TW: Eating disorders and self-harm.
So, it’s Eating Disorder Awareness Week (EDAW), apparently. I don’t mean to sound so blasé or critical, but I guess like many people who have suffered with an eating disorder and mental health issues I am left feeling a bit cold when ‘awareness’ is mentioned. I think there is a lot of awareness out there but what we really need is adequate funding and investment in training, in order that there is proper provision to support people who are suffering and struggling better (or at all!). We all know that it’s a postcode lottery with what treatment is available not to mention the waiting lists…oh and, of course, the ‘time-limited’ interventions. So, forgive me if I don’t feel all that enthusiastic about this week, or any of the others that come along raising ‘awareness’. I guess I’m just old and over it and would rather see some tangible action so that people like me get the help they need at the time they need it – and don’t spend a lifetime tangled up in pain.
I’ve been saying for a while that I would find some time write about the end of the long-standing ED and so this is my contribution to EDAW – but really, it’s for me, a written acknowledgment, to myself, to honour the journey I’ve been on. I don’t really know where to begin, if I’m honest, but this week seems an especially apt time to finally close the book of many many MANY chapters.
So, I guess I begin at the beginning?… all those years ago when the crafty bastard came along and took root? I suppose that’s as good a place to start as any…but inevitably this will take me back to the very beginning because everything that came before the active anorexia fed into the development of the ED (excuse the pun!).
This is probably going to be a pretty long piece – so perhaps go grab a cuppa. I suspect it will be a bit ‘bitty’ and disjointed here and there, too, as there’s lots to say. It has been such a fragmented experience that I can’t see how it will ‘flow’ but I guess if I keep some kind of loose chronology we’ll get to the end and into March 2022 where I am now sitting with a big bar of chocolate and cup of hot milk as I type – and enjoying both with no hint of “I shouldn’t” or “I’ll have to pay for this in exercise later” or hating myself for not having the willpower to resist these treats. I never for one minute believed this would be possible – but here I am…and contemplating a cheese toastie in a bit!
So, deep breaths, ready for vulnerability download:
I have been battling with anorexia since I was 15 which, sadly, is almost 25 years of my life. My goodness, that’s depressing when it’s right there in black and white. 25 years wasted….
Looking back now I feel so much sadness and compassion for that poor young woman (that was me) who found herself deeply distressed, struggling so badly with soooo many different issues, who took to starving herself in order to cope, and was barely holding it together with rubber bands and chewing gum. I feel so upset that no one paid attention or saw beneath my coping exterior. I was like a swan to everyone around me, gliding along on the surface whilst desperately kicking legs beneath it in order not to grind to a halt or fall apart. It was exhausting trying to appear ‘fine’ when I was anything but. Parts of me longed for someone to ‘see’ me but my protectors were so strong that no one was ever able to penetrate my defences. No one tried but then I wonder if I’d have trusted them even if they had?
I wish I knew then what I know now about myself, and about the destructive nature of eating disorders. But then I was a kid in the late nineties – information wasn’t readily available, the internet and social media weren’t ‘things’ back then (sending a simple text message took ages repeatedly pressing number buttons to get to each letter) and so much was ‘taboo’ – having said that, I don’t think the internet or social media was what I needed, or more ‘awareness’, as I say, I wish back then there had have been someone, anyone, who would have noticed and helped me through what I was experiencing, someone who could have helped release the strangling grip of the eating disorder and allowed me space to breathe and recover and learn how to be me and to accept myself.
Basically, I wish I’d have had a K or an Anita when I was 15 because there’s so much evidence to suggest that eating disorders that are addressed early have the best success rates for people getting through them and moving on. Unfortunately, I wasn’t one of those people who got support at the right time, but I feel so blessed that I have support now and I definitely think that my relationships with A and K have done wonders for me, helping me grow stronger. It’s through having their love and care modelled to me that I have learned to love myself and see my own worth. And this is the thing, for me, my eating disorder, when you boil it down, was actually not a great deal to do with food or body image. It focused on those things, but they weren’t the primary drivers.
