Part two: The irony of being consumed by an eating disorder
So here’s the second part in this little series of posts about what it has been like for me to be in recovery from an eating disorder and then become pregnant and a mum.
What you’re about to read is simply my account of what has happened to me. It’s mine and it will be different to everyone else’s. I did what was right for me, but that won’t be the case for everyone and I no way am I qualified to offer advice about how to deal with this nightmare. We all just have to do what’s right for us. And when we do, we deserve nothing but compassion and support. No judgment.
I thought that when I sat down to write about this stuff the words would tumble onto the pages and flow easily. I feel as though all of this has been swirling around inside me for years.
But the reality is pretty much the opposite of that, which is why there have been a couple of weeks in between the first part of this series of posts and now.
I’ve been trying to work out why this might be, and I think I’m starting to understand my hesitations in getting this done.
During the years I was at my worst and pretty ill, I chose for my battle to be quite private. Very few people knew what was happening. Just Tim (husband) and a few people close to us. I chose not to involve my family as the years beforehand had been pretty tough on everyone and I felt that it was the least I could do to protect them from worrying about me.
Because that’s what we do, isn’t it?
Protect the people we love at all costs.
I just couldn’t bring myself to admit to them that I was struggling, suffering and exhausted – permanently. I couldn’t find the words or the right time to bring them in to my world to that extent. I couldn’t bear the thought of them thinking of me as weak, even though I knew they would never judge. Above all else, I didn’t want to let this evil thing become the definition of me.
I still haven’t opened up to them, really. I can’t bear to cause them the pain of knowing it all.
Why couldn’t I just get over it? I berated myself about this constantly.
I’m lucky enough to be capable, intelligent and well-educated so in my mind it was up to me to reason my way out of this mess. At the time I still believed that it was all in my head. That I was ultimately the one who was in control. When in actual fact, nothing could have been further from the truth.
Tim showed me the most extraordinary and apparently limitless compassion, patience and understanding throughout those years when I stubbornly refused to seek any help. He must have found it so excruciatingly frustrating that I just couldn’t accept that was what needed to happen because I was adamant that I could sort this out myself.
Because in my mind, I was causing it.
I genuinely thought I was deciding to punish my body by starving it on the absolute bare minimum. That I was making a conscious choice to exercise to the point of passing out and feeling some warped sense of victory when I could keep going, even then. That I had absolute control over the decision to make myself sick when I did allow myself to eat (even if it was just an apple) because of the debilitating fear of putting on weight, and because my stomach was so accustomed to being empty.
That was genuinely how I felt. That this was something I could stop, if I tried hard enough.
I don’t remember what actually triggered me into accepting I had a problem. There were so many rock-bottom moments that it’s hard to remember the one that actually meant there was no way back. But once I’d admitted it, I read a million books and researched every bit of information I could get my hands on about eating disorders.
And then I saw what I had thought was just in my warped little head was an actual THING. My thoughts had somehow been taken out of my head and put down on paper by someone else. It wasn’t just me. I had an illness. A weight lifted. This wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t in control of it. The opposite was true. It was in control of me.
It had begun after we got back from our honeymoon in June 2007. To this day, I don’t really understand why it was then. I’d lost quite a bit of weight (completely healthily) for the wedding. I find it ironic that that was when a few people asked Tim if I was ok, before there was a problem. His reply? That if there was, he would know.
But he didn’t. Because an eating disorder makes its captive a master of deception.
All of a sudden, it’s like your moral compass is broken or even, at times, gone altogether. I thought nothing of lying about having already eaten at work, having had a big lunch and not being hungry or eating later. All in the name of avoiding eating whenever I bloody well could get away with it.
That I was capable of such a level of deception still haunts me to this day. It made me hate myself and having written these words down the feelings of shame are flooding my body. It is a vile feeling and once again I’m reminded how far I have come since those days when the shame ate me alive – dictating my every move. That’s probably why one of the things I value most about myself today is that I am honest.
I felt like a fraud to everyone. I lived with a mask on my face every single day, because I so desperately wanted to feel normal. I wanted to be the confident, bubbly and energetic person everyone was under the illusion they knew but I was drowning in a sea of self-loathing and anger at myself for not being able to kick this thing.
It felt like I was an outsider within my own life. Always on the outskirts, never quite making into the centre of the action. I was present, but absent – if you can understand what I mean by that.
Somehow I managed to keep the mask in place enough to build my career, securing an amazing job and getting promoted twice in the space of a few years. I loved my work, and it was an honour to be part of a once-in-a-lifetime team of people.
I struggled internally to keep up with the pace of my busy life which was over-complicated by my obsessive, time-consuming need to work out before work, during lunch time and after work – sometimes all on the same day. This was non-negotiable.
I struggled externally with the physical impact of my illness. I regularly had chest pains, heart palpitations, dizziness, pins and needles, numb feet, headaches, split lips and a sore throat. I covered the burst blood vessels on my face and my dull, under-nourished skin with make-up.
I would cry on my way to work while I sat in traffic, worrying myself sick about how on earth I was going to get through the day. I would cry in the toilets at work when I should have been at a meeting where food was provided, because I couldn’t face anything there and I wished I could just be like everyone else in the room who clearly wasn’t a complete basket case.
At home, I’d rigidly control what we ate and suddenly developed an obsessive interest in cooking which I later found out is very common among eating disorder sufferers. When we ate out, I’d have to know where we were going so I could stalk the menus days in advance and decide what the safest thing to order was going to be. I often made excuses as to why I couldn’t go out to eat or would simply just not order anything.
My eating disorder consumed me, quite literally.
It exhausted me to my core, and demanded more of me than anything else I have ever known.
I had so much to live for though, and the fight in me to be better never waned. I could have succumbed to this beast so easily. I could have slipped further into the abyss of my illness but I refused. My life was worth fighting for. It had the potential to be out of this world, if only I could overcome this disease. Our future was worth fighting for. We saw children in our future, but one thing I would not compromise on was that I would get better before we entertained that. I couldn’t risk passing this on. My body wouldn’t have been able to get pregnant anyway.
Several years down the line, I was labelled with terms such as ‘high-functioning’ and ‘unrelenting high standards’ by my psychotherapist. At the time though, I was just a pawn in the cruellest game of chess led by the master of my life, my eating disorder.
With Tim’s incredible love and help, I desperately tried to fix myself. I decided to force myself (forcing myself is the most accurate way I can describe it. It went against all my instincts) to eat three meals a day, because that was what normal people did. I wanted to be normal more than I have ever wanted anything in my entire life. I ached to have just one day when I was relieved of the ever-present thoughts that swirled around my head metaphorically beating the crap out of me.
I decided there would be no more lies and that if I was going to get better, I had to be honest to myself and to the people who love me. That was one of the hardest parts. Again, the shame was crushing.
I ate nourishing foods such as Innocent food pots (now Bol foods) which are pure vegetables and are low calorie but great for you. I knew I was in this for the long game, but I figured that if I knew I was putting good food into my body the temptation not to eat it (or to get rid of it afterwards) would be reduced.
Believe me, hand on heart – I tried. I fought for a good three years after I actually admitted that I had an eating disorder to get myself better. Without any help other than Tim’s unwavering belief in me.
I’ve wished a million times that I could go back in time and help myself to get to that point a bit quicker.
It was too big. I just couldn’t do it on my own.
Realising that took all my strength, but rather than it being something that weakened me it was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
In part three of this series, I’ll talk about going through my CBT treatment and getting my recovery well-established before we decided to work towards having a family.
Read part three here.