An eating disorder can keep us trapped for years and over those years we develop brains that are hard wired to think and make us act in certain ways… A brain that has developed disordered and often completely screwed up ways of thinking about food, exercise and weight. But also, often a brain that is fixed and rigid and likes to only do certain things in certain ways, for example, eat at only set times or in fixed and ritualised ways or move compulsively with rigid patterns to the how and when.
Of course the eating disorder keeps us trapped in its grips when we are still restricting our food intake, compensating for eating, suppressing our natural body weight… but a full recovery requires much more than just addressing the big things (like eating and weight gain!!).
We can eat thousands of calories a day more in recovery…. but unless we also address the how and the where and the when and all the other little rules we have with the illness, we will keep our brain functioning in the disordered way it has been used to for too long.
And it is so often the little rules and rituals within an eating disorder that are the key things that keep us so disabled by it… socially and mentally. All too often, it is also the small behaviours that have not been addressed that then slowly pull us back again into the grips of the illness if we don’t ‘do’ recovery 100%.
What do I mean though by the little rules and behaviours that we also need to address in recovery and that can often be overlooked as we focus on the initial lifesaving stuff of actually eating enough (which I agree does have to be a priority!)…?
The little eating disordered rules and behaviours that we need to address can include eating a load more food but still only eating “safe” foods or with rigid rules attached to the how, when, where or who with; restriction and fears over spending money and movement rituals and compulsions, even tiny ones. Plus any number of other rigid and inflexible rules or routines that inch into our lives and originate from a place of a starved and malnourished brain and a very powerful eating disorder.
At the end of the day, if you have an eating disorder, you do know deep down, what of the things you do day in and day out are actually disordered and what are not. Only you know all the little rules and behaviours that stem from the eating disorder in your case. Your family cannot know, I cannot know, your health professionals cannot know – because only you are inside your own head and know that you are doing something in a certain way, because not doing so generates a huge and irrational fear response within you.
And sometimes, as I know too well, when it comes to the small things in recovery, it can be hard to identify even within ourselves at times, what is the illness and what is not. In these cases, I always now try to just proceed with the view that if there is any doubt then it is safer to assume it is the illness and so do the opposite to what my brain says!
So, to recover, I do believe we have to address head on all the little rules and behaviours (and not just the big ones) to ensure we fully rewire our brains from the eating disorder, so that we do actually recover. Unless we address it all and beat it all, then we never get that recovered life – not completely.
BUT I do also believe that in recovery, if you are coming from a place of severe restriction still and are very starved, then the priority must be to address severe malnutrition first to get out of, what I like to call starved brain syndrome. The priority in the initial part of recovery is eating more – any way and any how, so as to get the fuel to the brain and allow the brain to be able to work better and think more flexibly when you address all the rest.
… and as you address the behaviours and the restrictions, beware too and remain vigilant of the whack a mole game starting up!
Eating disorder recovery is tough, very tough, but addressing all the big and little rules in recovery – don’t fail to do that. No matter how innocent or tiny you think that last comforting ED generated rule or behaviour is…. overcome it – because it is not so innocent as it seems and it will drag you slowly back if it is allowed to fester!