There are loads and loads of reasons why people fall into eating disordered behaviours, but I can only speak from a personal perspective here, and say how it was for me. Anyone who has followed this blog for a while will know by know that my growing up experience wasn’t exactly what you’d call ‘optimum’. From the very beginning it wasn’t brilliant. I was an accidental pregnancy, a pregnancy that turned out to be fraught with problems, a pregnancy where my mum spent the final three months of her pregnancy in hospital with pre-eclampsia. Poor little me was stuck in a toxic womb environment and then had to be induced 6 weeks early because I ‘was in distress’ and so I wasn’t exactly onto a winner…and have been distressed ever since. Lol.
After a long and difficult labour, I was born, and reportedly didn’t make a sound. They’d pumped my mum so full of drugs that they weren’t sure I was alive or if I would survive. There’s no doubt, now, that I ought to have been delivered by c-section, but this was the early 80’s, on a Sunday, in a hospital that is renowned for its poor practice over the years. Apparently, the doctor on-call was on the golf course and insisted on finishing his game before coming in to assist with the delivery…as you do.
Tiny baby me was whisked off to an incubator which is where I spent the first three days of my life. I’ve written about this before, here, but every time I think about it, no matter how much therapy I have, it still stings. My mum’s ‘go to’ birth story as I was growing up was, “I thought the baby in the incubator next to you was mine, I didn’t even recognise you.” Undoubtedly, my mum was traumatised by both her pregnancy and her labour, and I am not surprised she went on to develop post-natal depression…but what has any of this got to do with my eating disorder you might ask?
Those early hours and days after the birth of a baby are so important for bonding and attachment. The moment my children were born they were put on my chest, and we had skin-to-skin contact. In fact, the moment my son was born he was skin-to-skin and began to breastfeed immediately. Both my babies were elective c-sections so their births were as straightforward as they could be: my daughter was breach presentation, and my son was enormous so I’m glad I was given the option both times to choose what I wanted. I am certain that a calm birth experience meant that I was very able to respond to my babies and bond quickly. I wasn’t in pain or distress, and neither were they.
I know how important it was for me as a new mum to be close to my babies and to bond – I didn’t put either of mine down except for nappy changing in the first twenty-four hours and they slept on me skin-to-skin – not even in a baby grow. My mum was barely in her twenties when she had me, and didn’t have any of that, or any decent antenatal support prior to birth. I can’t imagine how upsetting it must be to not see your baby because it’s been whisked away, not know if its ok, and then not to know which baby is yours when you finally are allowed to see it. My mum used to retell the story like it was funny, but I think, now it must’ve been her way of coping with something awful.
Anyway, the post-natal depression undoubtedly didn’t help with the bonding process. My dad used to come home from work to me and by all accounts I don’t think I was massively well-attended to during the day. I understand it, but it’s still hard to know that as a small child I was not getting what I needed. I don’t blame my mum PND – it is what it is, and there was next to no understanding of it or support for it really then. But if I was left in dirty nappies then I think we can probably infer that there wasn’t a great deal of feeding going on either.
When I was 9 months old my mum left the country with me. Her relationship with my dad had completely broken down and she basically ran away from an intolerable situation with him and my wider family. Again, to be taken from everything I knew at that time must’ve been disruptive for little me. I don’t know much about the three years abroad but I know we moved back to the UK when I was nearly four. I have only a handful of memories before I was seven: one is being sick after my preschool vaccinations, and the other burning myself on a barbecue but being too scared to tell anyone about it when I was just four. I have no recollection of my first day at school — or anything.
My memories only really kick in when I moved house I and started a new school midway though year 2 and the week of my seventh birthday. Before I started therapy, I thought this was normal. I thought most people had no idea about their lives before that age. Apparently not. Sometimes I wonder about what might have happened or what it was like, but I know what it was like from when the memories actually begin, and I can’t see it being very much different. I imagine that my clever young brain wiped out a lot of what was there to make it survivable.
When I was working with Em, I remember a session where I told her about the burn on the barbecue (I still have the scar now). I’d said how I had been told to stay away from the barbecue because it was hot. My dad had put the tongs on the grill to disinfect them in the flames and then taken them off and hung them on the side of the frame. I was alone in the garden and was inquisitive, like children are. I can remember it clear as day…the searing pain when the boiling metal hit my skin and then peeling the tongs off my leg, taking the skin with them, leaving a long burn on my inner thigh.
