You must do the thing you cannot do

This is an account of the point at which I went from chronic anorexia sufferer to recoverer. Unlike many stories that speak of a ‘switch’ clicking and catapulting them into a healthier existence, my story documents a far more ambling, extended journey. I hope it will speak to those who are struggling to enter proper recovery, and give them hope. I found that even making tiny changes, which appear to have no benefit, are actually instrumental in forming a basis for your inner strength to grow and finally begin to conquer your eating disorder. And reclaim your life.

“You must do the thing you think you cannot do”.

Never has this quote been so pertinent. I never thought I would get here – in fact just a few months ago I honestly thought the best solution was to hold up my hands, give up the fight, and let come what may. I couldn’t see a way out of my entanglement with anorexia. It seemed easier all round if I just resigned myself to being one of those unfortunate statistics; the people that have chronic eating disorders – in my case 10 years – and never recover. The people who float along in a state of subsistence, living alongside ‘normal’ people and doing relatively ‘normal’ things. Only they’re not normal; they’re entirely controlled by excruciating inner turmoil, unable to gain real pleasure from anything that doesn’t somehow revolve around food and/or exercise.

The way in which I conducted my entire life was so intrinsically linked with anorexic thoughts – in fact it was dictated by them – I could not see how I was ever going to live normally again.

However. I honestly don’t know how, but somehow I find myself officially ‘In Recovery’. I say ‘officially’ because I truly believe it now. For years and years I’ve been saying I’m trying to get better – and I meant it at the time, but deep in my heart I don’t think I ever believed it. Every so often I’d make a tiny change to my strict anorexia-driven routine, which would feel like the most immense feat, but the change would be so small that it had no real effect at all on my long-suffering physical and mental state. The fact that such a huge effort had been implemented to make the change, and for no real benefit to emerge, only served to confirm the concept that I could not fight this. So I’d either slip back into my old ways, or anorexia would impose compensatory behaviour to counteract the positive change, and I’d be back to square one.

If this seems familiar to you – if you feel you want to recover but simply aren’t strong enough to do the things you know you should but think you cannot (i.e. eat more, exercise less, stop binging…etc.) – I plead with you to keep going. I want to reassure you – and I know you’ll not believe me, because I‘ve been where you are – that it is possible for your fighting strength to grow that little bit more, to allow you to really start to change.

Time and again I read recovery stories where people had suddenly seen the light; everyone seemed to speak of the ‘switch’. So I sat there patiently waiting for my turn; for my switch to click. But if there ever was a switch, I never noticed it. I didn’t suddenly wake up one day and decide that I was going to recover properly this time. Instead, I continued making those tiny, pitiful changes. They would freak me out, and sometimes I’d overcompensate with other anorexic behaviours, but still I just kept trickling them into my daily routine.

During this time I stumbled across a very interesting theory that drives a particular form of psychological therapy, called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. In short, the concept is that rather than trying to prevent anxiety (e.g. by continuing anorexic behaviours because you assume you’ll not be able to cope with the anxiety of not doing so), you should actually accept that anxiety is unavoidable in life and you just have to deal with it. This really spoke to me; I started to feel slightly pathetic when I realised the main reason I could not make the big changes that I needed to in order to recover was that I was too scared of feeling anxious. Good grief – I’ve lived with a head full of vicious, toxic anorexic thoughts for years – surely I can cope with a bit of anxiety?! I kept thinking of this theory all the time; it slowly seemed to seep in and I believe it played a significant part in allowing me to make those changes that pushed me gently into ‘recovery phase’.

One day I decided I’d make a bigger change than the ones I’d tried previously. In order to soften the blow on my incredibly reactive and volatile anorexic thoughts, I convinced myself that if I didn’t like it I could just go back. It would just be one day; I’d try it, and if I felt too uncomfortable I’d make up for it the next day. But – and this is really important – once I’d made the change, I actually felt better. I felt strong. I wasn’t in an incredible state of panic, as if I’d betrayed my anorexic thoughts and that I’d lost the only identity I had been left with after years of eating disorders had stripped every other aspect of my persona. These were the feelings that I was convinced I would be plagued with. But the reality was nothing short of miraculous – I realised that since I’d managed to make this change and not overcompensate with other anorexic behaviours, then this whole ‘recovery’ concept could actually be possible. Rather than seeming like an insurmountable feat that I would never conquer, and that would keep knocking my confidence and push me further into depression, loathing and consequently anorexia, it was actually something achievable.

As I mentioned before, I didn’t suddenly have an epiphany and become entirely recovery-driven; my anorexic thoughts are still stubbornly lodged inside, and they present a constant force to be reckoned with. Along with feeling proud and courageous when I make a positive change to my routine, I also feel extremely panicked – especially when the results (in my case weight gain) start to show. My way of dealing with this is to take a step back and question ‘what is the worst that can happen?’ And the reality is this: if I keep making these changes, the ‘recovered’ state becomes closer. If the changes are a little bigger than I feel comfortable with, the only thing that can happen is that my recovery might speed up. An anorexia-free existence, with the freedom to experience life without this suffocating sheath of chronic illness, might be upon me more quickly. If this is the worst that can happen, why am I getting worked up?!

So give it a go. Don’t rush, and don’t push yourself too hard, but one day just try that thing you think you cannot do. Something that really stops your eating disorder in its tracks and makes it realise you might be serious about this whole recovery thing. See what happens…you are probably stronger than you think. After all, you’re still here, despite suffering the internal hell imposed by your illness. That thing you think you cannot do will not kill you…therefore, by rights of the cliché, it really can only make you stronger.