I tend to lose a lot, and in more capacities, than you might think. For example, I have lost more swim races than I can count. I lose gloves, and as a result, the feeling in my fingertips as I venture out to replace them. I have misplaced every game of Monopoly I have ever played since apparently, flipping the board and storming out of the room constitutes losing. It’s commonly called losing your temper. Out of all the things I have missed though, the loss of control I have experienced with my eating disorder has affected me the most.
People like to personify their eating disorders. Some people even give them names. You may have heard of “Ed” or “Ana,” maybe even “Mia.” I have had friends describe their eating disorder as cancer that eats away at who they are. The eating disorder is a loss of the self. I think of my disorder as a separate and malicious part of the brain and being. When it takes control, I feel like I am losing my mind. The common link between each of our techniques is that we are trying to separate the disorder from ourselves to not feel like we need it. You never want to fight something that feels like the entirety of who you are.
It’s easy to feel like your eating disorder is all of who you are. When I lose control of my rational brain, every part of my reality is taken over by a disorder. My disorder controls everything, from what I chose to eat or not eat, to how many times I needed to step on and off the scale, to how long I should wander around the grocery store only to buy nothing, or even to where I should park my car in order to get in the maximum amount of steps. None of these behaviors line up with who I’ve discovered myself to be, and the loss of my value and character makes me incredibly sad.
When I entered residential treatment this previous June, I felt only a shred of hope that I would be able to relinquish the control I desperately craved. I believed I had lost the battle before it had even begun. Despite my initial doubts, I’m happy to report I surprised myself in the most beautiful ways.
I would have never guessed I could sever the attachment with eating disordered part of my brain, but I have, and while it wasn’t easy I’m grateful I engaged in the hard work to win back my life, and begin again. The job was never easy, and the trajectory of recovery was never a straight line. Some days, I had hope for the future. I reached many milestones that proved I was winning the war. Some days, however, my eating disorder brain waged an attack so strong I couldn’t do anything but cry. I engaged in something called ERP, or exposure response prevention. It’s a type of cognitive behavioral therapy where I directly face my tangible or intangible fears through direct engagement with them. For example, I struggled with the constant urge to look in the mirror, so my behavioral specialist setup and exposure where I would walk past two mirrors and not look at myself. Afterward, I would rate my peak anxiety and then time it to half. What I found with each trial, is that anxiety went down, and this somehow, miraculously proved to me that I didn’t need to use that behavior to feel secure. The eating disorder was losing ground with each trial I completed.
Separating myself from my eating disorder and reclaiming myself took a lot out of me, but what I have gained from it is immeasurable. I have grown to take on challenges with grace and to view my losses as learning experiences rather than catastrophes or personal defects. I have learned to live in line with my values, and I have begun the journey of exploring how those values shape who I am. Overall, I am taking back the most important thing that I lost: control.
Control isn’t always getting it right. To me, it’s separating myself from my eating disorder and challenging the myths it feeds me. Why shouldn’t I eat the foods I enjoy? Why shouldn’t I nourish my body? I am redefining myself, and my life as I knew it. It’s been incredible, grueling, surprising and so far, and I’m beyond excited to see what comes next.