Em wondered aloud what might have led little me to be in a position where I was too scared to tell an adult that I was severely hurt in that situation. My daughter was about the same age I had been at the time when I was recounting the story, and Em asked me what my daughter would do: run to me crying and seek assistance. There was no doubt in my mind that that is exactly what she’d do. That’s the natural reaction, right?
So, what stopped me as a little girl? Why was I already so terrified of the consequences of being told off for doing something I had been told not to do, doing something ‘wrong’? It didn’t take much to join the dots, but I can infer that I must’ve at least once before got into trouble for something and the reaction been bad enough for me to go into hiding rather than risk a similar response from my mum.
My children do stuff I tell them not to ALL THE TIME but they ALWAYS come and seek help and support if they hurt themselves, even if they’ve hurt themselves after I’ve warned them not to do something. How does all this stuff link into the ED you might be wondering? Like come on RBCG get to the point! Well, I think from the very beginning my needs have not been met, both emotionally and physically, and I think early on I detached from my needs.
As I child I remember being hungry a lot of the time. I was the kid that never had a snack at breaktime at school. It wasn’t that there wasn’t money for it, there just was never anything in the house to take and I genuinely don’t think it occurred to my parents that breaktime was a time when kids had something to eat. Or maybe they were just consumed in their own busy lives and didn’t keep me, or my need in mind…(sigh)… And so, I used to watch while other children tucked into bags of crisps and chocolate biscuits. Again, I never went home and asked for these things to be bought. I didn’t feel like I was worthy of it, I guess.
I used to go to childminders before and after school at when I was at primary school and the childminder used to feed both her children a snack after school but would never offer me anything. My dad didn’t collect me until almost seven most nights so most days I would have just my school dinner which given how crap things are now for kids in the UK with 1/3 in poverty I feel stupid for moaning because I was at least fed and when I got home, too. But what I am trying to say is that for years I was hungry, my stomach would physically hurt, and yet there was no way of getting rid of that feeling and it was horrid.
I guess I got used to it in the end and something switched off, I no longer ‘felt’ hungry although I guess I must have been. I didn’t feel much of anything at all, actually. And it was the same with the emotional stuff. When my mum would come home at the weekends it was horrible most of the time. She’d argue with my dad, sometimes be violent, and generally make me feel like I was in the way and an inconvenience. For years the shouting and the violence scared me and then I learnt to feel nothing.
Everything was numb.
And so fast forward through to my teenage years, my parents had separated again so at least the yelling had stopped. I lived with my mum during the week, and she was stressed and unavailable or vile. By now I had become so self-reliant that I don’t think you’d know I existed in the house. I washed my own clothes, made my own lunches, cleaned the house, and stayed in my room doing my schoolwork. I was no trouble at all. My reports were outstanding. My grades were top. There was nothing you could moan at me about.
Only she did.
Over and over.
Eroding my self-esteem bit by bit over and over for years and years, “I wish you’d never been born”, “You think you’re so perfect”, “You’re so boring”, “You’re just like your dad”, “Who the hell do you think you are?”…on and on and on…
And then when I was about fourteen, I started to realise I was gay and this neatly coincided with the “Don’t hold my hand, people will think we’re lesbians” from my mum one day when we were out and crossing the road. I have no idea why I reached for her hand that day. I guess maybe it was an unconscious throwback to a time where she would keep me safe as a child. I don’t know. But her reaction was nuts. The laugh is we never really touched anyway, there were no hugs, no kisses, no physical signs of affection and certainly no verbal expressions of love or care…so this was the final nail in that coffin for our relationship in lots of ways. It sits in the same pain zone as Em’s ‘tick’ analogy, another complete and utter rejection of me and my ‘self’.
As I’ve said, my mum was rejecting so much of the time, and I’d felt physically abandoned when she was away through primary school, but that sound bite also felt so loaded for future ‘gay’ me. Being gay clearly was ‘bad’, and now something to be hidden, and so I did… but that was yet another burden, another secret, another thing to feel ashamed about.
