You are such an intelligent woman, how did you fall into anorexia? Didn’t you realize you were harming yourself? Didn’t you think what you were doing was wrong?
Why did I harm myself?
I have been asked these questions multiple times about my eating disorder, but the central interrogation that remains in the center of the previous ones is: How is it possible for a person to behave so self-destructively, despite knowing that it is not good/acceptable/rational? Am I just crazy?
To answer, I would have to come back to the beginning of my eating disorder. Anorexia nervosa came from inside. It was emotional. Even though external factors might have triggered it, it started in my heart.
I conceive this illness as a tiny seed in my chest, seemingly harmless, that I watered with sadness and despair. It slowly grew until it covered my whole body and mind without me noticing it.
How does anorexia work?
This metaphor helps me to show how anorexia nervosa works. Anorexia is activated and strengthened by despondency and anxiety. It begins making the person to unconsciously behave in ways that give the seem to release stress and pain. Even if they seem irrational to people on the outside.
However, the illusion of being free from such heavy feelings do not last. Soon, the illness traps you in a vicious cycle. While you might feel triumphant for a moment after engaging in an ED behavior, you may also have frequent feelings of being a mess, a crazy person, and a complete failure.
Negative feelings drive not only your behavior but also your thoughts. Hopelessness and anguish were there in my chest and they made me think: “Nothing good can come”, “I am a failure”, “I am sunk”, “My efforts in life are senseless” and so on. Then I would rely on by eating disorder behaviors to make me feel better (if only momentarily).
I did all that because my running routines and feeding restriction made me feel relieved. I have to point out that my self-harming behavior was unconscious. There wasn’t a conscious realization that I did things like overexercising to cope with negative feeling. I just new that if I ran extreme amounts and it somehow made me feel better – but only for a moment.
The struggle between the rational and irrational thoughts
It seems crazy to harm yourself by not eating enough or by over exercising. Or to avoid the joy of sharing a favorite meal with loved ones.
At the same time, it seems crazy that having a bite of pizza can be seen as praise-worthy.
It must be hard for parents, relatives, partners and friends to see a person they care for harming themselves. It must be difficult to try to make the person you worry about understand that their health is at risk. And it must be frustrating when it seems that the person with the disease can’t comprehend how illogically he or she is acting.
I’ve described the previous feelings trying to explain why anorexia is so difficult to understand and to battle. For me, recovery has been a struggle between rational and irrational thinking. “I shouldn’t worry about my weight, but my health and wellbeing” versus, “Oh, my face is getting bloated and fat! I’ve got to exercise more and eat less!”
What can help?
What has helped me —and I think could help others — is learning to identify negative feelings instead of letting them take over. I have good and bad days. In the bad ones, I remind myself that regardless how desperate I feel, I have been through this before. I can stand up and do it again, without the “help” of any eating disorder behaviors.
Moreover, I have to tell myself that anorexia is never going to solve my struggles.
Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung wrote: “Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes”.
Mind and heart well-being are connected. The more I’ve broadened my perspective (through researching philosophy, psychology, spirituality), the better I’ve felt. Finding coping skills to manage my inner worries has been crucial.
Remember, eating disorders are about so much more than your physical body. Don’t forget to care for you heart and mind, dear warrior ❤️