My Mission Statement for Keeping on Recovering

Nearly two years into recovery from anorexia: what comes next?

Posted May 08, 2010

I've talked a lot in past blog posts about how my life now is different from my life during the ten years of my anorexia. It's only to be expected that I'll have been occupied with these differences, because for so long things were completely impossible that now are quite ordinary, and other things now seem unthinkable to me that were unquestionable only two years ago. But I'm aware, too, that this ‘present' connects with a future as well as a past, and that this process of recovery is a process, and still needs monitoring and directing if it's to remain in motion.

There are certain aspects of my life and my character that still need tackling, I think, and if I'm to be as honest in this blog about what I still find difficult as about all the things that are so miraculously easy now, I need to describe those aspects. Comments that some of you have posted here have encouraged me to believe that what I write may be of help and interest to others in various stages of illness and recovery, and I want to write truthfully about the difficulties of ‘escaping from anorexia' completely, as well as about the joy that doing so even partially can involve.

When reading this blog entry, I hope you will not lose sight of one fact that to me seems essential: that living with anorexia is not really living, and that life is immeasurably richer once anorexia has been rejected. There are as many different degrees and varieties of ‘recovery' as there are people who used to be ill, and at any point I think it's legitimate to say: ‘This far is enough. I haven't the strength - or simply the inclination - to take this process any further.' But choosing to stay put in not-quite-complete recovery is a choice: it is not one you have to make. I'd like here to thank my partner, David, for inspiring me to take my process of recovery a little further - and for encouraging me to write about my plan to do so.

So here, if you like, is my mission statement for leaving anorexia a little further behind.

1. I intend to work less.

My life is still governed to a somewhat crippling extent by the deep-held belief that no other activity is as valid as work (‘work' meaning essentially my academic career: research, publications, conferences, teaching). I still find it odd to be confronted by the fact that other people don't live life like this. This attitude has an obvious pre-history: my mother would be the first to admit that her own life has been disproportionately dominated by the need to work as much as possible (as an academic and latterly a freelance writer and broadcaster), and although my father is much better at socialising, travelling, and generally relaxing, he's managed to fit a great deal of work into the past few decades (enough to become a professor at Bristol University, coordinating multiple research groups and getting high-profile grants). My mother's partner, too, has published prolifically and grown famous as a TV presenter. Working hard is an assumption about life that I've grown up with, and yet the assumptions that lie behind it are far from clear. Fame and money are nice to have, perhaps, but neither of these things lies behind my obsession, I don't think, nor behind my parents' hard work. For me it's more an almost moral elevation of the pursuits of the mind over those of the flesh (or merely the slightly less engaged mind): a surreptitious attribution of value and importance to the fruits of intellectual endeavour. When I question it, this value grows more nebulous, though it doesn't (yet?) evaporate entirely.

I do believe that exploring the mysteries of what happens in readers' minds when they read great novels, and by extension what it means to be having imaginative experiences, or any sort of experience at all, is important and exciting - but I also know that an inquiring mind inquires and alights on new ideas far better when it's rested and distracted and then returns refreshed to whatever is the task at hand. It's ironic that all my study of reading has meant that I've been loath to set aside any time at all for just reading, for pleasure - for the pleasure I've been trying to pin down in my thesis. I know, too, that I'm not likely to make such earth-shattering progress on these questions that it's worth ‘sacrificing' the rest of life to them; I know that life is frighteningly short, and that I want to savour more of what it can offer than libraries and the computer screen and a narrow rim of everything else around the edges of my existence. Yet I also have the memories of all the years of solitude when I never really took breaks and still managed to achieve good, even great, things academically. I'm still afraid, I think, of my life passing without achievements to mark it out from the ordinary.

Perhaps that's a lot of what the anorexia was about - a desire to escape the ordinary, however bad a way it was of doing so. It was a bad way in two senses: in being destructive of everything else, and in simply not working because being ultimately quite unremarkable. I'm determined, though, not to be one of those stereotypical academics who writes about life without ever living it, and therefore I shall start with renewed determination trying to counter those intuitive reactions that tell me:

don't go out, you'll be tired in the morning and not be able to work, because work matters more than anything else. And why? Well, because it's work, and work matters and nothing else does - because work isn't connected to anything else, is it...?

Another irony is that one of the main strands of my theory regarding reading has been that cognition is inherently embodied and enactive; that the mind is nothing without the body and the action contexts of the body, and is shaped by these in every aspect. Yet I seized on this in the midst of doing all I could to kill off my body - and hence my mind - bit by bit. I will not allow these remnants of that spurious separation of mind and body - hence thought and action, hence work and life - to remain unchallenged in my mind and my behaviour.

2. I need to keep getting used to the body I now have.

I never felt particularly happy with my body when I was very thin, but that didn't matter because the quest to reduce certain parts of it ever closer to total skin and bone, or concavity, was an aim beyond all questioning. The aesthetic sense that valued thinness above all else was immutable too: it was a visceral response to the sight of bones and gauntness (my own or others) that didn't preclude my finding beauty in paintings of truly beautiful women, for instance, but became a necessity that didn't have or need more to it than: thinness is what is desired.

