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Eating Disorders

Anticipated Regret and the Longing for Presence

Personal Perspective: Presence emerges as an antidote to anticipated regret.

Key points

  • Anorexia compromises our imaginative capacities, including our ability to imagine life being otherwise.
  • Life crises may, therefore, be needed to shock us into regret (anticipated or retrospective).
  • Imagining life as it is, but enhanced by actual presence in experiences, requires less imaginative agility.
  • Lack of presence and desire for presence can help anticipated regret surface in non-crisis moments.

That’s it, perhaps, the kernel of difficulty: neither path can be trodden with thoughts only of the present moment, there’s always the distant horizon beckoning, the moment at which you’ll reach some peak and turn back to gaze over the distance travelled, and compare its colours to those of the place you now stand—but already while you’re walking you’re making this comparison prospectively, so that nothing can be done or chosen only in itself. —My 2004 (unpublished) Autobiography of an Illness.

How precisely does anticipated regret do its work in the context of anorexia and recovery? What prevents it from arising or from making a difference if it does? What allows it to channel action tendencies that are truly new?

During the years of my illness that came to seem the prototypical ones (the last three or four of the ten, during my master’s and Ph.D., where I lived quite nocturnally, ate quite a lot in the dead of night and otherwise not at all, and had nothing much else in my life), I was too dead for regret to reach me, most of the time. Everything seemed too far gone; regretting, after all, whether in a prospective or retrospective mode, depends on a capacity to wish things were otherwise, which felt increasingly out of reach.

By then, it was only in crisis moments that regret could catch hold of me. When my mother fell off a horse in Greece, hours of agony were followed by a botched hip operation and an MRSA infection. Periodically in those long early minutes and the long dragging weeks after, I imagined her death and also recognised how inevitably I would fail, in the physical state I was in, to survive what she was going through.

Above all, I imagined the piercing regret I would have felt if she had died during that concatenation of traumas: The regret for making her last experiences as my mother full of sadness about anorexia. And this fed into change in the end.

If near-death (my own imagined and my mother’s actual) was needed to penetrate the fog later in my illness, actual death was what came later. After my recovery, there was a time of deep grieving gratitude for the anticipated regret I had been spared when my father died suddenly, aged 58, a year or two after I got well again. I wrote a post a few weeks after he died, wanting to help those who read it channel anticipated regret for themselves to prompt action before it was too late.

But the trouble is, death always has a great implausibility to it, even in the presence of danger or illness, let alone in their absence. So, it’s usually hard to leverage the imagining of death as a motivational force unless something significant comes along to make it less implausible. And then, in one of the many nooses that anorexia sets, one’s imaginative capacities are impaired by semi-starvation already, meaning that imagining anything at all is harder than it would be otherwise, even while also more existentially important than it would be otherwise.

Then again, it strikes me that it is possible to feel anticipated regret without much imagination and, therefore, in the absence of a crisis to shock us into taking imaginative flight. There are two ways to anticipate regret about not recovering: one that requires a capacity to imagine the improved state from which future you look back in regret, and one that doesn’t.

In the first version, you imagine having got out, and your anticipated regret is for not having got out sooner. (It’s something I often find myself reassuring someone hovering on the brink of taking action or taking the next action: I predict that the only thing you’ll regret is not having done this sooner.) In the second, you imagine a future where you’re still trapped, and there is nothing but regret—yet still also the fear of doing the thing that would dissolve it.

In fact, the eating disorder context is altogether an odd one when it comes to what needs imagining for regret to be possible. In many cases, when doing version 1 (imagining having recovered), there may be nothing much that needs changing about the imagined post-recovery reality other than the way it’s experienced. For many people who are partially recovered—a state it’s terribly easy to lose decades to—it’s not that you don’t have the rewarding career, the loving partner, the beloved children, the days at the beach, the shopping trips with friends, it’s that they are all lightly poisoned by the existence of the ways of thinking and doing that are incompatible with presence and with true appreciation.

In this sense, the impairment of imaginative freedom in eating disorders (even partially resolved ones) has a fortunate corollary: You don’t actually need to imagine anything other than what you already have. Forgive me if I bring in a Coldplay lyric here, but it’s such a nice fit: “I want something just like this.” I’ve always thought there’s a radical beauty in daring to say (especially in a dance-pop collaboration with The Chainsmokers): I want nothing more than what I already have.

The anorexic coda is: without the eating disorder wrecking it. I think this may often be easier than imagining a dramatically different life. (Of course, actually going through full recovery may make you realize that what you thought you loved when half-ill is not what you love anymore or who you are anymore. But that’s a different story.)

In part one of this series, I gave an example of anticipated regret in the contemplating-recovery context: “I don’t want my kids to leave home and realize I was never really present for their entire childhood.” Anticipated regret and lack of presence are (anecdotally) a frequent pairing. If an inability to be present in any experience is the current state, then anticipated regret involves imagining its continuation and the ache of wrecked potential that would bring about.

Lack of presence seems to be an interestingly powerful recovery motivator in its own right—who’d have thought something so Zen would really hit home as a reason to change your life?—and teamed up with anticipated regret, it can do even more. This pairing is structurally interesting.

Lack of presence is about always being at one remove from what you’re experiencing; it involves letting thoughts about near-horizon trivia (“Have I eaten too much today?”, “Have I exercised enough today?”) intrude repeatedly on anything else that’s going on. Anticipated regret is about stepping outside your experience too, but in a constructive way: Rather than being outside of this here now as an automatic and sterile default, you’re actively expanding the horizons of now by asking a question about the future. Anticipating my future regret involves asking, in this case, “Would it be OK if this way of being carried on forever?” (or “If my life were like this in five years” or “if I were still like this when my mother died”), and answering, “no.”

Where lack of presence is a simple inability to be here now, fully engaged with this thing that is happening, this form of anticipated regret has two layers: 1) here’s what life is like now, 2) here’s how I feel about this kind of life carrying on. This bears some relation to other “good” ways of stepping outside your own experience, like that slight out-of-body feeling you sometimes get when you realize, “Wow, I’m having an incredible time right now.” The presence still exists; it just has a distanced layer within it. This is quite different from the deadened, always-at-one-remove feeling that disordered rumination brings.

So, a desire for the noise to quieten and the fog to clear can gain strength from the addition of anticipated regret, and conversely, it can also lessen the imaginative feats required to harness the regret. After all, all you have to imagine may be what already exists, but with you fully present in it.

Read Part 1 of the series. Or read on to Part 3, where we’ll explore the interplay of regretting doing versus not doing.

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