble letters like the other girls my age and that no one would like me. It was the voice that scolded me for not getting a perfect score on my spelling test. It was the voice that said no one would ever want to be my friend, so I may as well get over it. It was the voice that told me my high school graduation honors were a matter of luck.

If I could condense down everything the voice told me into one simple phrase, it would be: No, don't. Should I go to the party? No, don't. Should I eat that cookie? No, don't. Should I speak up? No, don't. Should I break out of my routine? No, don't. Should I buy those jeans/that book/that expensive bar of chocolate? No, don't. It's a life of "No, thank you, I shouldn't, I couldn't, I would never." There are situations when this is a sensible path to take--it tends to protect personal safety, and that's not a bad thing. But when that's your life, when that's all you know and all you will let yourself know, it's not quite so universally positive.

I was at a get-together last night with a friend of mine. I was visiting L for the weekend (I'm sitting on her floor as I write this), and she was invited to a small party with some friends of hers, and I tagged along. I had previously met almost all of the people there, and they were all really nice people. I knew that weren't judgmental or anything--that wasn't what I was worried about. I hesitated to join in on the conversation because I was afraid I would say something stupid, afraid I would offend someone. Should I join in on the talk? No, don't. It was when someone broke out the karaoke machine that I really started to shut down. I didn't know many of the songs, and even when I did find a song I remembered, I knew I would never ask to sing it. I was too afraid of embarrassing myself. The other girls who were singing seemed to have quite a bit of talent, and I was certain I would sound rather terrible next to them. I can't belt out lyrics- my voice just doesn't seem to go that loud. The clincher was the fact that the computer system gave you a score at the end of your song. I was certain that I wouldn't get the highest score, and I knew that if I didn't, I would hate myself. So I didn't sing.

There was a part of me that just didn't feel like standing up and singing, which is fine, but I've never really been able to cut loose, be goofy, and just have fun. I'm always thinking ahead and anticipating what might be next, how I could look like an ass. Although these thoughts have nothing to do with food and weight, they still seem like a product of the anorexic voice, of the perennial chatter I hear in my head that seems to come from within.

Perhaps one of the hardest parts is this: it's not always mean. Sometimes, the voice is kind and reassuring, like "Yes, I know. It's okay. I'll do better tomorrow." The unsaid piece is that there will be hell to pay if I don't shape up, but still, I'm not berating myself, I'm encouraging myself to do better, to eat less, to exercise more, to study harder. Most of my major relapses started out this way: I started to cut back on food, and if I slipped up, I gave myself a pat on the back and said that tomorrow would be a better day. As the relapse progressed, the voice became harsher and more demanding.

It turns out I'm not the only person with anorexia who has seen this progression. A recent study in Psychology and Psychotherapy asked anorexia sufferers to describe their experiences living with the "anorexic voice" and found that:

These data underlined the positive and negative attributes individuals bestowed upon their anorexic voice; the former appeared stronger during the early stages of their eating disorder, the latter coming into force as it developed. In spite of their voice's harsh and forceful character, participants felt an affiliation towards it. The bond between individuals and their anorexic voice could explain their ambivalence to change. Therapists must persist in their endeavours to penetrate this tie, whilst acknowledging the hold this entity has over those with anorexia. Interventions that address this component of the eating disorder could prove fruitful in helping people towards recovery.
I'm not sure I have a quote-unquote "bond" with the voice in my head, but I do know I'm used to it, and its presence doesn't really bother me. Furthermore, I find it hard to say for sure whether this voice is external or internal. Since it seemed familiar even at the outset of the eating disorder, it feels like it's always been there, even if I wasn't harping at my food intake and weight. It seems ultimately like a perfectionistic voice that happened to become utterly myopic about food and weight.

Do you have an ED voice? How do you experience it? In your comments, I want everyone to feel they can be open and honest; however, I'm also aware that such discussions can be triggering, so keep that in mind as you share. Thanks!

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Charlie said...

I have two ED voices... The AN voice and the BED voice. Usually one is able to be louder than the other. Sometimes they battle it out.

I end up feeling like a kid stuck in the middle of a messy divorce.

mariposai said...

