Monday, 21 December 2015

Breaking the Silence

This is going to be rambled, it’s going to be disjointed but it’s something I really do need to say and share:

One of the most deadly symptoms of eating disorders – silence. There exists an image of this poignant message emblazoned across a 5ft photograph of my face. It serves as a powerful awareness message as part of the work of S.E.E.D (Support and Education for Eating Disorders), a Lancashire eating disorder charity that I used to volunteer for until late September 2015.  

After attending S.E.E.D’s annual fashion show fundraiser in October where this poster was everywhere (or so it felt to me), wracked with guilt I began to feel that perhaps I had to break my own silence. Take my own advice. I felt torturous because I know this poster is ironic, because at the time that photograph was taken I was silently gripped in my own battle with anorexia and I still am. It has still taken me a further three months to write  this down and feel able to share.

I first felt encouraged to first start to write this all down after reading of a book, ‘Decoding Anorexia’ by Carrie Arnold. Reading this book has helped me re-evaluate how I consider myself in relation to my eating disorder and provided me with further insight. It has also given me some of the knowledge and most of all the courage to open my mouth again.  

After having ‘recovered’ from my first serious episode of anorexia at 18, I spent the following nine years of my life researching and personally studying eating disorders (whilst simultaneously relapsing and ‘recovering’). I have read many an academic thesis, psychology journals and countless books. I have learned the theory of psychological interventions inside out, supported many sufferers in groups and individually, I’ve written thorough essays, delivered presentations and answered interviews about eating disorders. I had cared for my partner watching helplessly as this horrific illness claimed every aspect of her and then fought tirelessly to nurse her back to health. I have worked among and learned from the experts and attended many a specialist training day. I have campaigned for awareness, fundraised for support services, participated in psychology research studies, given DNA samples. Most poignantly I have spent more than half of my life in some form of therapy, trying to explore and understand my own relationship with myself and my eating disorder. When it came to understanding anorexia, I had covered pretty much covered all bases. Or so I thought.

Earlier this year I relapsed and I have been feeling entirely powerless to the grasp that anorexia has on me. I had drummed up just about all the sheer determination I could muster to push me to use all ‘intellectual’ resources. The techniques and theory I know about treatment and recovery were considered, ready to arm me for the onslaught. This however served only to mildly slow down the speed of the cavalry but not the ferocity of what it is like to experience your mind being taken over by anorexia. I have begun to feel quite hopeless, continuing to push myself through private therapy desperately trying to be proactive in my recovery, but increasingly experiencing that I am becoming more and more disconnected from feeling anything other than anxiety. I have been finding it practically impossible to meditate because my mind is forever in hyper drive.  I had begun to panic that nothing could help me.  Eventually I settled into what is my current state - apathy – because thinking about it anymore causes me to see white noise.

This time around it has been the hardest and most difficult to admit and be open about the fact that I am suffering with anorexia (again). Despite all my hours of campaigning, raising awareness and telling my own clients that there is no shame in having a mental illness, I still firmly believed that I am to blame for my anorexia. This has kept me silent.

I have come to understand that I experience such levels of shame and humiliation regarding my illness because of the way we view anorexia (in general) as being a problem of sociocultural construct. We blame the media, we blame fashion, photoshop, malfunctioning relationships, faulty parenting, trauma, difficult life transitions, patriarchy, a culture fixated with thinness, peer pressure, Barbie dolls … we blame many things. But it was only on reading Decoding Anorexia that I realised that even I had failed to consider that becoming anorexic may be rooted in human biology. The roots of mental illness lie in our very genetic make up and physiological and psychological predisposition. For some reason these facts are hardly ever taken into consideration when it comes to eating disorders. Perhaps my lack of consideration for this fact is more indicative of my anorexic mindset than a preference for popular psychology.

I have been feeling that I am weak. That I have anorexia because I have simply internalised these sociocultural ideals – certainly this is many other peoples perspectives, layman and professional. I have chastised myself for not being either a) "conscious" enough to connect to a higher purpose or b) enough of a feminist to intellectualise my way out of caring about these ideals. I have felt for years that perhaps I haven’t committed myself enough to engaging with my therapy (despite dedicating many hours or paying vast amounts of money for it) and that was the reason I haven’t got better. I have on the whole felt like a huge failure for not being able to overcome this, for not ‘choosing’ recovery. Because of many attitudes and misunderstandings about eating disorders, it has been very difficult for me to view myself as actually having an illness and not just that I’m being selfish, lacking in emotional intelligence, weak, vain, shallow, stubborn or stupid (usually all of the above).

‘Decoding Anorexia’, explored how biology plays a huge factor in the onset of the illness. Reading this book I have come to understand that actually there exists a very real, biological reason that I have this illness and that it persists so ferociously. Through understanding this I can finally be able to conclude that actually this may not be my fault or even within my control! This is immeasurably liberating because I feel able to accept that I’m unwell and explore what I may need to now do to recover without the guilt of ‘it’s my fault’ feeding the problem (not feeding me). A fresh perspective once again – momentarily I felt hope.

Then came the hard part; realisation. I know obviously that recovering largely involves eating (no shit) but if it were that simple for me to do I’d not have anorexia. I keep waiting for the light bulb moment – and I don’t think it’s coming. Recently both my wedding ring and engagement ring fell off my finger. At first I felt nothing and then it was excitement and adrenalin that hit me before the sick to stomach guilt set in. Such is the nature of this illness, the only thing that you can feel fleeting joy about is getting thinner. Other than that it seems I can only identify two feelings – anxiety and guilt and sometimes I don’t even know which is which. I had absolved in late October that I may as well take a break from talking therapy, because actually I’m incapable of engaging now my anorexia has progressed to this point. I find myself doing things that can only be described as ‘crazy’, it’s almost like I am not myself when I’m doing it – I feel like I’m watching myself, removed and powerless.

