Thursday, 22 August 2013

Advice on Getting Over Anorexia Part II

As promised, this is the second part of Advice on Getting Over Anorexia. I changed the original title to from "How to Get Over Anorexia" because I feared "How to..." sounded too prescriptive. I don't want to sound like I have all the answers. I have only some of them.
These are four more strategies for how to stop wasting your time on an eating disorder.

1. Extricate Yourself from the Eating Disorder Community.

What do I mean by the eating disorder community? I mean pro-ana websites, but also support groups. especially the online variety. There is also no point in reading books on how to recover from anorexia. I've read most of them and they were practically no help.
Pro-ana websites weren't around in my day so I don't have much experience of them. I had a look once and they left me cold. They'll leave you cold as well, once you make the decision to leave the Land of Anorectica.  What about online support groups?  I don't know. I've never been a member of an anorexia-specific online support group but I was a member of one for BPD. It's like being in a hall of mirrors. Seeing your problems reflected in the lives of others may make you feel better. You feel less alone and less of a freak. The problem with mirror-lined structures is that it can be hard to find the exit. As long as you are typing "anorexia" or "eating disorder" into search engines, you're still stuck.
I've written of SHINE, the Cork-based, now defunct support-group in the previous post. I'm not as disapproving of real-life support groups as I am of the virtual kind. You get to meet real-life people and there's a bit of chat before and after the sessions so you get to see more of the whole person, not their temporary anorectic persona. It can be a good place to meet like-minded people who you can meet up with outside the group and do stuff together. Even if you attend one of these meetings, be aware that there is generally a consensus view of eating disorders and how to recover, which may or may not suit you. In particular the people running them may claim to be fully recovered, but take these claims with a pinch of salt.  When you are recovered you'll have better things to be doing at seven o'clock on a Tuesday than hang around discussing something that's no longer part of your life. What about books and online resources? It may seem sensible to read up on your condition and to research methods of treatment, but almost books on anorexia take a very pathologising stance. The books explain how you're different to other people, where your parents went wrong, how the culture in which you were raised led you to hate your body and how your behaviours are all understandable. Well, they may be understandable but they're not acceptable.
It is far more helpful to read general self-help books because they will reinforce how you are the same as other people. You are unique, but you are not a freak. You are sensitive, but so are most people, you're not "super-sensitive" or even particularly vulnerable. In fact, vulnerability is a good thing, as explained here by the first author I'm going to recommend Bren Brown Brown's books, especially "The Gifts of Imperfection" should be your first port of reading call. Another one I recommend, although it's a bit dated now, is Susan Jeffers' "Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway".

2. Suck Up the Now.

What is "now"? Now is an adverb, meaning at the present time, not in the past or the future.The phrase "the now" annoys me. Would some-one please tell Eckhart Tolle that it doesn't take the definite article, FFS? However, "Suck Up Now" didn't work as well as a subheading.
I've written in Part I about the importance of having a Plan C. Plan C doesn't have to be too specific; it could just be the sense that another future is possible, a future distinct from that mapped out for you by your parents, friends, teachers and/or spouse, and also distinct from the path of invalidism that up to now has been your only alternative. Plan C deals with the future.
But how are you going to get there? You get there by trudging through the present. By living now, not living later. Anorexia is a trap that once looked very like an escape route. Once you're sick, suddenly nothing matters but your health. This is understandable if you have a real disease and it is understandable that those around you hastily drop all expectations and demands on you once you take on the mantle of illness.  In particular you will be advised not to worry about your education or your career. Conflict about food takes the place of all previous conflict in the home. Anorexia can seem like a Get Out of Jail Free card, but in fact it is the card for Get Into Jail at Huge Personal Cost.
The present can seem scary. If you're in school you worry about exams, if you're in college you worry about your career. Starting work brings its own stresses. If you're single you worry about finding a partner. Relationships aren't perfect either. There are no easy answers apart from saying that life is hard for every-one, even the people who seem to you to have it all together. It's hard but there's no alternative.
Try not to worry about the future, by which I mean any hour later than the present hour. Really, that's about how close your focus should be. An hour. Some would recommend zooming in even further; to the present moment. Pay attention to what's going on around you. This is intensely painful, so painful that your anorexia is an attempt to get away from this pain. If you want to recover, if you want to do anything in life, or get anything out of life, or contribute anything worthwhile, the only way to do it is to live in the moment. Not when you've broken you X-kilo barrier, not when you get to go on the ten-week inpatient programme, not when you've left home, or when you've got to college or left college, or when you have a job, or a relationship or whatever you think it is that would make you enough and worthy of a life.
This notion of living in the moment, no matter how painful that moment, has been popularised by Jon Kabat-Zinn under the heading of Mindfulness Meditation, which he calls "a way of connecting with your life". In this video he defines mindfulness as "paying attention, on purpose, to the present, non-judgementally, as if your life depended on it...which it does".

Mindfulness sounds simple but for many of us it is really, really hard. Hard but worthwhile.

3. Be Kind to Yourself
I am reminded here of the principle in judo and similar martial arts of turning one's opponent's strength to one's own advantage. In order to practise anorexia, you have developed habits of self-discipline and the ability to act counter to your instincts and inclination. You have denied yourself food and comfort, have perhaps exercised beyond the point reason and have certainly honed the art of self-sabotage.
By now, self-denial is a way of life and being kind to yourself will take an act of will. I want to you to use the same will you use to deny yourself, and use it to be good to yourself. At least once every day, do something nice for yourself. It might help to draw up a list of things you enjoy or use a list like this one Some days it is easy but other days it is hard. You have to force yourself to do it. This is where you have to be tough and treat yourself as worthy of comfort even if you don't believe it. It'll feel wrong but over time this will help to build emotional resilience.
You can read more about self-kindness and self-compassion at Dr. Kristen Neff's site Self-kindness and self-compassion can sound like mawkish or mushy concepts but they are magic bullets that will pierce the inflexible walls of your anorectic prison.

4. Never Mind the Triggers
The last time I attended an eating-disorder support meeting, a woman present described a book that she had read and found interesting. She didn't name the book or the author but I was intrigued and approached her after the meeting to ask for the details. Even though I was a grown woman in my late twenties, she wouldn't tell me the name of the book or the author. The book, she said, was very "triggery". During my anorectic days, I would indeed read books like Marya Hornbacher's memoir "Wasted", Jenefer Shute's novel "Life-Size" or Hilde Bruch's classic "The Gilded Cage" over and over, gleaning inspiration. Now I can look at these books and they hold little interest for me. The current equivalent is the proliferation of thinspiration websites. These are intentionally "triggery" but once you have made the decision to move away from anorexia towards a normal, yet unique, life, these books and images, along with fashion magazines and sensationalist "Daily Mail" articles will have no power over you whatsoever. Any power they do have, even now, is not intrinsic to them but comes from you. The concept of triggers - random images or words - having the power to suddenly and irrestistably make you lose control over your behaviour is a lie.  Just ignore them.

In summary, the seven tips are as follows:
1. Depathologise.
2. Have a Plan C.
3. Eat Real Food.
4. Extricate Yourself from the Eating Disorder Community
5. Suck Up the Now
6. Be Kind to Yourself
7. Never Mind the Triggers.

Please let me know in the Comments section if you find these helpful, and of course, feel free to add your own tips.

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