Anorexia’s influence over the mind is pernicious and all-consuming. It’s nothing short of indoctrination, for it corrupts your thoughts into focusing on extreme self-control and restraint every waking moment. Once it gets hold of you, like a boa constrictor, it grips harder, and tighter, and faster, until the force of its relentless and crushing pressure leaves you feeling powerless or unwilling to fight back. The oppressive authority it wields is characterised by repetitive, strict, and punitive thought processes. Each time you bow – frightfully, yet faithfully – into submission, it becomes ever more deeply ingrained. This gradually reinforces anorexia’s power, while robbing you of your ability to think and reason in a healthy and logical way.
In the harsh grip of my illness I felt like anorexia and I had become irrevocably invested in each other, to the point where I had no identity or foothold in the world without it. Its coercive control made me think we were together: a team to face a world I found too complex and unmanageable on my own. For if not on your side, anorexia becomes a formidable opponent – one that holds a highly competitive advantage, having already taken your entire existence (body, mind, freedom, social life and enjoyment) and shrunk it. In fact, I could almost say I entered into an abusive relationship with anorexia.
Why do people become stuck in cycles of abuse and self-harm? Why do we often cling to a person, substance or entity that we know constantly hurts us? How do some people find a way to leave the repressive confines of another’s domination? There are many psychological influences in life that drive our thoughts and behaviour; understanding them fully and having self-awareness is vital in order to surmount our mental hurdles.
In terms of effort, it is much easier for our brains to stick to familiar and well-practiced patterns, even if they are damaging. To break free requires agonisingly strong will-power which depletes our brain’s resources, leaving us feeling weak and exposed. A large proportion of our daily calorie intake is directed towards helping our brain function and perform countless mental and cognitive processes that keep our internal and external worlds in harmony. When you are suffering from anorexia, it is not only your body being starved of energy- your brain is depleted too, which means you have very little strength to fight your own corner. Anorexia made me go quiet. I could hardly summon energy to form thoughts, let alone reason with my illness.
The brain is neurologically programmed to take the route of least effort and resistance, whether or not this is always in our best interests. Compared to our minds, the brain functions on a more primal than conceptual level. It does not want its stable reality to become unsettled. Therefore it will want to take us through the dark dangerous alleyway with a high chance of attack, if we have been there a thousand times before, even though a much lighter and safer route is nearby. This is why we often hang on to what (or who) we know, and stay on paths of self-destruction, despite the fact that this may be killing us. It is the job of our minds to set the brain on new, untrodden and wobbly pathways.
In light of this, it is clear why early intervention is credited for increasing recovery success rates. Psychologically speaking, it is easier to escape self-harming behaviours or abuse (whatever form it takes) after the first attack than after suffering repeatedly for long periods of time. Unfortunately my own eating disorder become entrenched over many long years. I had to learn to process life and meaning without filtering everything through the anorexic lens of self-restraint. This meant I had to ‘unlearn’ the things anorexia had taught me to be true. Try and convince a staunch believer of almost anything (political viewpoint, music taste etc) to wipe the slate blank and believe something that is to the contrary and you’ll see it’s not easy. The tyranny of our own belief systems can prove monumentally difficult to overcome.
Under anorexia’s terms nothing felt like success if I was not depleted to the point of near physical exhaustion; my emotional state was moderated only by the degree to which I was famished and suffering; self-worth was measured by how baggy my clothes felt or hung off my body. This is because anorexia feeds you the illusion of security in return for extreme self-discipline, with food and weight loss being the bargaining chips you play with. It makes you become so obsessed with maintaining and deepening control that in fact you lose it – because before you know it, you are being controlled.
By ‘you’ I mean the person you were before anorexia; the person who ate food without forethought or worry; the you that used your body as an enabling tool to live life, explore and be curious, not as a mechanism of control over every inch of soft-tissue and calorie. Within the vice-like grip of anorexia, the body is reduced to little more than an empty vessel that functions as a false and dangerously distorted measurement scale of weight, self-validation and success. I used to believe with such unshakeably strong conviction that anorexia was a fundamental part of me. I told my parents that to be free of anorexia would be tantamount to cutting off one of my limbs. Anorexia was who I was. The person, ‘Georgia’, had changed for good.
