A more accurate name for this article would be “Things I Wish I Had Known,” but Tiwihk wouldn’t look that nice as a menu on this site, plus it sounds like a brand of female hygiene products.
Anyway, below are some things about my mental illness that I wish I had known earlier. While these tidbits of knowledge wouldn’t have made the difference between life and death, nor would they have dramatically changed my life for the better, it still would have been good to be aware of them. It’s annoying having unresolved questions and doubt. Conversely, it can be comforting to have answers, potential solutions, and hope.
So here you go. Here are some things that I learned along the way of my recovery from an eating disorder.
If you are refeeding and you gain weight, it’s not just fat. 1) Bones normally take up 14-15% of the body weight, according to Google. When you weigh less, especially if you are underweight, your bones weigh less. As you gain any necessary weight, your bone density and hence the weight of your bones will increase. 2) Same story with muscle. 3) If you are underweight due to eating disordered behaviours, your organs shrink. Especially your brain, stomach and heart (which is actually kind of freaky.) When your body is getting sufficient nutrition, they will get bigger, happier, and yes, they will increase the number on the scales (not that you should be on the scales unless you are with a doctor.) This all seems so logical but somehow (annoyingly) it is easy to forget when in the grips of an eating disorder.
Stretch marks can happen anywhere on your body. Maybe I was living in an ignorant, sheltered world, but the concept of stretch marks for me were limited to post-natal stomachs. Yet one day, I was sitting on the floor when I noticed all these weird lines on my shins and calves. They were practically wrinkly. I was slightly worried. What did these lines mean? Did I have some strange exotic skin disease? Had some little freaky-ass-worm-things travelled across my shins in a little freaky-ass-little-worm-race? Nope, in retrospect I realised the lines were stretch marks. Going from a healthy to a too-low weight had given me excess skin and the resulting stretch marks. So maybe this is a random piece of knowledge, that stretch marks aren’t limited to the thighs and stomach and can happen as a result of sudden weight loss, but perhaps you have gathered by now that I am a rather random person. Back to a healthy weight, the marks have gone now and my shins now only sport a few bruises from awkward encounters with furniture.
What you think is normal may actually be abnormal. Or if I am being blunt, it might be totally screwed up. Your head, when dominated by a mental illness, will lie to you. It will make you believe that dangerous and harmful behaviours are perfectly normal and in fact necessary. In an overwhelming fog of numbers, obsessions and urges I found myself doing sit-ups holding a giant book in my mouth to ‘get rid’ of any ‘fat’ underneath my chin. I forced myself to be cold, convinced that any allowance of warmth would mean I would gain unwanted weight. I refused to go to bed unless I had done my workout, even if I was exhausted and had an early start the next day. I ignored the logical part of my brain (or maybe just starved it) and as a result it was difficult to get out of the compulsive actions. It was only when I was a healthier weight did I realise how screwed up some of my behaviours were. If someone comments on or criticises a disordered behaviour, try your best to listen to them and take it into account. They aren’t wanting to make you miserable or control your life (your ED kindly takes care of that), it’s just that they can see you without the blindfold of your illness and are more aware of the damage you are doing to yourself than you are.
It’s OK to have mixed feelings about achievements and recovery. It is worth it, but it is damn hard. It’s normal to feel terrified, ashamed, disgusted, irritable, angry, upset, and/or nervous. Or all of the above simultaneously. While it’s not pleasant, there is no need to feel guilty for not feeling how you feel you should or want to. Eventually you will want to be proud of yourself and your progress, but it’s fine if you are at first full of resentment. Just keep fighting. I used to be super rude, for instance if I was unable to do exercise I went ballistic, shouting and complaining. Months afterwards, I was ashamed of myself and of how people had to put up with me, but now I know it was my illness, not me, and I am doing my best to be simply grateful to the people who supported me, and being the friend or family member they love seeing me as.
It’s really helpful to write down compliments and record highlights of the day. I know positive thinking when you are super depressed is near about impossible, and that accepting compliments can be awkward. Friends, family and strangers can say all sorts of nice things but one misguided or cruel comment will conveniently make you forget anything nice. That’s why writing the happy stuff down in a pretty notebook can help, as reading over it will generate some positive feeling, and remind you of nice things you may have forgotten. I write down all genuine compliments, no matter who they are from, and also small positives or achievements. (In my later stages of recovery it was stuff like: enjoyed trying everything at a buffet breakfast, got a meal from a fast food chain and loved it, rested when I was feeling tired instead of pushing myself to go for a long walk.)
Anyone can suffer from an eating disorder. As I bumbled about, engulfed in my behaviours, I thought to myself “well, I’m young. No need to worry about recovery now. Once I reach thirty to forty I’ll be fine and eat what I want – after all, no parents or grandparents have eating disorders. They are just daggy and happy.” Then I went inpatient and realised I had been completely mistaken. I saw married women, mums, and middle-aged men, all suffering from similar demons to me. So my idea that I would recover simply with age was false, as is the societal notion that only teenagers suffer from eating disorders.
It’s not worth giving up. That suicidal thoughts suck is an understatement. Too often it was simply my survival instinct that kept me going. But then I would have a happy period and be so grateful I had kept on trying to take care of myself, because the new memories of joy could not have happened if I didn’t exist. I reread birthday cards from high school and realised with a pang how much my friends cared for me. Why is it so easy to believe that you are replaceable and forgettable when you are feeling so down, but when you are happy you realise how loved and cherished you are? That I don’t know. Either way, we simply have to fight through the bad stuff to get to the good stuff.
You are not alone in your illness. No matter what lonely thoughts, isolating fears or cruel demons plague you, there is someone somewhere out there who feels the same and knows what it is like. (See the article I wrote on Loneliness!) For instance, I thought I was alone in binge eating and that it was only me who felt such guilt and self hatred afterwards. I thought I was the only one who ate and abused food in such a way that I perceived it to be disgusting. I only discovered support forums for binge eating after I had gotten over the worst of it. I was sad that I had gone through most of it alone (in terms of having noone who understood what it was like), yet it made me happy in a way to see the forums, because if I was as bad then as some may be now, and I was able to improve dramatically (with a lot of hard work and support), surely they can get better too and eventually feel the same enjoyment and guiltlessness that I do when it comes to food.
Anyway, there’s still heaps of stuff I want to know and still need to learn. Probably for you too. Mental illness and recovery does give you a rather specific form of education and learning.
Til next Thursday, take care. :o)