I’ve called this post disordered eating, though to be honest eating is not disordered at the moment, it is just pretty much non-existent. I’ve lost 6 kilos in less than 4 weeks. I’m actually a healthy weight now (having put on 3.5 kilos over the winter through too much binge eating and not enough cycling due to shit weather, something that fills me with huge amounts of shame and self-loathing), but mentally this feels unhealthy. I know it is unhealthy and yet I am scared to tell anyone, even – especially – K on Monday, because I do not want to be encouraged to eat (or for her to abandon me entirely because look what the spectre of ending with her does to me…Clearly I need more help than she can offer). Part of me is enjoying how much power I have over myself. I know, I know, it’s all about being able to control something when everything else is falling apart. I know I’ll get back to eating properly as the shock of losing K before I’m ready wears off. I know I won’t sustain this, but part of me wishes I could. The first ‘problem’ listed on my medical records, after chicken pox, is anorexia nervosa in 1997 and part of me is proud of this, and part of me (probably the same part) feels a failure because I couldn’t even get that properly. Other coping mechanisms took over, and starving myself just rears its head for a few days every few months and then recedes. These feel like teen parts, but as I realised this week after talking to a friend – starving myself is about attachment, it’s driven by very young feelings. I never realised before how closely the two were related – failure of attachment and self-starvation. I’m not sure it is this simple, but it does feel like somewhere in my head is this idea that if I stop eating, K won’t go away – perhaps it is about needs, if I deny my needs (and what do we need more than food really? Other than air and water) then my attachment figure won’t go away. I remember my Dad making me read a book about anorexia and bulimia when I was 14, when I had to take 3 months off school due to this and self-harm and depression and just being a general mess. The book said something about how anorexia, on a basic level, is about denying the self life, denying what is needed to live. Is it as simple as just wanting someone else to nurture me, and denying my needs when it is obvious they can’t? Of course there’s another whole load of tangled beliefs and messages in there too now, but basically (as is everything I guess!) it is about attachment and loss.
I realised a few months ago, on my old blog where I wrote about food a little bit after a very intense and quite disturbing conversation in therapy, how utterly fucked my system is in relation to eating. In some ways, many ways, it would be easier to have one eating disorder to deal with, but I don’t – I have different anorexic parts (sometimes it’s about quantity of food with a goal of just ‘as little as possible’ and sometimes it’s about eating but restricting and keeping in mind calories and weight loss), binging parts (who adult me is so ashamed of), orthorexic parts (which can manifest in different ways at different times depending on which ‘healthy’ goal is most prominent), alongside parts that are fairly balanced about eating and then child parts who, of course, just want to eat a lot of party rings and oreos and ice cream. It is just a cacophony of mixed messages about food and the different goals that sit alongside eating. Inside is mayhem. And it can be so hard to tell what is ‘healthy adult’ and what is unhealthy coping mechanisms driven by traumatised parts (e.g. thinking ‘fuck it!’ and eating a whole packet of biscuits after a long day at work could be seen as relatively balanced and healthy, as long as it’s not all the time, but it could also be a part who is just wanting to eat to feel full and stave off the feelings of emptiness and longing. Food is also grounding and so it could be a subconscious effort to do this when I am very dissociated (in which case some other method might be healthier), and it could be the precursor to a huge binge where we eat till we feel sick (and then starve and over-exercise to try and compensate). It’s a mess, to be honest (and I imagine – no I know – that ‘the eating box’ will be one I take with me to ‘my new therapist’ (who I do not want at all, by the way) later this year).
The noise around food sometimes is so unbearable I cannot think straight, but all these competing aims and eating disorders do mean that at least my weight stays pretty much the same, with the days of starving balanced out by the other days of over-eating, and the orthorexia keeping our nutrient intake pretty balanced. Till now. The past 3 1/2 weeks, since ‘the rupture’ with K and then the news that she is taking 2019 off, anorexic tendencies have completely taken over. As always, it starts with me being physically unable to eat. My tummy is tight and I feel so churned up and broken inside that I would not be able to eat if I tried. For days I hold my tummy so tight it hurts, all the time. And then I begin to enjoy both the hunger (it is better to feel an emptiness attributable to something than to feel the emptiness caused by loss of attachment) and the feelings of power and control over myself. Denying myself food becomes a habit. I’ve been surprised by how easy it is not to eat, it’s been years and years since I’ve spiralled into it like this, and it has come back in a pretty big way.
As an anorexic teenager I never binged or over-ate, but I would make myself sick whenever I had what I perceived to be ‘too much’ (i.e. half a healthy meal). I survived on black coffee and maybe a chocolate bar to get me through the day. I didn’t count calories; my goal was just to let as little into my body as possible. I would regularly go 72+ hours without food, feeling dizzy, being freezing cold and unable to sleep, and having to sit down in the shower in the mornings as I was too weak to stand up. Anything that passed my lips I regarded as me being a failure. At 14 I also started self-harming, cutting my arms and legs with a razor every day, multiple times. I found an old diary from that time recently which I shared some of with K, about how I was getting ‘much better’ at cutting as I was able to make them deeper and longer and bleed more now. Cutting brought instantaneous relief, but not eating was always the choice for a pain I couldn’t see a way out of, where longer-lasting relief was needed. I wrote one time, after someone I really liked ‘dumped me’ for someone else, how I was waiting for the feelings of starvation to take over my whole body and give me the relief I needed from my feelings, because only starvation could help me separate from my feelings. So this stuff is such an ingrained coping mechanism.
