Anorexia, recovery, and walking without crutches.


I was driving in my car on the way home from Starbucks the other day, red cup in hand, when I realized that Thanksgiving is a mere week away. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, and not just because it provides adults with a socially acceptable excuse to wear stretchy pants and eat diner at 2 pm. On Thanksgiving, I love pulling my children onto my lap and talking about what they're thankful for. Sometimes their answers are silly, sometimes introspective - but always memorable.

This Thanksgiving I myself have something to be very thankful for. It marks the two year anniversary of my discharge from an inpatient treatment center for anorexia and bulimia. It was two years ago this week that I left, still underweight and medically compromised, to begin my tenuous journey towards recovery. Two years since I sat in endless hours of group therapy, two years since I was woken up at 5:30 to get weighed in a hospital gown, two years since I argued over meals, refused to drink water, and cried over a half pound weight gain.

Recovery is a very difficult thing to classify. Most mental health professionals are hard-pressed to define exactly what recovery means, and within the field, there is debate and no consensus on how to do so. Is it enough to restore to an appropriate weight and begin menstruating again (i.e., physical recovery), but still be having eating disordered thoughts (i.e., psychological recovery)? Other improvements may be behavioral (e.g., cessation of restricting food, excessive exercise, binging, and purging), and social (e.g., ability to create and maintain meaningful relationships and be successful in school or work).

I can't deny that there have been slips in the last two years - brief periods of a return to eating disorder behaviors. A slide towards symptoms is sort of automatic response for me when I'm feeling stressed, lonely, angry, or overwhelmed.  Almost involuntarily, my brain turns to the eating disorder to “heal” these feelings.

Many mental health professionals have described an eating disorder as a crutch. For me, anorexia helped me self-regulate (or self-medicate) my often crippling anxiety. Some of this was the response to starvation unique to eating disorders – not eating altered my brain chemistry and made me feel better. Some of the response was psychological and  related to the meaning I attributed to my anorexia: that it made me special and unique, that I could tell myself it didn’t matter if I screwed up at X because at least I could be good at losing weight. Self-starvation was a compulsion I used to alleviate the anxiety of, well, pretty much anything.

Some psychologists believe that you are using a crutch because you are hurt somehow. But I just can’t buy the theory that eating disorders are solely some kind of metaphorical attempt to heal a past hurt. I may have been off-kilter before the anorexia came around, but that doesn’t hold a candle to how whacked out my brain and life are now. Yes, the eating disorder made me feel better in profound ways, but I’ve known people who were very well-adjusted before they got sick.

I guess the best comparison is this: being susceptible to an eating disorder is like being prone to bone problems. There’s a greater likelihood that something is going to throw you “off course,” either in terms of stress or mood or whatever, and so you’re much more likely to find yourself using a crutch, just as someone prone to fractured or broken bones is probably more likely to wind up using crutches at some point.

But I realize that the only way to learn how to walk without crutches isn’t really to sit around and ask what is hurting and why and acknowledge that part of you. The only way to walk without crutches is to…walk without crutches. That translates to an absence of eating disorder symptoms, end of story. That’s not to say that you won’t need a lot of support and training to learn how to do this, but the analogy of a psychological disease to a broken ankle isn’t 100% perfect. You do need to stay off of a broken ankle to let the bone heal. In that case, the crutches are serving a good purpose. They’re benefiting you. An eating disorder has many functions, but it’s far from beneficial.

Recovery is  similar to rehab from a physical injury, like a broken leg, in that it involves the repetition of a lot of seemingly basic behaviors (such as eating) until my “recovery muscles” are strengthened. I can’t get there, though, unless I abandon the crutches. Understanding why I’m using them isn’t much use unless I actually stop depending on them
. Using actual crutches to let your leg heal is a legitimate purpose and helps your body heal. Using an eating disorder as an “emotional crutch” might make me feel better, but it’s not helping my mind heal. The eating disorder essentially broke my leg and than gave me crutches to “help” me out. 

So where am I now? The crutches are still there, though I rely on them a lot less than I did a year ago. Ultimately, the decision to recover, to learn how to function without eating disorder symptoms, is mine and mine alone. That means eating with friends, eating foods that occasionally terrify me, and making myself vulnerable to stress. It also means living fully, walking independently, and being thankful for my progress.



16 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing this. You are an amazing person for getting help and choosing to move forward! I'm proud of you. : ) Though it was never my struggle (but boy did I have my own), I still find it beneficial reading these type of posts b/c I think we are all susceptible to thinking in this crutch way. It keeps me in check and makes me evaluate my thought life and how I talk to myself up there. Is it positive of is it destructive? Thanks for the reminder that anorexia is in the mind, too, even if it's not physical yet. And God bless you along your path of healing friend! xo

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  2. THANK YOU for sharing such an intimate and private part of your life. You are an inspirational woman for sure...Kudos to you for deciding to travel down the road to recovery for your family and loved ones and most importantly, for YOU.
    I have been in and around unhealthy eating habits for parts of my life...I professionally cheered for the NFL for 6 years, 2 different teams..and fortunately never succumbed (even being one of the "thicker" girls) to unhealthy eating habits....but I know plenty of girls who did..and it was sad. the standards are so off....
    Thank you again for sharing. Hope you have a great week...and a wonderful thanksgiving..sounds like you have alot to be thankful for.
    C

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  3. this was wonderful. I have a 22 year old daughter who has/had an eating disorder and it is hard to watch. Thank you.

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  4. Elissa, you are very brave. Thank you for sharing your story. I had no idea that this is something that you struggled with. I deal with eating issues on the other end of the spectrum, both personally and as my job. It's amazing the emotional power we assign to food, whether it's abstaining or over-indulging. It's one of the hardest habits to reform. Congratulations, girl :)

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  5. Wow, Elissa, thank you for your transparency on a tough subject. I haven't ever faced an eating disorder, but I so identify with many of the core issues of insecurity and am seeking healing myself day by day, moment by moment. Congratulations on your continued improvement in health inside and out!

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  6. I think you are so brave to share this.

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  7. Congratulations on your 2 year anniversary! You are very courageous for sharing this with the rest of the world.

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  8. I loved this post so much: I reblogged it here, I hope that's ok!:
    http://cakesandshakes.wordpress.com/2011/11/15/post-of-the-day-anorexia-recovery-and-walking-without-crutches/

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  9. so much courage.

    while i don't have experience with an eating disorder, i appreciate your struggle and your honesty.

    every day counts.

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  10. Thank you for this lovely post. I too think you are brave, and happy anniversary, happy Thanksgiving!
    --Kris

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  11. congrats a million. thank you for always being so frank with your struggles and the constant work that is recovering. best of wishes for another year where you'll be that much further.

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  12. I think this is one of the few comprehensive entries I've seen looking back that really well verbalized what it means away from the idea of attributing it to culture. I wrote about it myself as well but I think you got to the point much better.

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  13. Such a powerful post! I have also struggled with anorexia in the past (though I was never formally diagnosed or in any kind of formal treatment) and my experience has been very different in many ways, though the same in many others. I haven't talked about it on the blog because I still find it quite upsetting to think about 10 years after the last episode, but your post may have just given me the courage to do so.

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