So much of the long, painful process of recovering from EDs of whatever kind is constructed by everyone from therapists to fellow sufferers as learning to recognise the underlying psycho-emotional processes you’re essentially using food to fulfil or to mask: what you’re really hungry for, or denying yourself, or trying to swallow, or trying to vomit out. Even sensitive and highly perceptive commentators like Courtney Martin (I’ll let Susie Orbach off for being the first person to point it out, back in 1978 when Fat Is a Feminist Issue was first released) are terribly prone to sentences along the lines of:
‘When she faced a plate of cookies and heard the starving-daughter voice inside her mind shout ‘i can’t help it! I just have to have it!’ she [learned to] take a step backwards and draw a deep breath. Usually there was a powerful message underneath if she listened hard enough. Usually it was not cookies she desired but rest or laughter or recognition.’
Or, y’know, love, understanding, touch, cuddles, sympathy, respite, the right to desire itself, all that jazz. Which is fair enough, important to work out. But some of us are cripplingly self-aware, and always were. And sometimes you are in a lot of pain, with no quick fix: sometimes you are heartbroken with nobody to hold you, or lonely with nobody to call, or exhausted and at work and unable to stop, or simply too depressed to leave the house or do any of the supposedly functional things you know might help. Or you end up in an unprecedented situation with no coping mechanisms other than those you know are dysfunctional – new jobs/life situations/places, with no resources except those within yourself, and no company except the familiar hunger or sugar rush or conflict-ridden tension between ‘i want’ and i shouldn’t.’ Nobody tells you what to do with that.
In some ways, they can’t, of course: that kind of defence and coping mechanism is very individual, and to a certain extent something each of us can only figure out for ourselves. But that’s a long, hard, gradual, never-ending process, and we don’t live in an ideal world, and sometimes you just don’t have the spoons, and it’s so much *easier* to reach for the cookie or to lean over the toilet or to say no until the hunger blocks out the yearning, because sometimes ‘just letting the feelings happen’ and ‘being in the moment’ and ‘meeting your body where it is’ and all the other things you’re *supposed* to do when you recognise an unmet need *just hurt too fucking much*. ‘Recognising your true hunger’ and ‘letting the feelings happen’ are all very well, but if ‘the feelings’ and/or ‘the hunger’ are a screaming, mind-numbing, grief-stricken, uncomprehending agony you get up with every morning and sleep with every night and which frightens most people away because that much open, articulate, desperate, hopeless unhappiness is very, very difficult even for others to ‘sit with’ or recognise or comprehend, then frankly you’ll do anything to keep it at bay for just one more minute. Even if it means losing your 23″ waist and slender thighs. Even if it means losing your hard-won, struggled-for ‘recovered’ status. Even if it means losing yourself.
I’m not there so much anymore. But I was, for a while, and that’s why I’m 49kg now instead of 42, and why I will probably never be the kind of slender I crave again, and why I’ll never quite stop feeling guilty about it. I wish, in a way, i’d starved myself again: but it’s one of my fundamental strengths and weaknesses: I can never make the same mistake twice. I knew, bone deep – hah – that wouldn’t work, and so the only way out was to eat, to keep going, to see what would happen if I grew the defences, if I let the world and my own pain take the edges off my passionate vulnerability. I don’t – quite – regret it, but it’s no secret to say I wish I’d gone the other way, because then i wouldn’t be here writing this, and I have always, always, since childhood, felt oblivion would be so much easier. When I came round from starvation psychosis the first time, a nurse told me I was lucky to be alive. I spat at her ‘but it’s living that’s the hard part,’ and i stand by that to this day.
That’s what they never tell you. That the ‘real world’ with its joys and its sorrows and its connections and its passions and its pain may have rewards and gains that are completely inaccessible if you’re only capable of displacing or dealing with life or strong emotion through food, but once you’ve done it, fucking with hunger instead of fucking with humanity in all its flawed and terrible and complex and conflict-ridden glory is *so much bloody easier*.