This post really got me thinking, because until I read stuff and got therapy, I never noticed an ED voice at all...part of me thinks that it was a convenient way to conceptualise my disorder so that it was somehow 'fightable' if that makes sense?

Before I artificially concieved of this voice, I had nothing concrete to work with, there was just me. In fact, looking back, the voice I labelled 'me' when I started treatment was something I constructed to represent what I wanted from recovery, and so perhaps the whole process was just me playing mindgames with myself.

Oh dear. I'm very confused now!

Sarah x

Katie said...

I never related to the concept of a voice in my illness or recovery. I just had these thoughts come into my head which seemed like very good ideas at the time. When I started recovering I began systematically labelling all of the food/weight related thoughts as 'symptoms', and discarding them. That helped immensely - I didn't have to think of my eating disorder as an invading force, more like something that made me believe things that weren't true. I don't have much trouble with those thoughts anymore at all, which is some sort of a miracle for being only one year into recovery. Not complaining though ;)

rr said...

My ED voice sounds similar to my own too, so I call her Edie, instead of Ed.

I feel like the further into my recovery I get the more Edie has started to sound like me, which makes her much harder to fight. And sometimes its only in retrospect that I am able to tell the difference between us.

I agree with Sarah, having someone to fight against has really helped me throughout my recovery. And sometimes I do wonder if the 'me' voice is just what I want from recovery. Either way, I think its a super helpful therapy technique. I think it has also helped my friends and family be more honest with me. I think they feel able to criticize Edie without criticizing me.

Also, in 'Life Without Ed' Jenni Schaefer has a chapter all about 'Eds friends' who she calls things like 'Ann Xiety' and 'D. Pression' there was one for the perfectionism you were talking about, but I don't remember what clever name she found for it.

Thanks for this post.
Thought provoking as always.

The Thrifty Book Nerd said...

My voice is Ana. She comes at times when I am stressed or upset. In the past, she knew just what to say to convince me to restrict. She comes from time to time but thanks to the tools I am learning in recovery, I can resist. Awesome post!

Abby said...

While I read and enjoyed "Life Without Ed" a couple years ago, I have never really clamped on to the whole "Ed as a person" thing. I know it works for a lot of people, but for me, it felt a bit ridiculous and slightly immature (NO offense to anyone else, as this is just me).

For me, I'm not really sure where my own thoughts start and those of the disorder end, if that makes sense. They have been melded together for so long that I'm not sure what the difference is. However, I rationally know what my "healthy" thoughts need to be for recovery and am trying to take more ownership of those instead.

K-pedia said...

I definitely have an ED voice, and I've followed Jenni's convention in naming him Ed. Seems to work for me.

As a kind of a side note ... The really interesting thing that I've discovered about Ed is his correlation with a lot of negative relationships I've had in my life. I was in an abusive relationship, and I didn't even realize it, because the voice coming out of my ex's mouth was saying the exact things that Ed would say (you're worthless, you're fat, etc.). I didn't get out of the relationship because I was used to being abused ... by myself.

I agree with mariposai, it made my ED much more "fightable".

I Hate to Weight said...

i have a very distinct ED voice, but i didn't see it until recently.

i used to say very surely, "i am my eating disorder". i don't say that any more, which is pretty amazing.

i think of you as such a smart, interesting, compassionate person with an excellent sense of humour. in my mind, everyone at a party would want to talk to you.

i bet they would too.

A:) said...

I have always been very hesitant to classify anything as an ED voice. I think it is important to remember that this "voice" IS a part of my own personality whether it be maladaptive or healthy. So externalizing this has seemed almost ridiculous and childish to me. It comes from within and it IS distinctly me. I don't feel the need to split my angry thoughts or sad thoughts into distinct personalities, so why should I do this for my irrational ED thoughts?

Also, I think some people use it as an excuse. "ED was sooo strong that night that he made me b/p and then I HAD to cut!" This type of thing REALLY pisses me off -- it is important for the individual to realize that THEY decided to b/p, cut, restrict, exercise -- Recovery is the INDIVUDALS RESPONSIBILITY.