I fell head over feet in love with an older woman when I was 15 too (big eye roll now I know all about my attachment stuff and mummy issues!) but that felt awful, too. I wasn’t out the closet, she wasn’t gay, and I couldn’t tell her how I felt for fear of being rejected. As I’ve already said, it was the late nineties and things weren’t as they are now (that’s not to say LGBTQ+ kids have it easy, now – they don’t) but there was no space for kids like me particularly in the part of the country I was growing up in. There were no role models. There wasn’t even mention of same sex relationships in Sex Ed for goodness sake … I felt thoroughly alone…weird…an outlier. It was hard. And then the GCSE years really got going and as a perfectionist who was expected to get straight A’s I crumbled under the weight of it all.
The first time I didn’t eat was a day during a school holiday. There was ‘gifted and talented’ evening trip to the Opera that had been arranged by the Head of English and me and a couple of friends had been chosen to go. I don’t know why I didn’t eat that day, but I didn’t (probably no food in the house). I can clearly remember after the interval feeling, sitting in the dark, waiting for the singers to take the stage, and feeling lightheaded and stars going round in my vision. I felt kind of out of myself too (dissociated) and, honestly, it felt such a welcome relief from the usual agony in my solar plexus and feeling on the verge of a breakdown and suffering with that horrible sense of ‘unrequited love’ (ahhh which is not dissimilar to the mother wound) and being thoroughly miserable at home.
I’d never been someone who had eaten breakfast or snacked (that bedded in young!) but I was definitely a solid ‘pasty, chips, and beans with a can of apple Tango for lunch at high school’ kind of a girl. But then I stopped that in year 11. I would maybe have something small or skip lunch altogether by going and working in the school library ‘revising’ (sitting alone with my head in a book trying to not fall apart). It was about this time that I’d started self-harming too. It was getting bad. And yet what could I do? I couldn’t speak to my parents. There was no school counsellor. There wasn’t anyone. And of course I was an ‘outstanding’ student so teachers had worry about me.
Things got worse and worse and one day I made myself a GP appointment in the middle of my GCSE exams and went to see the doctor because surely this would be someone to help. I felt so nervous going into the consulting room. I’d never been to the GP without a parent, and I was about to tell a complete stranger about my secret destructive behaviours. I thought I was going to be sick, but I knew I couldn’t carry on as things were. I was miserable and destroying myself. I trusted that a ‘professional’ would offer me the support I so badly required. So, I told the doctor how I was feeling and what I was doing to myself…and…he dismissed my issues saying, “It’s a phase” and that “everyone gets stressed round exams” and that my self-harm scars were “superficial” and he sent me on my way.
Again, I look back at that memory and I have so much sadness and compassion for that brave sixteen-year-old girl who was going through so much and was left unsupported, not ill enough to warrant support and instead left feeling like a time waster and a hypochondriac. I kept quiet after that, but things got worse and worse.
By the time I started A Levels things had really escalated. My mum had taken to being absolutely vile all the time. I was a substitute emotional punching bag now that my dad wasn’t there. And how did I cope? Well, I didn’t eat breakfast or lunch and would purge after all my evening meal which was in the region of 500 calories. I exercised ALL the time, weighed myself daily, and self-harmed at least twice a week. The cuts weren’t superficial anymore and my weight had plummeted. It was absolutely awful. It was completely exhausting, I was completely exhausted and the ED felt like a full time job occupying so much of my headspace…but thankfully it pushed the other horrible stuff – feeling unlovable, untouchable, and not good enough to one side – albeit temporarily.
One day I went to visit ‘the older woman’ who now lived a couple of hundred miles away from me. She took one look at me and cornered me about my eating disorder when we were sitting watching a movie. The dramatic change in my appearance in the 18 months since I’d seen her was unmissable. I was honest about what was going on (for the first time). She asked why I had never told her when I spoke to her on the phone (twice a week). What could I say? It’s not easy to tell someone that you’re not eating, puking every time you eat…and the reason for it… you hate yourself and have unmanageable feelings for the person you’re speaking to!
I felt like I had taken a big step towards H that weekend and then when I got home, and we next spoke on the phone it was like the tide had turned. (The irony is not lost on me with how much this reflects what happened with Em all those years later when I finally told her how bad things were). H delivered me an ultimatum: tell your parents or I will. I begged her to give me time and she agreed. But when she pressed me the next week and I told her I couldn’t she cut me off, told me that she was wrong to get involved, and I could call her in three months but she needed space…
I came out the next day and was in bits and things continued to get worse.