For sufferers, finding an identity as a human being without anorexia is the key to recovery and wellbeing. When I first started to put on weight, I saw myself as a hideous, despicable and ugly creature. I was horrified when people commented that I was looking ‘well’ because that meant I was failing at being an anorexic. This is because my anorexic identity was being challenged. Anorexia will try and resist this threat and raise its voice in protest. Perhaps the most difficult thing is for the eating disorder to realise that it cannot dictate your life for you.
For years this left me feeling lost and bereft. Who was I? Without anorexia, I didn’t know. I had to confront the fact that my body is not an indicator of my self-worth and that the battle I was fighting against it was actually anorexia’s most convincing yet futile lie. For so long anorexia made me believe that this held the answers to all my problems- only for me to discover, in the end, that it was in fact a powerful deception. To conquer anorexia, I had to stride forth into a sea of difficult emotions, pain and uncertainty. I had to utilise my self-awareness to stop engaging in the back-and-forth dialogue between me and the anorexic voice in my head. It had locked me away in a blackened and empty room and convinced me that there was nothing beyond the four walls: that this was my reality. In the darkness, anorexia’s black hug felt like my only friend, the only form of relief and comfort. Without it, I was vulnerable.
Recovery requires a resolute focus and determination. Initially I was more concerned with the losses rather than the gains of shedding my eating disorder. The gains- both mental and physical- do not happen overnight. I began the painstaking process of un-piecing its dominion brick by brick, searching for crevices and always keeping my eyes open, even though for a long time I did not see anything. The ultimate challenge is to not lose hope in that dark room, no matter how many days, months or years you stay there. To recover from anorexia I had to block access to my only coping mechanism. Instead I put all my faith, trust and courage in a blind hope that life could change if only I persisted. And it did.
Eventually, my confidence without anorexia started to grow, and I recovered who I was without it. I have now reached a stage in my own recovery where its voice has vanished. I wish I could pinpoint exactly when it left. I suppose, in the same way as when any intense relationship ends, the influence and memory of that other person simply diminishes over time- then one day you look back and can’t understand why you ever wanted to be with them in the first place. You have gained freedom and independence from the emotional crux that person provided. You are a whole and complete human being without them. You have gained a separate, more powerful identity on your own. You set your own agenda. No one tells you what to do.
I now understand myself differently and view the world with a new perspective of what it means to be alive and moving freely within it. I accept life, along with all its fraught instability that anorexia protected me from. At long last, my thighs are just thighs. They are attached to my knees that connect me to two wonderfully functioning feet. My butt fits in a pair of trousers- great! My size naturally reflects my attitude and lifestyle: active, healthy and balanced. Most importantly, I have learnt to use food for its natural purposes: pleasure, happiness, nourishment, health, hospitality, and bonding with friends and family. I can finally eat around people, which has brought a lot of love into my world.
I can’t guarantee that a life free from anorexia won’t still be scary or unpredictable, and sometimes painful, but I can guarantee that it becomes WONDERFUL- in the most unexpected and beautiful of ways that I cannot truly express in writing alone. I thought I was locked up forever. In the end, I started to understand how I came to be locked up; how I was my own jailor and I had the power to switch places with anorexia. The door to that darkened room is always there, but I will never again open it. I live life on my own. I have discovered the gift of what it means to be free. I will not go back to my abuser.
My author’s note- to all men, women, boys and girls:
The effects of the modern era we live in cause the body to exert too much control over our emotions. The agency we have over our bodies can be our greatest strength and most powerful weapon- for good or for ill. In Western societies we are taught from an early age that by manipulating our appearance we can correspondingly alter our levels of confidence, attractiveness and self-esteem. The body plays a passive role in all this: it isn’t given a choice- and, thankfully, it doesn’t have an opinion on itself either! The fact is that it is our minds that decide our confidence, attractiveness and levels of self-esteem. Remember this when you go about each day of your life. Our bodies are our friends. Be kind to yours and treat other people’s with the same respect.