The Things No One Tells You about Anorexia and Recovery

The big picture of anorexia is easily painted, but the little details matter too

Posted May 16, 2019

The little things as guiding lights from illness to recovery

Anorexia is a lot about eating not enough, not having body enough, not resting enough, not heeding one’s own needs and desires enough. And so a lot of it is bleakly predictable: having anorexia typically involves being thin, isolated, depressed, cold, judgemental, narrowly obsessive, and much other fun stuff. In a simple sense, recovery is a reversal of all that: growing, connecting, laughing, warming up, accepting, relaxing. All this undoing of the strictures of self-starvation is as profound as anything in life gets, but the idea of it can often feel too abstract and distant and ungraspable to help motivate change. 

Changes as all-encompassing as stopping wanting, or being able, to live alone and secretively, or stopping wanting or being able to spend 90% of one’s waking life working, can be hard to believe in the possibility of. And partly because they’re so hard to conceive of, they can also be hard even to want. When so much of my mental world is populated with thoughts of eating and not eating, bodyweight and the shapes of my flesh and bones, can I really make myself care enough about being capable of, say, a fulfilling romantic and sexual relationship, to want to get myself to the state where it is possible? When it feels beyond you not just to change, but to change enough to want to change, the distance to be covered between here and there can feel so vast it’s not even worth trying. 

Just as importantly, those enveloping traits and habits of reclusiveness or impatience or indeed thinness can seem too integral a part of yourself to really believe in as separable, as optional, as anorexia-entailed. And so we end up paralysed by the necessity of this and the impossibility of that, with over-generalisation at least part of the problem at both ends. 

So, what could help make that distant there of post-recovery feel within reach? What, just as importantly, could help it seem truly, concretely, desirable? What could help you find the reason to do something rather than nothing, to start putting one foot in front of the other, and to keep doing so even as all anorexia’s worst fears start to come true? Well, I’ve suggested answers to these questions in posts like 'Escaping from anorexia', 'How to make the decision to get better', 'Recovering from anorexia: How and why to start', and 'How and why not to stop halfway'. But given the number and strength of the reasons to never change anything that always seem to crowd in on us as soon as we've almost decided to add in that extra afternoon snack or whatever, we can never have too many answers to the question, why is change worth it? So this post offers another. The answer is also a reminder that far more of your current habits and preferences than you may be inclined to acknowledge are determined by your illness, and that you therefore need to be open to them all changing, temporarily or forever, as anorexia becomes part of your past.

You may well read that and think it doesn't apply to you. If so, I invite you to engage in a little personal inquiry – with plenty of attention to detail. Sometimes it helps to bring things down to specifics. Sometimes the tiny detail in the corner of the painting speaks more poignantly than the figures who take up most of the canvas. Sometimes the realism that speaks to us with potency needs to be constructed out of details that may have symbolic value, standing for more than themselves, but also exist, self-sufficiently, as fragments of raw reality. Sometimes (probably always) neither the actual nor the possible can be seen clearly in its entirety. And so synecdoche – the part standing for the whole – may be as close as our minds can come to grasping what reality is and what it could be.

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
John Everett Millais, The Bridesmaid (1851)
Source: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

If you find you all too easily switch off when someone asks you how on earth you can bear the cold and the hunger and the depression and the life narrowing down to nothing, maybe the realisation that you’ve never ordered anything but black coffee at Starbuck’s can be a more meaningful reminder of just how constrained your life is. Conversely, if all the sweeping promises about how much happier and full of life you’ll be when you’re better are easy to dismiss as vacuous or implausible or both, maybe the idea of being able to enjoy a lazy weekend morning of sex and brunch when you want feels more worth aiming for. The point about these specifics is they are inherently personal, so these two may not speak at all to you – but you’ll be able to find your own if you try.

Here, then, are some of the strange little ways anorexia made me be who I was, more and more narrowly over ten years. They start with food but stretch far beyond it. How many of them remind you of you, or the ill person you know? How many such things do you deny are anything to do with your eating disorder?