My mental health got so bad that I stopped attending college regularly in the second year of A levels (after a patchy first year) and think clocked up an impressive 30% attendance overall. I was told I shouldn’t sit my A levels as there’s no way I could pass them and to come back and redo the final year. The idea of this felt unbearable – another year at home and no escape to university? I begged my tutor to allow me to at least try the exams and they conceded. Fortunately, I came out with AAAB and it meant I had the grades to move forward.
Essentially, though I spent the years between 16-18 feeling thoroughly depressed and hopeless. How I passed those A Levels I’ll never know, but I am just lucky I guess, to have been academic enough to not need to go to lessons or try too hard. I know that sounds big headed – it’s not meant to be- I am just so aware that had I have flunked my A Levels rather than getting a string of A’s and B’s life would have been considerably more difficult for me because it was getting away to university that allowed me to escape the worst of what I was going through.
My eating disorder was a crutch, a coping mechanism. Anorexia was something I was good at, too. It took the focus off all the shit I couldn’t deal with – didn’t know how to deal with. I could escape from my mother, from my sexuality, from exam pressure and watch the scale go down and down. As, I said, I learnt not to feel hungry and enjoyed the feeling of being almost delirious. I likened the heightened anorexic state as like being up a mountain above the clouds, one day. to Em. Like it can be swirling shitstorm down below and somehow not eating enough for long enough takes you up to where the air is clear, and the sun is shining. Or at least that’s what my calorie deprived brain believed. Coming out the other side I can see how fucked up that is, but anorexia really messes with your body and brain chemistry.
I think my eating disorder went some way to shutting down the Inner Critic, or appeasing it a bit…only you can never really please that sadistic fucker and so really it was just a vicious cycle. I’d go through phases of my life where the ED would be in the background, subdued – usually when things were going well, I was ‘happy’ with friends or in a relationship and life wasn’t too trying but then there were other times where it would rise up and take over. The irony is, what I needed when things felt overwhelming was care and support and what I delivered to myself was abuse. The world outside felt threatening and too much and I had no sense that what I should be doing was ‘self-caring’ and not ‘self-harming’. I sort of thought that’s how it would always be. I never felt like I deserved love or care from anyone, and certainly not from myself. I literally had no idea how to care for me.
(I am so glad this has shifted!)
I’ve always been body conscious; I could never look in the mirror and be ‘ok’ with what I saw but there were stretches of time when I wasn’t actively restricting or purging which felt like a kind of progress. I just ate once day….which I guess is still restricting because there’s no way on earth I could not eat until the evening now. I get to about 10am and breakfast has to happen…I can tune into my body and respond to it, but it’s taken a lifetime to get here after years of dissociation.
It’s weird, I look back now at photos and can really ‘see’ that I wasn’t well but at the time would have sworn blind there was nothing wrong. In fact, the ED mindset can be so dismissive, defensive, and angry that it makes you almost delusional. The number of arguments I have had with my wife over the years when she’s expressed legitimate concerns to me is staggering. The denial that I built around myself and the eating disorder was insane but after so many years it was like I was brainwashed, or brain-damaged. I genuinely couldn’t see the issue anymore and other people’s concern was an intrusion. How dare they suggest anything was wrong? But also, why would I admit it when doing so might mean I get rejected again?
Again, I just feel so sad that I have spent more than half a lifetime attacking myself – and why? …because the self-image I’d had placed on and in me was so wrong in the first place. I find it so depressing that I bought into the idea of being unworthy of love and care and the only way of coping with it was to make myself smaller, to disappear, to dissociate my needs away. But those needs were still there, lying dormant because look where I am now in my therapy: #1 Neediest Client In The World!
I read somewhere once that ‘we are only as needy as our unmet needs’ and basically this rings so true…does anyone else relate?! Unfortunately for me, A, and K there are quite a number of unmet needs!