Similar to Katie, I have survived in recovery by witholding judgement on these thoughts and not confirming or disconfirming them. I MAY have gained 3lbs or it MAY be an illusion. I MAY be stupid/not intelligent/not interesting or I may be simply wrong. This works well for me.

It is not a matter of fighting against any magical force or "ANAz, MIaz" demon. It's just a matter of continuing to make recovery oriented decisions even though stuff sucks.


Libby said...

I definitely have a voice in my head. Unfortunately, the whole divorcing the abusive boyfriend thing that Jenni brings up... well, that just never worked for me. My therapist introduced me to a therapeutic model called Voice Dialogue. The theory is that every voice that is active and loud for a person has a counter-voice that says the opposite things and thinks the opposite things. And the technique works to get both voices talking to one another. It's basically a twist on the same thing. And that has been helpful to me.

Eating With Others said...

Yep I've got an ED type voice. Yep it sounds like I think I sounds. The weird part is that when it talk's it says "You are a loser" or "You don't need to eat". When I have a "Me" voice it says "Can we have a cookie?" or "Can we do that?" I find it hard to think of doing something for me in the first person.

* said...

I feel the same as you. I feel like the voice of not ever being good enough to step out of my comfort zone has always been there. After (what I now know was) an anxiety attack when I was 15 (I'm now 22) the voice has gotten louder and louder. The anxiety attack stayed with me for a year and a half in which I lived in fear of everything, was very depressed, and had suicidal thoughts. In the past 2 or so years this voice has become obsessed with food and weight and the want to be skinny even though I'm not technically overweight. I always say to myself "well, I ate too much today, but its okay because I'll do better tomorrow". I completely relate to everything you said. I have no idea how I'm going to recover if I've always had this negative voice in my head.

Kim said...

I've always felt kind of weird about this "ED voice" issue. I used to see my anorexia as this separate thing, to despise and fight against, but that wasn't really working for me. Now, I see it as the part of me that's afraid, and in a weird way, I have a little compassion and move on. All the judgment and criticism is out of fear. It's still ME though. I just don't dissociate it that much. Usually, I just talk back to "it" and say, "I know you're afraid, but it'll be ok." I think everyone has a battle in their head regarding some issues. I'm very harsh with myself, and I was that way far before I developed anorexia. So, I guess, if anything, I'd call it the "critical voice." It's the one telling me I'm always doing something wrong, that I could do more, etc, etc.

Carrie Arnold said...

Thanks, everyone, for your feedback.

What I've come to realize is that I'm not sure I have an "ED voice," although I do have ED thoughts. I also have other thoughts of dubious validity and possibility that are less than helpful. So I'm going to start taking the ED thoughts as just thoughts, and try to figure out whether that thought is disordered or not. Because the voice is so internal, and it encompasses so much more than just the ED. It's kind of like My Inner Critic, or the Silent Peanut Gallery.

Dana said...

I definitely have an ED voice! Just the other day I called my bf to tell him that ED was 'beating me up' verbally. Thats what it feels like for me. My problem is that I care what ED says and I believe the voice. I dont think the voice is ME but I do believe the voice. Hopeful I figure out some technique to work threw that..

ego in absentia said...

Wow, another fabulous post. And i agree with IHateToWeight - i'm sure everyone would love to have talked with you! Thank you for another tasty bit.

Cammy said...

I'm a little late to this one, but wanted to toss in an observation. The alternating demeaning/reassuring tone of those disordered thoughts can follow the precise cycle that is characteristic of abusive relationships and domestic violence. The voice, spouse, or whatever will tear you down and make you feel unworthy. After a while all confidence is destroyed to the point that you can't help but be desperately grateful when they come back with apologies and positive attention later.

Maybe not a perfect analogy, but seems close in some situations.

expwoman said...

At 17 I came across Richard Carson's Taming your Gremlin, which personifies errosive beliefs like "I must always be perfect" as a Gremlin creature. This metaphor opened a small window to the possibility that some of my thoughts about myself were challenge-able. Perfectionism still sounds a lot like my own voice, but I've done a lot of practice writing my thoughts down and learning to find ocd and perfectionistic patterns--the moment I first thought "Hey that sounds familiar. I've heard this before." was very exciting. It's old. It's learned. And even though I can't erase it, I can strengthen my voice of recovery.

