One thing common to many of us when we are in the depths of an eating disorder, is a regular feeling of being superhuman and invincible.
We can be malnourished, at a weight far too low for our bodies, have a weak heart, struggling organs and a starved brain and yet feel energetic, mentally alert, organised and be so incredibly productive.
We might know on a deep rational level that we are ill – that we are walking a tight rope closer to death than is safe… but we cannot really recognise that fact as being real.
Why would we believe we are so sick when we can hold down jobs with high mental and physical demands, we can exert ourselves physically more than most, we perhaps survive on less sleep than others but rarely feel tired, we can keep house and home and we can be mentally busy in every waking moment…?
Surely we are not malnourished and our bodies are not struggling to survive when we have a constant source of energy and hate sitting down?
And because we are always so energetic and productive and seemingly functioning well to some degree, people around us, even if they can see we are underweight, often fail to express concerns… and if they do we can get very good at convincing people that we are better than ok!
The fact that there are so many things in life we just cannot do becomes irrelevant and it is easy to forget those things or bury them, as our brains continue to convince us that ‘we are fine’.
We might not be able to eat outside a strict regimented and routine, disordered set of rules and hit a panic response if we try, which leaves us socially disabled.
We might not have any meaningful emotions and be numb to both good and bad happenings in our lives.
We do wear 4 layers of clothing when other people are in a t-shirt and perhaps we cannot actually lift heavy objects that our peers can manage much more easily… but that we can gloss over – these things we can deny and we can live in our seemingly invincible eating disordered bubble world around these.
But why can we not see how sick we are when we are critically ill with an eating disorder? People die from eating disorders every day. One moment they are convincing themselves they are invincible and the next their heart stops because it has become too weak.
So why is it that our brains do not let us have this insight into the cold harsh realities of just how ill we really are?
The term used for this phenomenon in eating disorders is ‘anosognosia’ – which is defined as the ‘inability of a person to recognise his or her own illness or handicap’. Anosognosia is not denial but it is thought to be a true change to the way the brain functions, resulting in this lack of insight.
And I think it is perhaps a survival mechanism that the brain has evolved to develop when a person is starved.
A starved body needs to find food – hunt it and eat it. In olden times that would really have meant hunting – needing energy and mental alertness to go and source the food and bring it back to eat. If a person was feeling weak and unwell and feared for their health, then their drive to go and hunt food would be markedly reduced – not a good survival response!
Sadly, today despite food now being widely available with little need to hunt in this modern age we live, the evolved brain response to not let us realise how sick we are has not further evolved. So, our brain continues to convince us we really are ok when we are far from it and we continue to race through life, very sick and very depleted in our eating disordered world, less aware of the fact than we should be that we really are sailing close to a cliff edge.
And, when we do manage to get ourselves into recovery and we do get ourselves eating more and resting more than we have and this results in more nourishment to our brain so it can work properly again….
Well, then it can hit us just how sick we were – back in those years of illness when we felt superhuman…
In recovery, we can reflect back and see just how incredibly not ok we were then and often be incredulous and grateful to just how our body kept going, despite our putting it through so much.
So, if you are sick with an eating disorder at the moment but cannot believe that you really are or perhaps you do not think you are ‘sick enough’… please know that you are. You are sick, you need help and you need to get well and when you do, then you will start to see just how ‘sick enough’ you really are now!