Roadblocks to Recovery: "High" Five

So here's a confession that probably won't surprise most people with EDs but most people without EDs will find it baffling: I miss the endorphin highs that come with undereating and overexercising. I miss the psychic lightness that makes me feel disconnected to this life and this world. I do. I miss it.

Of course, to wax nostalgic about the 0.1% of the eating disorder that was physically pleasant would be to completely ignore the other 99.9% that was pure hell. But our brains are good at ignoring such technicalities and the fact remains that I miss those endorphin highs. A lot. I don't miss being so weak I could barely get out of bed, or nearly collapsed after I finally finished exercising. I didn't mind it then, because it was a sign that at least I didn't eat too much. But then there were those fleeting moments when I felt lighter than air, when I had just slogged through another marathon exercise session and felt so freaking good, when I realized I hadn't eaten for Lord only knows how long...those moments I miss.

The endorphin highs aren't a major one of my roadblocks to recovery, but it's part of it, and so I am blogging about it. On average, I feel so much better mentally and physically now that I am in recovery. Yet the problem remains: I still haven't found anything to match those endorphin highs. I remember in my high school health class, we got a handout on "100 Natural Highs" that didn't involve drugs or alcohol. Which was nice and all, but even little ol' innocent me could see that blowing the fuzz off a dandelion was a very different thing than shooting up heroin. It's fairly similar here. I do loves me an afternoon nap, but it's not a replacement for an endorphin high.

Part of me thinks I should just stop looking for a replacement. That maybe the problem is my need for the endorphin high rather than the inability to find that high in a non-self-destructive way. Maybe, too, the giddiness of the highs were exaggerated by the fact that they existed against a backdrop of misery.

Over the past few months, I've been revisiting some of the foods I used to eat as a kid and had fantasized about for years, fantasies fueled partly by starvation and partly by nostalgia. (Bear with me- this has relevance to what I'm talking about, I promise!) So I've started sampling some of those foods again, treats I see in the grocery store or hear maligned in the media. Some of them are as good as I remember (Swiss Cake Rolls, anyone?) but many of them really aren't. For the most part, I haven't rated these foods as gross/icky/otherwise inedible, but the attraction just isn't there anymore. I pass these items, think "That's nice," and don't think about it much anymore.

Perhaps one day I'll think the same way about the starvation and exercise highs. (See- I told you the above paragraph was relevant!) I'll be able to look at those highs and think "That was nice while it lasted, but my tastes have changed, thanks."

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Finding Melissa said...

Again, I totally relate to this; but I did notice that just before I started moving into active recovery, the highs became tinged with an unpleasant knowledge of what I was doing, and that, instead of being a pure rush, they were blurred by guilt (this isn't helping me) and anticipation (this needs to change) and frustration (why keep this up if it is going to have to change in the end) -

I suppose that the point I reached was one where my level of awareness was such that even the physical highs were painful and undercut by this knowledge. I haven't found a replacement either, but I've had glimpses that are often connected to stress (oops, this might not be a good thing) and, interestingly, to personal challenges in other contexts, like socially or at work.

I don't know whether anything will ever compare, but even if I wanted to recreate the experience, I think it would be impossible after all that's gone on in between.

Cathy (UK) said...

I can identify a lot with this post, and also with Melissa's post above.

First I will be a little pedantic and raise a question... Can we definitely attribute the 'high' associated with over-exercising/under-eating with increaseed levels of brain endorphins? Do we know that this effect is biochemical and caused by an endorphin rush?

I definitely agree that finding a substitute for the aforementioned 'high' has been difficult. I am pleased to observe that I no longer derive any 'satisfaction' from starving myself - and I am beginning to enjoy eating in a way that I never thought possible, but I totally crave the 'high' associated with hard exercise.

It was my over-exercising that caused me the most physical damage. Exercising hard at a low weight is very damaging and led to heart attack/failure, as well as numerous musculo-skeletal injuries. The problem, however, is that I was a child athlete (swimming and athletics) and sport/exercise was a big part of my life pre-AN. It's been difficult to separate my athletic self from my anorexic self.

Because of the damage I caused my body by over-exercising at a low weight I can no longer do the exercise I would like to do, despite being weight restored. The fact that I am an 'old fart' (44 yrs) adds to the problem. I cannot do at 44 what I did at 24!

I have yet to find a replacement for hard exercise.

Amy said...

I've always found the alternatives to self-injury lists wanting as well. They don't work and they don't address what's causing the desire in the first place.

June said...

I love your Roadblocks to Recovery series, Carrie. I identify with each one. Some of my roadblocks stood in my way for decades! But not anymore! For every roadblock we push through, go around or climb over, we regain another vital piece of our identity, and our eating disorder has that much less. Push on everyone, tackle your roadblocks, and never, never, never give up!

Abby said...

