You never think you’re going to miss your eating disorder. You start recovering and you start not hating yourself, and you look back and you can see just how trapped and miserable you were. Why would you ever miss being in that place?
For me, my problems got really bad, or I relapsed, when I felt out of control. If I was in a situation or a period where I felt like I had no control over my life, where I felt like I could do nothing to change things – I could always control what I ate. I could always change my body. So in an effort to feel some kind of control in my life, I controlled, relentlessly controlled, the calories I ate, the ones I burned, my weight. And it did work – I did feel some kind of control, I felt some kind peace among all the numbers and planning and counting. When you feel aimless, losing weight and meticulously counting calories gives you goals, it gives you something to focus on every day. I mean, it’s literally all you’ll be able to focus on and it will never make you happy, but that feeling of control was incredibly important to me.
Naturally, you develop a lot of anxiety around food and your body when you have an ED. You’re hyper aware of everything to do with food and your shape and your activity levels. But that takes up a lot of your time, and I found that in situations that didn’t involve food or my body, I didn’t have a lot, if any, anxiety.
Now, though, I am basically made of anxiety. And a lot of that stems from no longer having that feeling of control. Being out of formal education for the first time since I was 3, I no longer have exams or papers or a thesis or a degree to work towards. I’m in a job that has any real career progression. I don’t have anything to work towards, I don’t have any big goals. I have nothing concrete to strive for. And so that feeling of uncertainty, of lack of control, of aimlessness, creeps back. And I miss my eating disorder.
I don’t miss being sick, or cold all the time. I don’t miss being afraid of food. I don’t miss being hungry. But I miss the feeling of control. And that’s all it is – a feeling. It isn’t real control. Using disordered eating as a means of feeling control is actually pretty contradictory. You aren’t in control if you’re afraid of pasta. You aren’t in control if you feel trapped, if you isolate yourself, if you know that it will never be enough. But it’s still a feeling I crave. And there’s a part of me that thinks maybe I could just do it for a little while, just to feel less anxious about everything – if, just for a small while, I could focus all my anxiety on one specific thing, and maybe feel ok with the rest of my life. And I’ve done that. I’ve knowingly and intentionally relapsed. Knowing that I was making a mistake, knowing that I was taking ten steps backwards, knowing that what I was doing wasn’t good for me. But when you feel so out of control, and when something like disordered eating has been almost a comfort blanket for so many years, it’s incredibly difficult not to give in. And of course, disordered eating isn’t something you do just for a week and then you get back to where you were in recovery. It’s addictive, and because it’s weirdly comforting and gives you a feeling of control, it’s incredibly difficult to relinquish. And you don’t get to go back to where you were before you relapsed – you have to start from the beginning again. Granted, it’s not as bad as initial recovery (depending on the length of the relapse), but you have to fight harder to get back to where you were.
I’ve tried to put my need for control into more positive, or least less damaging, avenues. I like being organised, I have lists of lists, and cleaning (when I have the spoons for it) really helps. Of course, then I get anxiety when I’m not organised, or when I’m too sick to keep things exactly the way I want them to be. It definitely feels at times as though you can’t win. But as long as I’m only missing my eating disorder, and not returning to it, I count it as a victory.
Bodywhys is Ireland’s eating disorder association. There are many ways to get in touch with them if you need to talk to somebody – via email, phone, or weekly online support groups.