Again I scrutinize the mirror, willing it to answer.
My reflection stares back, frustrated and expectant.
Do I even know the question anymore?
I don’t like talking about my eating disorder. Or perhaps, let’s personify “my eating disorder does not like being talked about.” I am not one of the teenagers who had a bout of anorexia, went to treatment and was able to move on. Atypical anorexia has burdened me for over half my life. I don’t think it is cured for all of us. Rather, in some, it becomes an illness like substance abuse that one must work at to avoid relapse.
This is where I find myself. The question used to be “am I fat?” or some variation of that, but aging and some measure of recovery and wisdom now points to the question being something more ambiguous like “am I good enough?” which will never be answered in a mirror nor will be changed by any measure of activity, body weight, or food intake.
I’ve never known good enough, but that’s beside the point. The point is my anxiety wants me to believe that if I just [insert eating disorder behavior here] I will be good enough [not fat]. When I successfully laugh at my eating disorder’s irrational process I am still left with tummy-swirling, chest stomping anxiety. 11 years of therapy, a few medications, various self help tricks, advice, and the single most helpful technique aside from exercise (which can bring with it potential problems particularly if you’re in recovery from an eating disorder.. moderation) is distress tolerance.
Sitting with the distress. Tolerating the feelings and knowing they will in fact pass. It’s terrible, I know. I wish I had a cooler answer. There are lots of techniques to tolerate the distress and YMMV on which one(s) work the best for you, so try many, but yep, good job Marsha Linehan.
I referenced the mirror in a previous poem and it is with regret I admit I continue to be harassed by it. Certainly progress has been made, but I still suffer the endless committee meeting in my head discussing all the things wrong with my body.
Strangely (or perhaps not) aging while bringing its own difficulties has lessened the battle somewhat. I am nearing 40 and I have 2 teenagers. I workout 5 days a week and walk my 10000 steps everyday. I eat generally whole, clean foods with mostly balanced macros for my activity level. There’s really nothing more I can do that does not fall into eating disorder land. It is easier to accept my imperfections as I’m not supposed to look 20 anymore – not without plastic surgery anyway. So, acceptance is the answer to my problems today. Courage to accept what I cannot change.
The mental battle is fatiguing though, I will admit. I do slip into old patterns particularly when I’m very stressed but very quickly my cognitive functioning is impacted and it makes working difficult. As a therapist, I cannot be mentally tuned out during session. It’s very interesting indeed how important nutrition is to cognitive functioning. Consider that the next time you skip breakfast ☺️
I often forget the general population isn’t well versed in mental wellness, never mind mental illness. I am well versed on either end of the spectrum, both professionally and personally. In fact, during college and graduate school where many of my cohort were learning things for the first time, my response was more along the lines of “oh that has a name?!”
In medical school as well as training to be a therapist, there is the tendency to diagnose oneself with every disorder learned. I had already had a moderate handful of diagnoses before studying them academically so I skipped right into imposter syndrome by my second semester of graduate school. The critical voices in my head had a new sneer, “how can you help others when you’re a mess yourself?”
Indeed, in my third semester of grad school I found myself reluctantly agreeing with my therapist to enter treatment for my eating disorder following a collapse in dance class. I felt ashamed but also incredibly grateful to my dance professor who required clearance from treatment before she would allow me to dance again. Bless her everyday for setting that boundary.
So I forget that the whole world isn’t constantly engaged in coping with and studying mental illness. When my instinct with friends or family discussing their bad day is to use words like processing, stabilizing, grounding and phrases like “ask yourself if” or “what are you aware of in your body right now?” And they look at me as if I have a grown a second head. Granted they know I’m a therapist so maybe they chalk it up to “psychobabble” but I hate that term because it implies lack of sincerity on my part and I can assure you, I couldn’t be more genuine.
I wouldn’t know how to be any other way at this point. It is my job but it is also why I have a job and a family and a home.
She smiles sweetly. A bit seductive. Slithering in as security takes a smoke break. She whispers in my ear, “Hello honey. Having a hard time, huh?”
I am lost in the melody of her musing. She promises poise and perfection. A played-out song endlessly mesmerizing.
No. Music breathes life, even on repeat. She is the damsel of destruction. Coy in her captivating charm, she is a siren.
Almost erotic. Almost ethereal.
“I am Panacea.”