Anyway, back to the story and the early naughties: I’d got through my degree, my MA and my PGCE just about in one piece (I do wonder how!). I started teaching and I’d get through the day on a can of coke and then go home and eat a meal. Again, I can see this isn’t ‘normal’ but it was the most normal I had even been in my life to date. I was painfully thin, but I wasn’t deep in the throes of the eating disorder either. I guess what I would say is that my eating disorder would go through phases- never fully gone, but not always massively active either. At this point I could eat and not gag when I put my toothbrush in my mouth so that’s a win.
Then of course, my dad died suddenly and there it was again, my trusty friend ready to help me. My coping mechanism was back front and centre. I got very ill when that happened. My BMI was 14 and I was like a walking skeleton. Only I couldn’t see it. And yet again, despite having medical input for my mental health and weekly weigh ins with the GP I was able to deflect and distract from it. Having been told at 16 that there was nothing wrong with me I had basically learnt that health professionals don’t believe me and that I am not worthy of care and so never told them how bad things were. What was the point? I ran rings around anyone that tried to come near.
I clearly remember one day my GP telling me that “Happy people don’t have eating disorders” and “was there anything I wanted to tell her?” I wished so badly in that moment to be able to share even a tenth of what I was carrying but what can you do in a ten-minute appointment? And how do you hold your hands up as a 26-year-old professional person that you are still stuck in your ‘teenage coping strategies’? Eating disorders are so often framed as a ‘young person’s issue’ because that’s when they often begin, but there are thousands and thousands of people who have continued to struggle well into their adulthood… and so, I said nothing. I was ashamed and embarrassed.
And on and on it went for another few months until she referred me into eating disorder services. The initial appointment with the assessor was a farce. She asked me a series of questions about my eating habits and body image and the part that was fronting that day answered in way that meant I wouldn’t get help, “Do you think you are fat?” – “No” etc. The part that so badly needed help was gagged and bound. I was so deeply in the denial zone at that point that really the person just needed to use her eyes to see that I was FAR from ok but of course she didn’t. It was another example of my being intelligent and articulate enough to be escape the system. I don’t know why I was so terrified of ‘getting help’ but the idea of being made to eat and go to day patient just felt like a huge no. I didn’t want to be scrutinised. I didn’t want to lose control. I didn’t know any other way of coping with what I was feeling and having my ED taken away…well, I needed it to survive.
Still, none of that ever happened because I never got specific ED help but I was put on the waiting list for psychotherapy after writing a letter to my GP and her calling me in to say she thought I was suffering with PTSD! Three years later and I finally got to the top of the waiting list and was working with Em… and the ED kicked in AGAIN about three months away from when we were meant to end, just as the realisation that I would have to stop seeing her became really real and the attachment stuff had become massive. I had genuinely thought I was over my ED by this point, I’d had a baby and things were going well in my ‘adult’ life. So, what the hell was going on? Ahhh the young parts were activating but I had no idea about any of it at this point, I just felt like I was losing my mind.
So, there I was again, sitting with a BMI of 16.5 and not eating ‘normally’ but also ‘normally enough’ to not draw any attention. I was exercising away my ‘baby weight’ (overdoing it to attack myself and escape the emotional pain). I couldn’t tell Em then what was going on. I was too ashamed and embarrassed that the thing that had triggered me trying to ‘cope’ was approaching the end of our time limited therapy on the NHS and the reality of losing her – and besides, there was no time left. It was all the stuff about being alone, left, abandoned, rejected, not being worthy of love or care…it was the mother wound. It totally fucked me up for a long time and I was so distressed for months after that ending but didn’t really understand why.
Yet again, it was a relational ‘injury’ triggering the eating disorder. Yet again it was feeling emotionally out of control and not good enough that sent me into the pattern of trying to gain control – of what I put into my body and what I did to my body, and over my emotions. The older I got the easier it was to spin my anorexia as a ‘health kick’. I’d buy new trainers and sports kit and RUN AND RUN AND RUN away from all that was upsetting me and eat salads and drink smoothies when, really, I wanted cake and chocolate and roast dinner.