And then around age 21, when my chronic head pain was at it’s height. I began to find solace in food, in comfort eating. I was dissociated all the time (though I had no word for it then) and desperately ill and empty. I’d started to uncover ‘the mother wound’ and had cut my Mum out of my life for 6 months, initially, to try and deal with it without getting constantly triggered by interactions with her. Food filled up the gaping hole inside me. So it is my 21 year old part, Amelia, who drives the binge eating. As she wrote in our parts’ journal – I eat and eat but food cannot fill me up. The over-eating is a huge source of shame. It is something I admitted to K for the first time just 6 weeks ago. Anorexia, or at least being thin and ‘in control’ is desirable, over-eating is too much like my Mum who makes me feel ill with her over-eating. Binging is very rare, and one of the issues is that things often feel like a binge or ‘too much’ when really they are just a normal amount of food. Orthorexic parts dictate such strict rules, and when they are deviated from even a little it feels like everything has gone to shit.
And then there’s the whole ‘too much/not enough’ dichotomy which is basically at the heart of disorganised attachment and the emotional swings that tend to accompany it (emotionally numb/overwhelmed, engulfed/abandoned, dissociated/anxious, the pull towards connection and the push away from it, and so on). When we feel numb and empty (i.e. not enough) there is a pull towards over-eating, and when we feel ‘too much’ (maybe, like now, overwhelming feelings of abandonment and annihilation) then we stop eating. So swinging between the two makes sense, but I would so like to find some middle ground. As I would in all areas of my life really.
Food was a huge issue growing up. My Dad is over-restrictive (his Mum, my Grandma, is anorexic) and weighs himself every day, my Mum binges regularly and we grew up with ‘bad’ food being used as a treat and regularly hearing my Mum’s self-hatred with regards her body and her food habits. My Dad shamed her for being overweight. I began restricting when I was 8, writing down everything I ate and setting unattainable goals for my weight, and when my Dad found my notebook he told me if he thought I was ‘fat’ he would be giving me less to eat – he wasn’t, ergo I wasn’t fat. Ugh, where to start with all that was wrong with that conversation?! So my parents are also too much/not enough and neither of them taught me anything about how to be healthy around food. It makes me so sad that something so necessary for survival, and something so pleasurable for so many, causes me such anguish. I have to admit the anorexia is easier to manage as a Mum than when the orthorexia takes over, because when I’m not eating I’m not worrying about what my daughter (Nina, I’m going to call her here) is eating (she is eating fine, I’m not starving her and it is nutritionally balanced, I’m just not worrying too much about the whole gluten, sugar, nutrients thing – right now life is just about survival to be honest).
I recently had to have a conversation with Nina, who is 11, about suicide as a boy in her class is pretty messed up and says he wants to kill himself. My beautiful, amazing friend Jess took her life in December 2014 and at the time I told Nina that she fell off the cliffs, not wanting her to know that suicide was even a ‘thing’ when she was 7 years old. So I used Jess as a way to contextualise our discussion, and explained a bit about it and that for some people being alive is just too painful and they can’t see a way out. I said it was rare, which is why it was such a shock and so devastating for everyone, and that often people feel unable to reach out to anyone for help (but that she would always have me to turn to for any kind of problem). She was heart-broken to hear the truth, and is still absolutely horrified that anyone would do that to themselves. This amazes and relieves me but also saddens me – I was younger than her when I first began to think of death as the way out. By 13 I remember people talking about what would happen in a few weeks time and my thoughts always being ‘I won’t be here then’. Being suicidal, starving and hurting myself, and other self-destructive behaviours have been part of my life since I was younger than her. She told me recently how she wants some friends who enjoy eating as her two friends at the moment just pick at their food. She loves food, but is so balanced about it. And she swims for 5 1/2 hours a week and does other sports too so it is not that she loves food to fill her up and avoid. She just likes food because we are programmed to find eating a pleasurable experience (like how excited do my bunnies and guinea pigs get about eating hay – I want to be like that!) and yet somehow, because of failed early attachment, this has all gone wrong for me.
I asked K in our Friday email today if she has any books on anorexia and attachment, as I’d not realised the links before this past week (I didn’t tell her what is going on for me at the moment, I figured she has enough to worry about and email is not the place). She is going to see what she can find. Maybe this will be an opening into telling her about these difficulties on Monday. I think she thinks that telling me to be more balanced re the orthorexic tendencies would do the trick, and whilst I am being more balanced in terms of what I buy for Nina, this stuff runs so deep that I don’t think one or two sessions could be enough to sort it all out. This is what I mean about how we have so many boxes open in our work at the moment, it is just such shit timing for me to move to another therapist. We are right in the thick of everything, all the attachment work and all the trauma processing and all the rebuilding needed for my future. I feel a little more stable today, and it’s easy to think I will stay this way now, but I’ve learnt that another wave is usually just around the corner for me so I am starting to try and just settle into it for now. I still have huge levels of anxiety and uncertainty over what is happening, but I feel held by her again, and the young parts and their life or death feelings have receded a little, for now.