My last blog entitled THE COST OF AN EATING DISORDER, https://www.brazengrowth.com.au/blog/2018/5/20/the-cost-of-an-eating-disorder touched on the losses and costs of these often misunderstood illnesses. Referring to them as ‘body image’ issues places the focus on the ‘outside’ rather than the ‘inside’ and can often discount what a person is really feeling. The unhealthy thoughts that instigate unhealthy behaviours may have nothing to do with body shape, weight or food. Yet these become a way of dealing with what a person feels they cannot express or control.
Physical recovery, weight increase from having low body weight or weight stabilisation, does not necessarily mean the underlying thoughts have been treated or that any comormid mental illness has been diagnosed or treated. The number on the scale needed to increase for me, but what needed to increase more was my self-worth. I still believed that I was not loved, I was not worth being listened to, I was only valuable when you please others and that I needed to try to be valued. The greatest loss was the loss of all the years that I did not love and value who I was. I hit rock bottom to discover this in the darkest of places.
I wished I had psychological help for the cause early in my life. These thoughts resurfaced in a big way during the last 8 years of my marriage. With the help of an appropriate psychologist, I was able to see how these thoughts of low self-worth, undiagnosed anxiety, depression and an eating disorder, were the same that led me on a path to prison. I hated myself more. The costs of an eating disorder will continue if only the signs are treated and not the cause. The underlying thought patterns will manifest in other ways.
Being taken away from my family and friends with just the clothes I had on was frightening. I could not even take with me my prescribed medication (antidepressants). I was not given any for 4 days. This in itself added to the loss of control of any part of my life and is not medically sound. When I was allowed the medication, I was only prescribed half the dose I was on. This is not the common practice of a gradual reduction of this medication and nor was it an ideal time for this to happen. The obvious loss experienced with incarceration is freedom. Some others that are an extension of the losses of self ‘imprisonment’ of an eating disorder are explained briefly below as I experienced these.
LOSS OF IDENTITY
During the years of suffering anorexia, I lost my sense of self. My identity and worth was in the behaviours. In prison, you are given a MIN number and are called by your surname. Muster is the term for a roll call every time you are let out of a cell, before you go into a cell or at any other time a headcount is required. The definition of muster is ‘to assemble troops, crew for battle, display, inspection, orders.’ Muster also implies the gathering of livestock. This removed any sense of human self. The battle this prepared you for was in your own mind. Being locked in by yourself or with one another person that you did not know was not a great place for improving mental illness. One time, just once, towards the end of the prison sentence, an officer called each of us by our first name for ‘muster’. I cannot begin to tell you impact of hearing your first name. It was powerful and moving, as I wondered who I was, where I went and who I would become.
LOSS OF RELATIONSHIPS
Being physically isolated from family and friends adds to the negative effects of any mental illness. What progress was made with my psychologist and support networks in the months before final court appearance in terms of not isolating myself, was lost in prison. My children did not even know where I was taken to and found me the next day. I was wearing white overalls with a cable tie locking the zip opening at the back. Physically seeing me in this state was extremely difficult for my children and myself. That first visit crushed me even further, especially when they had to leave. Each time they left, every week, I did not know how I was going to get through the next 7 days till they were back again. I ached. Not only for the loss of time with my family but for what I had put them through. The separation of marriage was one thing but this separation was a whole other level.
LOSS OF DIGNITY
Hiding real feelings behind coping mechanisms of an eating disorder causes you to become defensive as you protect the behaviours that make you feel safe. When you act your whole life from thoughts that you need to be ‘perfect’ in order to be loved, being arrested and imprisonment is a public failure. There is no sense of safety when you are exposed in such a way. The first thing that I experienced when I got to prison was a full strip search and was told to get used to them. These happened every weekend after a visit from family and friends. I never got used to them. Three cameras were in my dirty grey walled cell for the first two nights of incarceration. These were on the mattress on the floor, the toilet and the shower. The lights were on 24/7. I wondered who was looking at my body. When a special ‘inspection’ of cells by the drug squad occurred, the full strip searches were video recorded and we were instructed to lift one leg to ensure there were no hidden drugs. Whether you had a history of drug use or not, you were subject to these searches.
A cell had no dividing walls or doors. It was approximately 3 x 1 m. If this was a ‘2 out’, you shared this space with another person. It contained a bunk bed, a shower and a toilet. There was no privacy to even go to the toilet.
LOSS OF FOOD CHOICE
Having had a history of unhealthy coping practices using restricted eating and excessive exercise to manage emotions, an environment such as prison has the potential to encourage these behaviours. You do not have a choice of food or proper eating utensils. The first 4 days I was given meals through a slot in a locked door. I had to tear a foam cup to use as a scoop to eat with. This was protocol for those first time in custody and on suicide watch. Apples, bananas and pears were the only fresh food that was given. Many of the meals were frozen, and prepared off site by inmates at another prison. There was no indication as to when they were prepared, or use by date. I had to throw away many meals that I received with black mould on the bottom of the container. There was also a rule that if your meal was received with the seal broken not to eat it as it may have been spat in by others.
During the first 2 months of my sentence, I remember saying to myself many times, ‘You deserve this. You are rubbish.’ With these thoughts, a distinct moment was when I believed, that with the history of depression and an eating disorder, I could starve myself to death. It was nothing to do with body weight, shape or body image.
CHAINS TO PEARLS
I existed in a heaviness of shame, guilt and fear and a whole lot of self-loathing. Sitting in my cell I wandered how I got to this point. And then I realised, that I had lived much of my life driven by the same thoughts. Feeling not good enough, shame and guilt if I did not live up to the expectations of others and also the expectations I placed on myself, all with the aim of feeling loved. And here I was sitting in the same thoughts!
From that moment I knew I had to put into practice all that was discussed with my psychologist. Unlearning unhealthy beliefs of yourself that you have lived with your whole life is hard work, but if these do not change, then they will form the basis of many unhealthy behaviours. In my cell, wearing the same as every other woman in prison, in a cell that had a photo identification on the door with a MIN number, I experienced the freedom of not having to try anymore. The notion of perfection evaporated and for the first time I accepted myself warts and all. This was a welcomed loss that bought about an inner peace that I had not experienced for decades. This experience where I felt dirty and worthless provided this priceless self-acceptance.
I needed to love myself and if I could do that in my current circumstance, I could do that anywhere. It is a battle to fight unhealthy thoughts and beliefs, but a battle worth engaging in. The more you do it the less impact these thoughts and the unhealthy communication of the world has.
The importance of the need to be accepted by others diminished. I vowed that I would do all I could to bring an understanding of eating disorders as not being just body image issues. Sharing experiences of mental illness rather than hiding behind them is what brings healing, not only to the individual but gives hope to others.
Recovery is not just the number on the scale being where it needs to be. Recovery is not just the return of regular eating habits. Recovery is not just the absence of unhealthy compensatory behaviours. Recovery is not saying you love your body. Recovery is saying I AM ME and I am PROUD of me despite all the ‘imperfections’. I had once identified myself with the label of being anorexic and believed my worth depended on living within the boundaries of the many rules I had set. Within the fences of a prison I was identified by the MIN number I was given and lost all that I identified with. I am no longer bound by those physical fences yet I am bound by certain laws as I have been given a ‘label’. But I love me and I refuse to go back to a life of shame, guilt and feeling that I am not enough. I have unlearned and I have regained who I am – I will not lose me again.
If you are requiring help for an eating disorder, and do not know where to start, please contact your GP, Inside Out Institute for Eating Disorders https://insideoutinstitute.org.au, or feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.