AlwaysJoy said...

This is one of the best posts I have read on ANY blog - I feel very understood by your post (I may have to find google reader and kiss it for the suggestion of your blog today). I do have an ED voice - actually I have two and I keep begging for Mia to go away because I feel like I could fight Ana. But the two of them together have me beat and they know it, I know it and my therapy team knows it...

Anonymous said...

I refer to my eating disorder as Ed too (thanks to Jenni's book). I don't necessarily have a voice in my head telling me what to do, but more like very imposing thoughts. The thoughts pop into my head only when I am dealing with food, weight, and body image issues. I will battle between "my" thoughts (what I want to do and what I know is right for me) and ED's thoughts.

I am currently working on gaining some weight back. I will go to eat something and automatically Ed will pop into my head and I'll think "I can't eat this because..." and then my voice will chime in and refute what Ed says. It's mentally exhausting.

Labeling the negative thoughts as "Ed's thoughts" and the positive thoughts as "my thoughts" has made it easier for me to keep the eating disorder seperate from my identity. Until I started doing this I felt like the eating disorder was just part of who I am. Now it's easier to fight against Ed because I know that he is NOT part of my identity.

Jenni Schaefer said...

Carrie, thanks for sharing these words! You are an inspiration to many people. Hope to see you soon :)

Jessa said...

I'm late to the party, but I wanted to comment anyway.

I don't like personifying my eating disorder as a separate entity from myself, though I would never discourage someone else from doing so if they found it helpful. I find it disempowering, because it suggests that I have little control over the eating disorder thoughts except to divorce them, which feels like divorcing a side of myself; because I feel it is a shirking of my own responsibility in the matter; and because I chose my eating disorder as a coping skill and it worked and I have compassion for my 17 year old self who was so superlatively miserable that an eating disorder was actually an improvement. Labeling the eating disorder thoughts as a separate entity from oneself reduces the cognitive dissonance of contradictory desires (to be thin or to starve versus having a full life where you can do other things), but I have contradictory desires in other areas of my life (I want to learn everything, take up every craft, remember everything, yet I crave simplicity and minimalism) so having one more area of cognitive dissonance seems okay. I have to learn to live with those contradictory desires, so to avoid one area of them artificially doesn't seem responsible. In hospital treatment I have been encouraged to think of my eating disorder as a separate entity and when I didn't want to do that because that doesn't resonate with me, the professionals didn't seem able to say, "well, okay then, it is helpful for a lot of people, but if you don't find it helpful we can work with that, too," they just seemed confused that I didn't find it helpful, suggested that I didn't find it helpful because I wasn't trying hard enough to externalize the eating disorder. Like I said, I would never want to take it away from people who find it helpful, but, on the part of the professionals, I think that there needs to be a recognition and ability to work with people who don't find it helpful instead of alienating them.

AK said...

I have a Voice. I didnt know I had the voice until recently. I had anorexia when I was 12, Im 27 now and I was never treated psychologically for my eating disorder only force fed. When I got to be sufficient weight I was told I was fine. From then on I went through life with this chatter dismissed and told I was making it up or attention seeking whenever I tried to explain it. This article meant the world to read. I have never heard ANYBODY ELSE EVER mention the "NO U SHOULDNT" thats my voice. And not just to food but to everything.... to life! I only realized I was dealing with this Voice when I "WANT" anything and the only thing that popped up was couldnt shouldnt cant. I have no idea how or why i come up with this conclusion every single time I need or want anything but the pure fact that I felt confused by the unknown origin of this thought and the conflict it caused made me realize I was dealing with "something" i just cant explain. Im glad Im not making it up. As painful as it is to live with and have, its nice to know im not the only one with a similar experience.

AK said...

Sorri having said I was never treated i should also add that the recent discovery of my voice led me to find a brilliant doctor who discovered my OCD and ADHD and is delving into the anorexic thoughts

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Unknown said...

I have been hearing an anorexic voice for as long as I remember. Even now years after I went through the thick if the disorder. I guess it some go away , and that's fine. But lately my roomate in my head has been a bad neighbor, and being extra loud.

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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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