The Road Long Past Recovery…Called Life?

Making short-term rules to be freer in the long term

Posted Dec 17, 2015

It’s dawned on me only belatedly, the fact that one more little milestone on the road away from anorexia has just been passed. It’s years since I felt like I was ‘on the road to recovery’ – and yet there are still those little things that linger as reminders of how things used to be. Or not even that – things that needn’t be reminders, but at some indefinable point start being.

For me, this time, it’s been about the evening sugary snack. When I was ill, this was the immovable high point of my day, the infinitely perfect justification for my life: what could be more ecstatically divine than the feeling of cramming multiple squares of melting milk chocolate into my mouth in bed, the last thing before sleep, the only moment in all my conceivable existence where I had nothing to do but eat and then fall into oblivion? The idea of giving this up, of having to exchange the dizzy peaks of perfected eating and the deep troughs of aching hunger for the featureless lowlands of eating normal food at mealtimes, was probably the greatest obstacle to contemplating recovery, let alone embarking on it. I knew I was in most respects absolutely the opposite of happy, but I also couldn’t believe happiness could take any other form.

As it turned out, eating at reasonable mealtimes isn’t nondescript; food is still something to be looked forward to, it still gives structure to my day – it’s just a structure that doesn’t depend on painfully prolonged periods of chronic hunger. Food tastes great anyway. Indeed, it tastes way better than it ever used to, because I spend money on nice food at Waitrose, and take the time to cook nice things, and eat it before I’m worn out and ready to collapse, and eat it with people I like being with.

But the thing is, having something sweet before bed has been something of a lasting echo of that time, ever since I got better, whenever that was. This habit was something I tackled head on in the latter stages of the weight restoration phase, when I was addressing all the other habits that had defined my anorexic way of life. But this one never quite felt important enough to keep on worrying about. It didn’t cause the obvious problems that, say, not eating breakfast for hours after getting up did. And over time it became innocuous enough: some chocolate or cake or biscuits eaten with my partner on the sofa with a DVD, usually. It was a far cry from the dark old days where it was what I spent the whole day longing for; now other things gave me far more joy. And I’d have nights where I went out and had dinner with dessert and was lacking enough in hunger to decide against the nocturnal snack. But it was still a present entity: I’d be aware, sometimes, still, of balancing the desire for dessert in a restaurant or with the family against the preference for ‘my own thing’, after it was all over. Sometimes I noticed, too, that I was creating justifications for myself (this will be good for gym in the morning) to hide from myself the real reasons why I wanted it. I recognised these things as anorexic hangovers, but the basic act of eating felt neutral enough in the balance of life’s enhancements and detractions to be treated most of the time as just a cosy way of wrapping up the day together, known by the silly code word ‘munchables’. So overall there was ambivalence: it’s mostly fine; it’s maybe a tiny bit not fine.

I’m not entirely sure what made the tipping-point difference – just as I’ll never be able to retrace all the stimuli that led to starting eating breakfast again on that overcast summer’s day back in 2008. One thing that felt like an immediate cue was reading a piece in the Telegraph about binge eating disorder. I don’t think I had or have BED, but certain things rang true: the use of food as stress relief and its all-too-close relationship with comfort and relaxation, the weighting of sugar consumption towards evenings, the looking forward to it and the eating just a little too quickly (maybe out of some kind of eagerness to prove to myself that I was hungry for it?), the being distracted by it from the very thing it was meant to enhance (the DVD-watching, say).

These ideas were nothing new to me. Most lives are stressful these days, and food is one of the tools we have at our disposal for managing that stress – and when coping strategies start causing more problems than they solve, we have to rethink them or suffer the consequences. I know this and had thought my ‘strategy’ was still the right side of the line.

Maybe it was – the line is only ever subjective, and I don’t really think I’ve been living in denial for the past five or six years. But maybe sometimes, however well you’re cycling with the stabilisers, you feel the need to see whether you could do without. Indeed, maybe it’s precisely having done well for a while that makes you realise, one day, that it’s time to spread your wings and have a go without.

So whereas the decision to start to haul myself out of anorexia was born of exhaustion, desperation, and a barely glimmering belief that life must hold something better than this, this recent little decision has come from a place of greater confidence: not that past half-belief (that life surely needn’t be this awful in amidst the fraught ecstasies), but a belief for now, that maybe life could be even calmer in between all its pleasures and challenges.

In other respects, though, it’s been rather similar to the turning point of 2008. It’s taken some false starts: I made the same kind of decision a year or so ago, and didn’t stick to it (and didn’t feel I needed to). I felt ambivalence – a sense of imminent loss, a sense of resentment at even considering asking myself to change. And I did really have to make a concerted decision, and a definite plan. This was what I did better this time round than the previous time last year: I made a manageable plan rather than an existential commitment. It was a Tuesday, and I decided that for the next four evenings I wouldn’t have anything sweet when I watched a DVD or read before bed. Then at the weekend I was free to again if I wanted. I was also free to eat anything else I wanted before bed, but not chocolate or biscuits or anything defined by its sugar content. The other thing I did right was to make sure there was a proper alternative to hand: still food, but not sweet stuff – those first few days, rice cakes and peanut butter. This has felt right for me: when I do have a genuine appetite for something later in the evening, I have it, but when I don’t, it doesn’t have that special marked-off quality from other foods that means I feel the need to have it regardless. It was, to me, a clear and finite plan of action, and I stuck to it. And when Saturday evening came around, I found I didn’t feel the need to go back.

Above all, as with that great momentous decision of more than seven years ago now (how can it be that long?!), the making of the decision was the hard part. After that, it was just a question of ensuring it happened. And as soon as the option to do otherwise was no longer there, doing that required minimal effort.

At last, this act of eating feels completely optional. This is where the magic lies. This isn’t about eating less, or about eating less sugar, or about exerting self-control. It’s about being free of one more fragment of verging-on-compulsion. That feels nice. My life feels one little bit more liberated.

And the small paradox about it is: to make something optional, I had to stop it being an option at all, temporarily. This is a milder form of one of the grand paradoxes of early recovery from anorexia: in order to find your way out of the illness that makes food more important than anything else, you need to allow food to be more important than anything else. To get away from endless calorie-counting you may well need to count calories religiously to make sure those anorexic instincts don’t trick you into eating less than you should. It’s crucial to recognise that this is a step forwards towards relearning to eat with an appetite that isn’t starvation, rather than a step back, further into illness.

Sometimes unbending intervention is simply what’s needed. This can apply to the most momentous goals and to the smallest. Being inflexible may be harder the greater the change required – but accepting the need to be inflexible may be hardest with the smallest targets. I suppose that in the borderline cases, this is what it means to be aware of, and responsive to, oneself; not treating life as one long DIY project of self-improvement, but also not allowing certain ways of being to seem inevitable when they’re not. The next step after the intransigence is then to practise moderation in this as in all things: for me now, not to make it all or nothing, but to have sweet things sometimes, sitting on the sofa with our episode of Modern Family or whatever, and sometimes not. And that’s just what seems to have begun this weekend.

This is no longer a journey of recovery, but it’s certainly one of discovery. Sometimes putting pieces together of things you’ve known forever, and acting on them in ways you’ve maybe been capable of for years, is enough to tell you something you really didn’t know about how you or your life could be. These are the times when the journey metaphor feels right, even if – and because – its territories are both vaster and gentler than you dreamed.