I simply wasn’t able to sit with my feelings of pain and loss and all that’s associated with the mother wound because, as I said, I didn’t fully understand it. I just knew that the thought of losing Em felt unsurvivable because of course that is what it felt like to the young parts who were being triggered. It felt like annihilation. Ugh. And how do you tell anyone about this? It’s embarrassing and loaded with feelings of shame. You’re meant to get ‘better’ after sixteen months of therapy not worse…and yet here I was feeling desperate and heartbroken…
And so that therapy ended, and I bumbled along for six months feeling untethered, having nightmares, and not eating and trying to shift my focus away from the pain I felt inside. Time ticked on, then I got pregnant again and sorted myself out, put on a stone, had my son…it was all settled and going well…and then I got diagnosed with cancer…and had a year of treatment. Steroids saw me balloon, but I didn’t care at that point. I was fighting for my life not my size six and the steroid weight soon fell off when I had finished treatment.
The wheels came off after I finished the chemotherapy and radiotherapy– the PTSD response to the cancer treatment being lumped onto so many other previous traumas meant that I knew I needed to seek support – and I made it back to Em privately…and OMG…as you all know…the mother wound got triggered in the most massive way AGAIN. I thought going back to her would ease some of that ache that I’d felt in the three years since I had seen her, but it didn’t. It ignited again in a flash. Seeing her, as I have said so many times, was perpetually like being a kid stood peering through the window of a sweetshop- I could see what I wanted, smell it, almost taste it – but I couldn’t have it. It was so painful.
Working with Em meant that I became fully aware of my inner dynamics, my attachment style, the dissociation ALL OF IT. And whilst this information was really useful in helping me understand myself better, it didn’t help with the endless triggering of my little selves in the relationship with Em. Her being so emotionally and physically withholding just exacerbated the situation. And then there were the breaks that triggered the abandonment stuff- and my go to coping strategies- when I needed some kind of relational holding with her and it wasn’t forthcoming – think Pebblegate! Oh man!!!!!!
Some of you that have been here for the long haul will recall the Easter break where the shit hit the fan a few years back and I just didn’t cope AT ALL and fell into a really severe period of not eating and over-exercising. I took a leap of faith and told Em what was going on when we got back from the break – all of it, from the beginning, like the stuff in this post and I genuinely felt like I had taken a huge leap forward in being honest and maybe, finally, would be able to get support with this ED that had been plaguing me for years. Only those of you who have read for a while might also remember that it was straight after this that Em delivered me an ultimatum “Go to your GP or we’ll have to work towards an ending.”
I still feel physically sick when I think back to how that was handled. It had taken such a lot of bravery and a leap of faith to trust Em with this vulnerable and sensitive secret and everything I had worried about – being rejected or abandoned because of it- was panning out. It really was a replay of the GP at 16, and H at 17, but in a different way. I never really spoke to Em about my ED again and I genuinely feel like a massive opportunity was missed there.
Flash forward again…the ending with Em two years ago. Another relational injury and back to my trusty friend the ED. The Inner Critic loves the ED, it makes it feel strong, and powerful, and in control, and it likes to punish all the parts of me that suffer. Thankfully, I wasn’t alone when it all went wrong with Em. K was incredible at this time, so holding and caring, and UNDERSTANDING which zapped some of the shame away from the situation. I also met Anita just before it all went catastrophically wrong with Em, and from the get-go I was able to tell her all of the ‘stuff’.
The great thing about starting with a new therapist is you have a window of time before any of the attachment shit really kicks in in the relationship with them, and you can map out all the issues without the fear of judgement or lots of parts being involved. I started working with Anita in January 2020 and it wasn’t until June/July time that my littles switched allegiances to Anita and the attachment stuff felt really live with her. You’d have thought that the need for A becoming live would also trigger the ED, because the fear of rejection and abandonment would come alive and so I’d have gone into hiding and repeated the pattern…
However, the big change this time was that I was able to tell Anita how I felt outright, rather than skirt round the edges and be living in a vat of shame like with Em. Anita has always handled my feelings with such care and sensitivity that I’ve been able to tolerate feelings that I have never been able to before. It’s always felt like Anita is holding my hand – both literally and metaphorically and so I have felt much safer in the relationship even when big things crop up or a rupture happens. I have enough faith, trust, and confidence in what we have built together that I can experience difficult feelings without the need to go and attack myself.