Once again, I completely relate to your post and both Melissa and Cathy's replies. It's not a matter of finding "other things" to fill the time for me, as unless I'm active and moving around, it's not the same. At all. Part of it for me was (is) a sense of accomplishment though. Even if the rest of the day sucks, at least I "did" something productive in exercise. Even if the rest of the days sucks, at least I had "wiggle room" with my diet through restriction or the control of not feeling uncomfortably full.

For me, it's an interesting dichotomy of both being aware that what I'm doing is wrong and only keeping me depressed/sick and aware that at that moment, I just want that comfort. Until you find something you want MORE than that high, it will be hard to move past. However, obviously, it can (and will) be done.

You have to want recovery more.

Unknown said...

I don't think there *is* anything to replace those feelings ... every time I have been in treatment, they have told us we can't expect to find a substitution for the eating disorder and ED behaviors. There will never be anything as "powerful," ... for many reasons. We're told it's more about sustaining a decreasing need for that negative "power" until it feels more natural to accept the balance and self-regulation states of physical and emotional recovery. In the mean time, we get the not-as-good coping skills, distractions, naps and dandelion fuzzies ... coupled with hefty doses of self-talk, therapy, support, external and internal goals, social interaction and the ever-popular "dogged recovery behavior."

Cammy said...

I definitely relate to this (as usual). That ethereal feeling is really fascinating, from an empirical perspective, and addictive, from a subjective one. But then again, so is heroin. You know I'm a fan of the endorphin addiction model for ED etiology, at least in some cases, and it seems like this might be analogous to many other addictions: you may never stop wanting the high, but you CAN grow strong enough to resist, and open up the door for new, healthier "highs" in the process. Hang in there, and thanks for a great post on this issue.

James Clayton said...

I identify with this as well: I miss the power, the endorphin rush and the sense of pushing yourself to extreme discipline. I can't stand the idea of not being active or being lazy, so it can be crippling when you've got to resist the urge to exercise.

Like Abby, I think a lot of times strenuous exercise was about feeling an achievement and trying to grasp a feeling of doing something of worth rather than nothing. Of course, there's a point where it starts to become destructive and a compulsive routine rather than genuinely enjoyable activity.

I've been thinking about it lately and I really do miss martial arts and doing physical stuff like I used to. I've got to restrain myself until I know I'm not going to slip back into detrimental behaviours though.

Anonymous said...

have you ever tried transcendental meditation? It's amazing.

Niika said...

I think the only thing that would be likely to equal the endorphin highs would be happiness or joy. Both of which are very difficult things to find; but joy, in particular, can be just as pleasant and exciting as endorphins. The trick is to be able to eventually find it.

Also, I often think that overall, everyday contentment is possibly/probably a good tradeoff for feeling accomplished, but also physically and mentally feeling like shit.

Tiptoe said...

I agree with what you and what everyone has said above. I don't have much to add except one thing I noticed when I was in pure starvation (and I know it was likely fleeting since my brain probably didn't work well) was my ability to write. I'm certainly no Shakespeare or anything, but I know some of my best pieces that I wrote for college were when I was at my worst Ed wise. For me, that was an incredible high. Writing just felt easier, like even though I was disconnected to my emotions and body, I still felt connected too. Bizarre I know.

Now, I don't feel that high anymore and miss it.

Alley Cat said...

One of my recovery motivators actually kind of relates to this. I get the best endorphin highs from concerts of bands I've liked for a while before seeing, and roller coasters. The summer of the onset of my E.D., aside from not experiencing summer at all, I hardly experienced the concert of my lifetime- the one I had been waiting ten years to go to. I also got sick on the best roller coaster and I can attribute that to my E.D., not the coaster.

It's such a drug in the sense that the highs ever seem "worth it." I know for a fact that for me, life's natural highs are infinitely better (and natural lows are actually not as bad)! The only thing even comparable about the E.D. "highs" is that they were immediate (though the other 99.9%, awful effects were also immediate, and permanent!)

Thanks for the entry. I like how you described recovery's view of the attraction because that's what I'm working toward- putting into perspective, even more so than now, how much more important life is, even though it's harder sometimes. Just one of my motivators is to see that band again and actually experience it E.D. free :)

James Clayton said...

I can relate to that, Alley Cat. Whn EDs aren't gripping so tightly I can feel music so much more. I know I'm good when I can get that euphoric feel - when I feel connected to rock 'n' roll as it were.

Anonymous said...

Is it a roadblock to recovery to reminisce about the eating disorder? In DBT lingo, control your thoughts so they don't control you? Reminiscing means that those thoughts are unchecked...

I have observed that people may not want recovery until they are good and recovered so everything is sort of a roadblock until then...go for recovery and then decide!!!

CG said...

wow, if you replace the word starvation with letting yourself loose on a pile of sugary carbohydratey goodness, I could have written this. sometimes I want nothing more than that ethereal, detached state of being, the freedom...of just overeating. It's amazing how different EDs are so relatedable sometimes.

I do find myself becoming stronger in resisting the urges, mostly because I know I prefer the longer stretches of peace - knowing I am treating my body well - to the intermittent highs (and inevitable lows that follow). xoxo

CG said...

relatable* ha

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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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