I understand now that it is anxiety that is the true driver here and my eating disorder is the nasty byproduct I developed to try and cope with this anxiety and then it took over. I feel so overwhelmed by everyday life because my brain is on hyper alert all the time. Painfully over processing everything, holding on to things that I needn’t, mercilessly self critical about every single thing, eventually it all becomes too much and I shut down, neurologically. I shrink my world and my body so that suddenly all I have to think about food and weight. This only increases in intensity when undernourished because of the confusion that comes with not eating – hence why it becomes progressively more and more aggressive. It literally becomes unbearable to eat. I cannot think my way out of it, it’s entrenched.

This doesn’t mean I’m resigning myself to being ill, when you’re unwell you need medicine to help you to get better. The medicine you need for anorexia is food. The simple and unavoidable solution is to eat. Which obviously we all know but I understand now why I can’t do this myself because of the way my brain isn’t processing correctly – it’s not a choice. I know it’s unavoidable and the only way to get better is to eat and eat a lot. Keep eating until my body is at a healthy weight and only then do I stand a strong chance of better cognitive functioning and I can begin to do some proper therapeutic work to tackle the anxiety.

Physically I am in pain most if not all of the time. My teeth are ruined from years of being this way but now because I am so low on reserves they cause me agonizing pain and I’m too ashamed to go to a dentist. I am covered in bruises, mostly from work but also because it takes so long for me to heal. My neck and shoulders hurt from holding myself so tense all the time. My hips and knees permanently ache rising to acute pain on days when I can't seem to override the urge to walk (in the cold) for an hour (at least). My finger nails are crumbling, my hair is now so thin that I can see my scalp when I brush it – I’m in a mess physically. Mentally I’m just exhausted from having to battle through every waking minute of my own head literally sabotaging me from the inside out.

Despite this I have to push myself to be functional, keep plastering a smile on because otherwise I’d just stop completely. Holding down my job is the only thing that makes me feel like I’m actually doing something worthwhile. It’s a huge reassurance that I can at least still pay for myself and I have at least some form of socially acceptable answer when someone asks me what I’ve been up to. I haven't been open with my colleagues at work, nobody actually knows the truth of the situation (until now I guess) because I’m frightened of being misunderstood, frightened of not being able to explain myself, frightened of losing my job actually, even though I push myself incredibly hard not to let my illness interfere with how I work. I try my best to dismiss any comments about my size or just act as normally as possible when presented with offers of food (which are terrifyingly frequent in a supermarket). 

I’m wholly terrified generally. I know sooner or later I will have to eat properly and fully again, eat enough to actually regain weight and I’d much rather do that at home than in hospital. I’m at a point now where I really don’t have a lot of weight to play with before I will be carted off to an inpatient unit whether I like it or not.

Yet I still can’t pick up a fork frequently enough, I can’t stop compulsively walking, I can’t stop vomiting, calorie counting, restricting, body checking etc. I am terrified and my brain keeps telling me; I can’t stop yet because I’m not thin, it’s too soon to start eating again, I don’t need help yet, I can do this on my own. My brain is telling me lots of things. Anorexia doesn’t care that I actually used to like to eat, that I know what foods I used to enjoy. Anorexia only cares that I am thin. Except anorexia is not a conscious entity so it doesn’t know that I am ever thin.   

Naturally I am frightened and confused. I don’t actually know what to do. I think I probably need medication to help calm my anxiety down, just turn the volume down so that my brain has a fighting chance. I do not benefit from being told I just need to fight, try harder, surrender etc. I KNOW all of these things and believe me if I could do them then I would. This isn’t a case of me just being weak or ignorant, this is a case of me being unwell, I do not choose to be this way (I cannot stress this last point enough).  These misconceptions of what it is like to experience anorexia and the causes have left me feeling very isolated, alone and misunderstood –these do not make for healthy recovery circumstances or make it easy to be honest.

I WILL beat this – I have always had hope and I still do have. I know what I want for my life – I can see it all there in front of me but right now I’m stuck, really stuck … and so my first step in unsticking myself was to open my mouth and remove the shroud that I feel hidden behind every day. I can’t live a lie anymore – it’s exhausting. This illness is exhausting… and I just wanted the people in my life to understand that I am not being ignorant when I don’t reply to messages, when I decline social invitations, when I can’t seem to hold a conversation etc. This is why I had to leave my job at Breathe Therapies, this is why I am not continuing to pursue my therapeutic training at the moment and it feels an enormous relief to admit that.

I need acceptance and I need understanding but more than that I need patience and I need more help. So I’m breaking my silence yes to bring about understanding, but more than anything to ask for some assistance. I can’t do this on my own. I have a mental illness that is quite literally trying to kill me. I can’t begin to express how utterly terrifying it is not to be able to trust your own thoughts. I like to think of myself as a strong, intelligent woman and to not feel like I have the upper hand in my own mind is really paralyzing. So this is me admitting that I’ve relapsed and that I need people to know because silence and shame is only going to delay a proper recovery more so. It’s not personal that I haven’t told certain people – it’s been actually hard enough for me to admit it to myself and I just haven’t known how to begin talking … so I wrote this down and I’m sharing it now.