If I could sum up what recovery from an eating disorder or any other kind of addictive behaviour looks like in just a few words it would be “Freedom to love who you are”. I believe I am correct in saying that most of us want to be loved unconditionally, yet we place conditions on ourselves, such that we can’t even love who we are unless we stick to these ‘conditions’, as harmful as they are.
From my early teens I believed that love was based on pleasing my parents. There was a lot of emotional and physical control in my upbringing. I am not blaming anyone but this is how I interpreted what it means to be loved. My self worth was based on what other people thought of me. Conditional love. So I extended this thinking to myself. In my late teens this took the form of anorexia nervosa. The ‘conditions’ were less eating, excessive exercise, even when I was exhausted and sometimes injured, not eating anything that anyone else had prepared, avoiding social life, keeping the number on the scale decreasing and attempting to be the perfect daughter.
I created a cycle of behaviour driven by fear of not being loved, guilt believing I was not ‘good enough’ and shame if I broke the crippling regime of conditions I created. The control that I lived under became the means by which I thought I controlled my downward spiral of low self worth.
Dealing with the Symptoms
Education about the negative effects of restricted eating, excessive dieting and binge/purge cycles were helpful for the start of my physical recovery. Taking small steps to eat more and realizing that I was not going to ‘blow out’ was helpful to gradually change some of the signs and symptoms of my behaviour. However, I do not believe that reaching and maintaining a healthy weight is full recovery. The thoughts that initiated the negative behaviours are like the roots of weeds and if are not treated then the cycle has the potential to recur or manifest in other ways.
My need for approval did not disappear. The ‘people pleasing’ behaviours still occurred well into my marriage. I feared expressing my opinion and just aimed to please as a wife and a mother. When my marriage fell apart the low self worth escalated to severe depression and promiscuity became a way of attempting to feel some value. This was another fear, guilt, shame cycle. In the era of selfies and social media, I wonder how many people base their worth and value on how many ‘likes’ they get?
My low self worth led to making a poor decision which cost me time in prison. I hated myself more and was so ashamed. 80% of incarcerated women have a lifetime of some mental health issues and the risk of developing an eating disorder whilst in custody increases. The intensive psychological help I received the year before being incarcerated, addressed the issues that should have been addressed in my late teens and early 20’s. Recovery meant facing these core beliefs I had of myself. Facing the unseen issues that manifested into physical behaviours that firstly ‘imprisoned’ my life by my own restrictive conditions and then actual imprisonment.
Love is not driven by fear
Ironically, it was during this time that I found my freedom. You cannot love yourself or others freely when fear is the motivation. Physical recovery is only that the signs are treated. Full recovery is when the negative core beliefs are treated. In a place where I was locked in a cell 18 hours a day and had no access to fresh food or food that I could prepare, I knew I was healed of the stinking thinking that I had of myself my whole life. There were many times where I had to use all the skills my psychologist taught me to challenge low self worth in that place and fight those I did, as I knew where that thinking had bought me to.
Perfect love drives out all fear. A love of the things about me that I had forgotten. A love of the things that our ‘image driven world’ often forgets. Compassion, creativity, perseverance, love of learning, encouragement of others, sense of humour, the list goes on. I began to love me again. I could’ve easily fallen into the eating disorder behaviours, in prison where all of your freedom, choices and identity is taken from you. The disordered thinking had taken my identity way before this. I finally accepted myself warts and all.
I believe true recovery looks like this:
I am free from fear about who I am.
- I am free to love who I am.
- I am free to enjoy food that I once feared.
- I am free to enjoy eating food that others prepare.
- I am free to exercise for enjoyment rather than from a fear filled obsession.
- I enjoy resting.
- My mind is free to pursue goals I had abandoned due to the need to please others.
- My thoughts are not dominated by food, burning calories or compensatory behaviours.
- I do not have to live by strict regimes I construct to know my worth.
- I am free from believing I need to look or be like anyone else.
- Media images do not make me feel less of myself.
- I have found me again.
- My identity is not in an eating disorder
- My worth is not based on what other’s think of me. If this were still so, I would not be sharing this experience with you. For if I still feared, I would not be free.
Full recovery is possible. I could not do it alone. Get help from a professional and be prepared to face things that are painful to face. But oh so worth it.