I Miss My Eating Disorder
In this week’s issue, I would like to address a very common phenomenon. ‘‘I miss my eating disorder’’ sounds very counter-intuitive. However, when we develop an eating disorder, it becomes closely-knitted with all aspects of our lives. That’s why it is so hard to let go. We replace so much with our eating disorder to a point that without it, we feel empty.
Why would you miss your eating disorder?
1. It was probably your whole life.
Mental illnesses are not something we can compartmentalize. Especially not eating disorders. As eating is something we need to do every day and at least three times a day, it makes up a big part of our lives. Naturally, any problem related to eating becomes a huge one. Imagine the days you feel so nauseous that you cannot eat, can you just say ‘‘Okay now I will do this and deal with my nausea later’’? Nope. It dominates your day. Same goes with eating disorders. They take over your life. Your life revolves around them. Both in a negative and positive way. The negative part is that after a while, eating disorders make it impossible to function without thinking about the way you look or what you will eat next. The ‘‘positive’’ part is that it gives you a sense of purpose. Losing weight becomes the reason you wake up everyday and get out of bed. Without a sense of purpose, it is very difficult to go on. We feel lost.
2. ‘‘But I miss being in control.’’
This is a cognition that comes up again and again. When you have an eating disorder, you associate your behaviors with being in control. What are we actually in control of? Nothing. On the contrary, Things get so out of control that you find yourself binging and purging 5 times a day. It just gives you the illusion of control. We cannot control how other people behave or what they think. We cannot control the weather or the traffic.The list goes on forever. There are so many things that are out of our control. Above all, life itself is full of uncertainties. Everything can change in seconds. We don’t know what awaits us tomorrow. This can be very scary, but does an eating disorder really give us control in life?
3. It was a coping mechanism.
Disordered eating behaviors can easily become the first-line of defense against a problem. You may be very familiar with the most famous one: emotional eating. This can also take the form of starving in some disorders. They all ‘help’ us deal with some things. In recovery, you will learn to let these coping behaviors go. However, it is terrifying to think that we will have to face all those problems and negative emotions, on our own, without our first-line of defense. Thank god for therapy! With therapy, we get equipped with healthy coping mechanisms that will help us get through problems without resorting to disordered eating.
4. It was ‘‘comfortable’’ and safe.
When you suffer from an eating disorder long enough, you actually get used to living with it. Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean that it gets less painful. But it becomes the only normal you know. I think your body just adapts to the situation. There were actually times where I felt like I was getting better and I would find my normal self very unusual that it would feel unreal. I can even use the word ‘‘uncomfortable’’ to describe the feeling. I would go through the day normally, then suddenly would have the urge to binge and purge. I would also plan it, as if it was an activity rolling my eyes. But it is an activity. It is also why you feel like you would lose your identity if you no longer have an eating disorder.
5. You have felt seen, loved or accepted based on your physical appearance.
In cognitive behavioral therapy, there is something called functional analysis. It is a method to understand what maintains a problematic behavior, despite the problems it is causing. Every problematic behavior has at least one positive outcome (reinforcement). In most disorders - not only in eating disorders -, the positive reinforcements include attention received (both positive and negative) for having the disorder. I will be 100% honest with you, this is not something I have experienced myself. I felt the exact opposite. When I developed bulimia nervosa, I gained so much weight that people started attacking me with their comments. This made me feel less loved and less accepted. However, I read a lot of comments under my posts, from many people with eating disorders. They have written that they felt more seen when they got skinnier, that people noticed them more, they became more popular etc. Therefore, these problematic behaviors are maintained despite their negative effects. Unfortunately, this makes recovery very tricky, as it reinforces the belief that they will be loved on the condition that they are skinny.
6. The momentary relief.
This is indeed a very interesting phenomenon. Binge eating provides a momentaryrelief (right before the excruciating guilt kicks in). I think this is something we all know from experience. But, did you know that there is actually a scientific explanationfor that? Binge eating was found to release endogenous opioids in our brain, which are our bodies natural painkillers and they provide a sense of pleasure. So in eating disorders where the individual binge eats, they feel a sense of relief and pleasure during the binge. If there is also self-induced vomiting, this is another source for release of endogenous opioids. Interestingly, in individuals with anorectic behaviors, this system works a bit differently. Something changes in their brain, along the way, and they experience the same when they stop eating. This is why all of these behaviors feel addictive.
Now lets think again, do you miss your eating disorder or do you miss…
having a purpose in life?
feeling in control in the face of uncertainty of life?
having an outlet for your emotions?
feeling ‘‘loved’’, ‘‘seen’’ and ‘‘accepted’’?
the physical relief?
Good news is that you can have all of these in a healthy manner, without having your eating disorder back.