Ileana is a Psychology Master’s student at the University of Bristol. Here, she reflects on the emotional experience of anorexia and how far she has journeyed in her recovery.
The days when I was most firmly gripped in anorexia’s vice had an excruciatingly glacial quality to them. People seemed harsh; life seemed to be stacked against me. I dragged myself through each day only to be reminded of the abyss that was night-time. In what was objectively a very comfortable bed, I couldn’t avoid bruising on the mattress; I had lost sight of what it used to feel like to sleep well. Coldness permeated everything, and even in a bath, a chill seemed to radiate from my limbs.
When someone is ill like this, tolerating difficult emotions- emotions which we must all experience at times- becomes very difficult indeed. Anorexia slyly extends a dose of stringent rules to anaesthetise how these emotions might make us feel: reduce what you eat beyond belief; exhaust yourself by pounding the tarmac in your trainers; study harder than everyone else and never join in with the fun parts. Never join in with others but also never stop being on the go… You see, in proffering the solution to what ails you the most, an eating disorder refuses you the vibrancy and enjoyment of a life which can be valued despite its peppering of bitter moments.
Amongst other analogies, my therapist has likened the recovery process to swimming in cold, dark water. We start recovery when we decide to brave the water’s icy depths, submerging ourselves beneath the waves to better swim against the current. We kick and kick and kick, and it can be difficult to notice that we are even moving at all. Sometimes the water slackens, and we can snatch a glance to the surface, coming up for air, and seeing how much closer we now are to the land on the other side. But then we must plunge back down and, if we want to keep moving forwards, continue to kick our legs.
It is unpleasant under the water, and the kicking can wear you down. If we lose sight of the reason we started swimming in the first place or our legs get too tired, the current can quickly drag you backwards. Your legs might feel especially exhausted if relapse has swept you out to sea many times. The place that we entered the water was far worse than the discomfort of swimming in the dark, and we must learn to cope with whatever unpleasant emotions get thrown up from the depths as we continue to crawl to the safety of the other side. Every time we raise our heads, land- the recovered version of you- is closer than it was before, and so it is with determination and grit that you continue to kick against the tide until you finally reach it.
“Every time we raise our heads, land- the recovered version of you- is closer than it was before, and so it is with determination and grit that you continue to kick against the tide until you finally reach it.”
This analogy may not work for you, it will not resonate with all of us. For me, it neatly summarises one of the ways that I have experienced recovery. It can seem disorientating, but then when we find a way to get through the water better, we know that our progress will continue if we do more of what works. I have been helped to recognise the things which help me best, and in turn, have found it easier to both articulate and navigate various emotions. With physical and nutritional rehabilitation, the brain is so much more able to reason, empathise, and more generally to put our feelings into words. The most meaningful work in my recovery has always been done in a healthier, happier body.
My recovery from anorexia has been typical in that there have been many relapses, blips and wobbles. However, my ability to ‘bounce back’ has increased as time goes on, as the skills I have learned from treatment build up and are reinforced over time. I have chosen to believe that my life is filled with purpose, and I have invested my time and energy into trying to recognise what might trip me up, and how I might care for myself if it does.
Sometimes when I understand that I have achieved something really great in my recovery, a little bit of me holds it back, or waters it down, not wanting to sound proud or conceited: one might say that I do still find it difficult to say exactly how I feel. The difference now, compared to living with the eating disorder, is that emotions no longer wash over me. I let myself feel them completely, and I am getting better at letting the unhelpful ones go.
“I have chosen to believe that my life is filled with purpose, and I have invested my time and energy into trying to recognise what might trip me up, and how I might care for myself if it does.”
As I sit writing this, I am slowly melting ice cream on my tongue by the spoonful. The liberation, relief, and the joy which swells in me as I recognise a healing which will mean slowly leaving this illness behind, can hardly be put into words.
Ileana is a Psychology Master’s student at the University of Bristol. She is passionate about improving student knowledge on eating disorders and is currently one of the co-Presidents of a society called Beat This Together, which campaigns and educates on these issues on university campus. She is currently working to improve the medical curriculum on eating disorders for students at Bristol and was involved in passing a motion through the Student Council which aims to improve the type of language used in sports at the university. She is pursuing a route into clinical psychology and hopes that in the meantime, her voluntary work will help enable more discussion on mental health, where the impact of eating disorders is incredibly close to her heart.