I’ve been thinking a lot over the past week about the connection between your head and your body – or to speak more accurately my head, my body – when it comes to food and eating and who I should really be listening to.
On Thursday evening I came home and finished reading Good Girls Do Swallow by Rachael Oakes-Ash. Overall I wasn’t a fan of the book, however there were the occasional points of view that resonated with me completely and one of them was about giving your body respect (I have trawled through the book trying to find the actual quote but to no avail! My apologies). However, this idea had quite an impact on me. I put the book aside, I looked down at my body and I took it all in; I didn’t criticise or find fault with it, I didn’t view it as the enemy or as a disappointment. I simply observed it for what it was – my body and I was filled with gratitude and appreciation for it. I felt my arms and my legs, I hugged my body and I said sorry. I apologised for not listening to it, for treating it like the enemy when in actual fact it has always been on my side; my friend. The reality is our bodies are incredible machines but I have been mistreating mine for years. – it’s my head and my thinking that has always been the obstacle and not the other way around.
In my head my body was the one letting me down: if I was bloated, if my stomach was fat, if my arms were getting flabby, if I got spots on my face it had failed me – but it failed me most of all when I felt hungry. Why would it keep striking me down again and again?
When I had binged the night before why would it still need to feel hungry the next day? Why wouldn’t it understand that I needed to starve myself today to compensate? Couldn’t hunger just do me one favour and fuck off until I had lost weight? When would my body ever learn that I didn’t want to feel hunger? When would it ever become immune to that need?
I know this may sound rather ridiculous but I think a part of me when I was immersed in eating disorders wanted to defeat hunger and eliminate the need for food. And in a way a I do think that this makes sense. Eating disorders make food and eating is extremely stressful therefore why wouldn’t you want to eradicate the very thing that induces such anxiety and distress?
However the fact is that this is impossible: food is a daily essential that needs to be repeated several times throughout the day, every day for the rest of your life. There’s no escaping it, however, what I’m finding is the key to accepting this truth is by listening the thing that knows best – my body. As difficult as it is to reverse what I have told myself for years, my body actually knows what it needs better than my head does and I need to start trusting it.
Over the years my head and my thinking has been responsible for restricting my food intake, increasing my alcohol intake and going on binges. My body was overruled because my head could shout louder inside myself and I wanted to blame my body for the reasons why I kept engaging in this behaviour. My problems were all psychological but I was desperate for a diagnosis that would prove that what was happening to me lay in a fault in my physical body – not my mind, because lets face it: it’s a lot easier to digest fixing a physical fault than the daunting, long term prospect of dealing with what’s going on inside your head.
I haven’t engaged in any long term eating disorder behaviour for nearly 2 years and I consider myself to be in a great stage of stage of recovery where I am comfortable and confident talking about my issues and I feel I have excellent self-awareness. However I do believe that eating disorders will leave residue. Stopping the behaviour was just the first step, there was – and still is – a journey of recovery dealing with my emotions, negative thinking, irrational beliefs to name a few and although I am in a fantastic place now, I still have traits that prove to me that I need to keep working on myself.
Here’s a list of things I notice I still do which are a direct result of having an eating disorder and bad body image:
1) I frequently touch/feel my ‘problem’ area. For me this is my stomach. I will consciously and subconsciously feel my stomach throughout the day to clock how big or small it feels. If I look in mirror I will focus on this part of my body, even lifting up my clothes so I can inspect how my stomach looks. I can do this several times a day and don’t give any other part of my body this scrutiny.
2) Shopping for food. If I am browsing food shelves I tend to cover my mouth with my scarf if I’m wearing one because I am uncomfortable, anxious and I think people are looking at me. If I’m not wearing a scarf I will pull at the skin on neck with my right hand. Often if there’s too many people in the same aisle or a member of staff is restocking the same shelves I’m in front of, I will walk out without buying anything and go somewhere else.
3) I don’t like being caught eating. I might just be picking at something in the fridge or tasting something at work but if I think someone will spot me I sometimes panic and feel the need to hide whatever I’m eating or throw it in the bin.
These examples are all quite physical responses to food and eating and I’m sure I’ll go into some of the more psychological ones on another day. However what I want to focus on is how I’m trying to challenge both my head and body in order to eradicate as much eating disorder residue as possible by embracing the dual effect of letting my body rule and disagreeing with my head.
I challenged myself last week. I met a friend for lunch, then after we’d left I decided to go to the movies. I was in the mood for something sweet after lunch and the idea popped into my head of buying a pick n mix at the cinema. My heads obvious instinct was hell no: ‘Think how guilty you’ll feel, you’ll wish you hadn’t after, you’ll beat yourself up about it’. Yet as much as this played on my mind I overruled it. Up until the last second I debated with myself ‘Will I, Won’t I?’ but in the end I found myself picking up a paper bag and a scoop and filling the contents with six sweets. A whole six sweets. Hardly an overindulgent affair but believe it or not this was quite a stressful situation I decided to face head on (pardon the pun), however I’m delighted that I did it. I challenged myself not to be embarrassed or worry about what anyone else thinks about what I decide to eat. I bought food openly, not secretively and squirrled away in my bag as if to say feeling hungry or treating myself is something to be ashamed of. Did I feel guilty – no. Did I regret it – no. Overall the experience was quite liberating, I enjoyed being able to be kind to myself, that I am allowed to satisfy what my body wants but at the same time not going overboard and abusing it by filling it with things it doesn’t need. I enjoyed the experience so much I am determined to keep the challenge going.
I’m going to challenge myself that I don’t need to associate certain foods with guilty feelings, that it’s okay to eat when I’m hungry, that I don’t need to feel anxious or stressed giving my body food when it tells me I’m hungry and even if something is incredibly delicious, you don’t need to eat it all once you’re full. Most of all I’m trying to get my head and my body to work in harmony with each other, to like each other and work as a team. I want us all the be friends, no longer enemies.