With this post I’d like to speak to my friends who are suffering with eating disorders and self-harm.
I personally believe eating disorders are fundamentally one disease with different manifestations. Whether you binge, binge-purge, restrict, or some other combination of eating disordered behaviors, to my mind it all comes down to a core belief that you don’t deserve to live. It’s a distortion of self, a lack of self-worth so profound that you literally do not believe you deserve to exist. It’s an inversion of the survival instinct, the one that wants to preserve your life; instead, it tells you that the way to psychologically survive is to physically die. And whatever method your brain chooses to go about that, the instinct is the same: destroy the body to save the mind.
There is only one way that I have found to heal from an eating disorder, and that is to reverse this instinct. To do that, you have to discover why you don’t feel you deserve to exist, what drives that belief, and tell that belief to go fuck itself. Because it’s just wrong. You have to recognize your fundamental worth as a human being, and really get that you deserve every good thing that every other human deserves, simply because you exist.
This is basic stuff that most people are born with, but a lot of people with eating disorders just aren’t. I wasn’t. And my trauma reinforced those ideas that I shouldn’t exist and I was unworthy. A great deal of people with eating disorders have trauma in their pasts.
Here’s some practical stuff for early recovery: Set reasonable goals. Don’t worry about it when you fail to reach them sometimes, when you fuck up, because fucking up is part of recovery. Do not let anyone tell you that one slip is the same thing as a relapse because it is not. If you throw up once, or skip one meal, or over eat, that is not the same thing as a relapse. A relapse is losing twenty pounds because you’re spending five hours a day at the gym or bingeing and purging ten times a day for a month. There is a difference. Slips are part of recovery. Relapse can be part of recovery too. Never give up hope. Never give up. Don’t worry about some of the little stuff they nag you about in residential treatment. For instance, I was always getting nagged about eating the vegetables in my soup in a certain order. Who cares? I ate it, right? I still do this. I do not have an eating disorder anymore, so let’s just file that one under “eccentricity” not “disordered.” The important thing is that you’re doing what you’re supposed to. Don’t worry about the knuckle-headed stuff. It’s picking your battles. If you’re one to isolate, be sure you see people once a day. If you’re a workaholic, be sure to take time for yourself. Remember that self-care comes first during the early stages of recovery, that you have to protect your recovery at all costs, and that is not selfish. It is survival. Find a spiritual practice that sustains you and do it once a day. Pray, meditate, talk to the trees, whatever. Just connect with something greater than yourself. Always be in contact with your team. Go to therapy, see your dietitian, see your doctor. And of course, when you feel lost, go back to the basics: make sure that you are drinking enough, eating enough, taking your meds, getting enough sleep, breathing deeply. Basic, life-sustaining activity. Those things come naturally to most people, but not necessarily to us. So it’s good to check in.
For my friends suffering from self-harm. So many of the same issues with eating disorders cross over into self-harm. I began hurting myself because I had bipolar that was undiagnosed and untreated, and I was so indescribably depressed that I literally couldn’t feel anymore. It was like living in a mass of black plasma that oozed around me, choking off my access to life and light. So I cut myself. A lot. I burned myself a few times, but I preferred cutting because, I don’t know…it just made sense to me. Later on I would also hit myself with blunt objects, to the point of breaking bones. This is very similar to the instinct I mentioned with eating disorders: destroy the body to save the mind. A great deal of people who self-harm have trauma. For me, self-harm served many purposes: recognizing that I was still alive when I felt dead in depression; punishing myself when I felt shame and guilt for bingeing and purging; soothing emotional pain; grounding and calming myself when I was panicking; forcing myself back to the present when I was in a flashback of being raped/tortured. So you can imagine, something that was so useful was extremely hard to give up. Self-harm also has an addictive quality, a physical high that comes from the endorphins that rush to your brain when you’re injured. It can be as difficult to give up as drugs for some people. I harmed myself off and on from the age of 14 until I was 29.
The only way you can give up self-harm is if you find something to replace it. You have to find a way to soothe yourself that does not involve hurting yourself. Doing that is similar to the process with eating disorder recovery; you have to reverse that part of your brain that says pain is pleasurable and preferable to what most people consider actual pleasure. It takes literally rewiring your brain, which is actually not as hard as it sounds. There is a technique or therapy model called ACT- acceptance and commitment therapy- that helped me a great deal. Just google it. You’ll go long periods of time without harming and then lapse, and that’s ok. It happens. Never be ashamed of your scars. Scars are not just reminders of wounds they are symbols of the healing of those wounds. Wear shorts and tank tops, go to the pool, live your life. If people don’t get it, educate them. If people ask, be honest. Say yeah, I used to cut myself but I’m better now. Every time you do, you’re taking away some of the stigma.
If you remember nothing else, the most important factor in healing from an eating disorder and/or self-harm is compassion. You must have endless amounts of compassion for yourself. This is the hardest thing you may ever do, and when you fall down, give yourself grace. Get up, move on, no grudges. Learn from it and do better. Have as much compassion for yourself as you would if your best friend were trying to heal from a deadly illness. Treat yourself with the same level of love and respect. You deserve nothing less.
Part 3 will address my friends who manage mental health issues and chronic health issues.
So do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.