As you guys know. This therapy hasn’t been plain sailing and ‘nicey nicey’- my god – Anita and I hit rupture territory regularly enough! But what is sooooo different is the speed at which we repair the ruptures. I don’t sit for weeks and months on end ‘building up’ to telling her I’m hurt, wondering whether she’ll flat out reject me, or terminate me, for feeling upset or dissatisfied…for wanting to be close. Of course, my fears of rejection and abandonment get triggered a lot but how Anita handles this is transformational and I do think this relational healing has gone a long way towards me moving away from the ED.
The level of love and care that I feel with both Anita and K is massive and it’s building an inner resource that is supportive. I realise now that I do have needs, that my needs are valid, that there is nothing wrong with me having feelings and that I do not need to punish myself for experiencing BIG emotions or having relational needs. I do want to be loved and cared for – and that’s normal. And it’s normal to hurt when that hasn’t adequately happened growing up.
I don’t need to feel shame or embarrassment for having young parts that need Anita (of course I still do, a lot!) and I know that Anita has invested a lot of time and energy in building a strong therapeutic relationship with me, as has K. More and more I can internalise their love and care which means I am more and more able to tolerate my difficult feelings as I have these steady, consistent compassionate voices telling me I am loved and good enough both in real life and in my head. Those voice counteract the Inner Critic somewhat. I know why the Inner Critic and other protectors have been so vocal – they do not want me to get hurt. But I also understand that their way of ‘protecting’ me has hurt and isolated me at times.
Basically, these last couple of years working with Anita and K have changed my life. Because I now feel compassion for myself and all my parts because I have had it modelled to me by them I want to nurture myself now rather than punish myself. For the longest time I have looked for a home in other people and now, through being loved and cared for I am starting to find a home in myself. I know there’s still a load of work to do, the young parts still need what they need from Anita, but I do feel optimistic that I am a lot closer to a healthy state than I have ever been before. More and more frequently I can find the resources within myself to start to soothe the young parts that are so upset and lost.
The end of the ED (if there is ever a truly an end) has been a steady, slow, barely perceptible bit by bit change in me and how I think about myself. The body work with K has made me so conscious of my body’s reactions and nervous system that I simply can’t not eat at least three meals a day. I register my hunger and I feed myself where before I didn’t ‘feel’ hungry and then if I did feel it, I’d resist it. Over time I have learnt to tune into my body, and I give it what it wants- sometimes that’s a load of fruit and other times it lots of cake…I just intuitively eat what I fancy when I fancy it. I also realise that I am nurturing my adult body, but in taking care of the basic needs to eat I am nourishing that hungry baby and the other small children inside, too.
And this doesn’t just extend to food. I am now, more than ever in tune with what I need emotionally, and I do what I can to meet those needs. I wrote recently about taking a day off to try and regroup, sometimes I don’t try and force ‘adult me’ into carrying on, and if there’s time, I might grab a teddy and watch a kids’ movie when the young parts are massively activated…there’s all kinds of things I do. What I guess I am trying to say is that I don’t run from myself anymore, I try and look at what’s going on and figure out what the need behind it is and if possible, do something to meet it.
But back to the eating disorder stuff – or the food and body bit. Of course, stopping unhealthy eating habits – or lack of eating habits, has resulted in a significant weight gain. I no longer fit into the clothes I’ve had since I was eighteen, and I am not a size six or eight anymore but then I am nearly 40 and have had two kids so that’s perfectly reasonable! Perhaps the hardest thing about moving on from the ED was ‘growing out’ of clothes. I can’t wedge my arse into my wardrobe anymore and that was a bit triggering but it wasn’t enough for me to want to ‘do’ anything about it. Instead of slimming down, I bought some size ten clothes instead and they fit comfortably. Eating what I want when I want has led to my body sitting at a solid 54kg for months – which for my height 5ft 7 is perfect for me. I never thought this could happen. I used to live in fear of 48kg and now…here I am.
Omg this is massive. If you’ve made it to the end with me – kudos to you. As I said at the beginning this was more of me needing to close the book than write a new chapter…and I think I have done that. It’s taken a long time, it’s been a massive struggle, but I am so fucking proud of myself to be where I am today. And I hope, if anyone reading this is experiencing a similar struggle that they can see that it doesn’t have to remain the same and things can change.