As someone who is recovering from a long history of restricting anorexia nervosa (AN) with exercise dependence, one of the things I most regret is that I was never helped adequately with the actual process of eating in my teens, 20s and 30s – i.e. learning how to eat well, and without fear.
Sure, I saw a dietician in my teens who told me what to eat. I was scolded for not eating enough by the professionals who treated me, who seemed to assume I was just being a rebellious brat. And I was threatened with various punishments if I didn’t eat…. However, what no-one did (but which I desperately needed), was help me with managing the intense anxiety associated with the action of eating itself. When a plate of food evokes the same panic response as would a plate of slugs, eating is very difficult… It wasn’t that I was a naughty girl who refused to eat. The problem was that I couldn’t eat enough to sustain normal growth and maturation. I was scared of food and scared of eating.
I have always been somewhat ‘adept’ at involuntarily conditioning myself to be terrified (actually phobic) of various things. For example, I once saw a kid at school eat parsnips, then vomit. I was so convinced that parsnips make people vomit that I wouldn’t touch them for another 20 years. I also developed emetophobia as a child, which took on a whole life of its own and has always contributed a dominant facet to my OCD. Emetophobia is the primary stimulus for my compulsive handwashing. In a similar way I was taught as a child that smoking increases morbidity and mortality in various ways and so I have never touched a cigarette in my life, even though most of my peers couldn’t wait to try out smoking. I have always been very ‘rule-bound’… I seem to develop rules around all aspects of living that I am scared to break lest the sky fall in.
Interestingly, however, I do not have spider phobia and spiders are amongst my favourite creatures. I catch the darlings in jars, talk to them, then put them outside to play
But I digress… Back to the subject of eating.
There are 1000s of published, peer-reviewed research papers addressing various aspects of the subject of eating disorders, including AN, and one of the best ones I have read over recent years is this paper by Prof Janet Treasure et al., titled ‘Eating in Eating Disorders’:
Yes, lovely people. Eating disorders ARE about eating!
I love the opening sentence to this paper:
“Eating is a core component of eating disorders and thus, it is ironic that this core symptom has recently been neglected in contrast to the focus being placed on weight and body image.”
I couldn’t agree more. When you have an eating disorder you have a lot of problems regulating your appetite and/or eating behaviours. In restricting AN the person can become utterly phobic of eating per se, or what they feel that eating will do to their bodies, or to themselves as a whole. And I am not talking necessarily about ‘fear of fatness’ – which some people with restricting AN do have and some do not. Some people with AN fear consuming food that they perceive to be ’unhealthy’, or they fear that their body will do something impossible – like storing 7 pounds of fat because they eat one bar of chocolate. Thankfully, I studied Physics, Chemistry and Biology in depth during my teens and so I didn’t believe that my body would behave unusually relative to all other humans.
But when I was very stuck in AN I was not only terrified of food itself, the action of eating and the feeling of food inside my stomach, I somehow felt that if I didn’t tightly control my eating, my life would be chaos and I would die of panic. I thought I might become someone else (that I didn’t want to be) if I ate more and gained weight. I feared that if I ate more and gained weight I would have no ‘excuse’ for being the useless person I had convinced myself that I was. In fact, because I was in a semi-starved state I attached lots and lots of fears to eating and weight gain.
If you have read my recent blog posts you will be aware that I have been struggling with depression relating to what I have lost through years of living with AN – and especially what AN has done to my physical health. Over the past 6 years I have gained > 30 pounds, and apart from a few blips, I have largely maintained this weight gain. But my weight is at the lower end of a healthy weight range for my stature and I look too thin. I feel that by gaining another 10-14 pounds I will be physically healthier, at least.
During the past couple of weeks I have been going against all my ingrained anorexic instincts and eating substantially more than usual. It is so easy to slip back into old habits and old routines so I have made plenty of these reminders using ‘Post-Its’ and stuck them around my house:
I’m feeling very over-full and not enjoying the process of trying to gain this extra weight, but I am ABSOLUTELY DETERMINED to do it.