As my body first began to change, over the first year or so of recovery, I was intrigued, watching what happened. I worried about my tummy, but I was rather delighted by how my arms started so quickly to look like proper arms again, and amazed - I don't know why it had never occurred to me that I might have them - to have breasts. Then, about six months ago, as my weight reached the top end of healthy, I started to become anxious and a little self-conscious, but I've lost a bit since then, and now - well, how is it now? David often tells me how beautiful he thinks I am (though everyone's partner does that), and I suppose when I look in the mirror at my face, I quite like what I see. I can see it's attractive. But the rest of me? I find it remarkable, even though I understand and believe it on an intellectual level - that men (and women) find my appearance appealing, that I don't look simply ordinary (at best), or frumpy (at worst); that this body of mine now isn't in many eyes inferior to the one I've left behind.

I've more or less conquered the checking behaviours that used to reduce my focus to only tummy or upper arms or sternum, but still I have an awareness that some deeply hidden ideal is still asserting itself when I see myself, and still saying: this is wrong. Photos help, to some extent, to see myself through others' eyes; attention from men does too; but ultimately contentment with this, with my body as it is when it's healthy and strong, has to come from me. I need to practise looking at all the very thin or very muscly-with-minimal-fat women that society mistakenly chooses to idealise these days, and tell myself every time what looking like that entails, and ask myself every time: do I even really believe that looks good, aside from the superficial status that society currently accords those visible tummy muscles or vertebrae? Because the answer is always no, from the part of me that speaks with the warm voice of aesthetic conviction and pleasure.

3. I must stop hating myself for my perceived flaws, my selfishness in particular.

For as long as I can remember, people have been telling me how selfish I am. The earliest instances were as a child/teenager, from cross parents, and the later instances were really responses to my illness, not to me. But however they came about, there are multiple episodes in my memory of many members of my family telling me, with emotion and conviction, that I am a selfish person. I have a huge amount of guilt about all the suffering I inflicted on my family, on my friends, even on people with whom I came into contact relatively briefly, and the weight of this sometimes overwhelms me if something brings it back unawares.

Perhaps I need to apologise to the people concerned (though the idea seems slightly saccharine); certainly I need to think through what, now, is me and what is still anorexia, and in connection with this, which ‘selfishnesses' are leftover self-protection mechanisms from the self-absorption of anorexia, and which are the ordinary instincts of anyone seeking to survive in a complicated world, and which are what might be called ‘vices': things that ought to be changed.

What do I mean, precisely, by things that ought to be changed? Not caring about other people enough: hurting people by thoughtless or careless words or actions, as I've done a few times recently, mainly by placing my own desires above someone else's feelings. To some extent, doing anything else is impossible: the line between being selfish and simply being oneself is a blurred one. On the other hand, I am aware that after so many years of such greyness, I crave pleasures (of some sorts) with an intensity that frightens me by the force with which it makes me completely indifferent to the consequences, to the ‘morning after', literally and metaphorically speaking. Perhaps I shouldn't fight this instinct entirely, but I need to find ways to regulate it: to make life now varied and satisfying, but not to succumb (even in short bursts) to a sort of blind hedonism that says ‘fuck it' to the consequences. There is a middle road, and I intend to find it. This leads on to my final point, which is:

4. To understand better the periods of emotional alienation that still come over me.

There are two sorts of these: first, the almost pleasurable state of simply not caring about anything but the present moment, not caring about any future that might be jeopardised by this present, not wanting anything but this immediate joy in dancing, or drinking, or whatever else it might be - and sometimes to the extent of hurting someone else. This is perhaps not surprising, after so many years planning and controlling every potential pleasure almost to the point of negating it, but it nonetheless needs dealing with.

This sort of state isn't entirely separable from the other sort: the blankness, the sense of being at a remove from myself, of watching myself from a slight distance, of not caring - this time because of distance rather than immersion - about anything that happens. Not even really quite feeling I exist, or caring whether I do. I used quite often to feel crippled by a feeling of self-observation: listening to myself saying something silly or clichéd, I'd be unable to keep talking because of that internal (yet distanced) judge. It isn't quite the same these days: it's more a thin veil between my experiencing and my watching self, a veil made of emotional detachment and indifference. And its consequences are quite similar to those of the immersed emotional state. I call them both ‘alienation' because both result in a feeling that this is not really my life, and therefore make me feel: so what, who cares about anything?

I try, now I've noticed the pattern, to catch myself feeling thus, to see whether there are patterns in its occurrence, to see what happens if I either abandon myself to it or resist it. These are frequently observed features of depression and related disorders, I know, but I think just going back on anti-depressants probably isn't the solution. Feeling love - for David - was the first emotion that surged over me like a wave as I first started to get better, and since then many others have returned to me, but there must still be a long way to go in the process of my emotions learning to self-regulate again after the decade in which they gradually died away.

All these things are ways in which that dying-away will continue to be reversed, and in which I'll not only question who I am and what my life is, but simply be and live and hope that along the way I'll bring other people more happiness than pain, and that I'll be able to keep being honest, to myself and to others.