List 1: The anorexic little things

  • Put a large amount of salt on everything savoury. 
  • Eat raw garlic as a treat.
  • Pile up 99% of the margarine in one corner of one of my pieces of bread. 
  • Eat a large amount of sweet food.
  • Crave sweet food insatiably.
  • Eat no meat (officially for animal-welfare reasons), and no animal products except milk and yoghurt (because I didn’t want and/or dare to eat any others).
  • Eat Go Ahead bars, always bringing them to my mouth with the yoghurt coating face down.
  • Fill mugs to the brim so only the surface tension keeps the liquid from spilling out.
  • ‘Pre-read’ magazines and newspaper supplements to prepare the good, i.e. the most mindless, bits for reading while I eat. 
  • Cut out clippings from magazines and newspaper supplements to give to other people. 
  • Get up to empty my bladder repeatedly during the course of an extended meal. 
  • Write in my diary every evening, and repeatedly during the course of an extended meal (mostly about eating). 
  • Change into nightclothes, dressing gown, and slippers on returning home.
  • Carry two panniers around on my bike, both always somehow full of books and/or food.
  • Turn the minimum possible heating on until it’s time to eat. 
  • Turn the maximum possible heating on once it’s nearly time to eat.
  • Turn on the minimum possible number of lights.
  • Sleep with an electric blanket or hot water bottle.
  • Sleep in pyjamas. 
  • Keep a plastic bag full of torn-off nutritional information from food packaging and a calorie-count book.
  • Count the calories of one section of my daily diet (a varying set of very sweet things eaten just before sleep).
  • Have trousers tailor-made. 
  • Wear mostly trousers, rarely skirts. 
  • Go shopping for clothes often. 
  • Retrieve food from dustbins.
  • Never throw food away, or leave food uneaten. (Often scrape mould off things to avoid wasting them.)
  • Retrieve magazines and newspaper supplements from recycling bins.
  • Care about tidying kitchens.
  • Keep food and drink wrapped in plastic bags at the back of shared fridges.
  • Use special mugs, bowls, and teaspoons.
  • Wear my hair short.
  • Have awful spots. 
  • Wear no glasses or lenses despite being short-sighted. 
  • Shower once a week. 
  • Drink no water.
  • Eat no fruit. 
  • Despise gyms.
  • Cycle every day to a particular sapling (in Oxford) or round a particular circular city route (in Bristol).
  • Travel by train and bus and bicycle, except when other people drive me. 
  • Have one of my parents collect me and lots of belongings at the end of term, to return to one of their houses for the vacation. 
  • Work mostly at home.
  • Live (by the end) mostly nocturnally.
  • Hate setting an alarm to wake up to. 
  • Read only for work, nearly never for pleasure.
  • Never listen to music. 
  • Listen to Radio 4 (serious talk radio), including The Archers (‘a contemporary drama in a rural setting’), every day. 
  • Sweat in my sleep.
  • Dream rarely
  • Keep a list of everything I spend.
  • Shop in the cheapest supermarkets when spending my own money; shop in Waitrose when spending my stepfather’s money.
  • Write my daily diary in blank notebooks.
  • Dislike blue cheese. 
  • Have very few friends.
  • Live alone.
  • Fear the cold and the tiringness and the increased eating involved in skiing.
  • Empty my bowels before eating late at night. 
  • Speak in a rather flat, relatively high-pitched voice.
  • Wear a plastic ‘granny hat’ with strings tied under my chin for cycling in the rain. 
  • Want an academic career
  • Save a teabag used for my first cup to make my second.

And here, (very) roughly in the order in which they changed during or after recovery, are some things that make me who I am now. With some of them, I indicate a series of steps from recovery to now (in these cases the last step may be fairly recent).

List 2: The recovered little things

  • Want to eat meat → Eat lots of meat, especially the fat on meat → Eat less meat, for animal-welfare and environmental reasons.
  • Use normally small amounts of salt.
  • Eat garlic usually cooked.
  • Eat butter not margarine.
  • Like blue cheese → Dislike blue cheese.
  • Have fewer spots.
  • Not look in dustbins.
  • Not look in recycling bins.
  • Not leave food or throw food away other than in exceptional circumstances. (Have a slightly lower threshold for where scraping mould off cedes to throwing away.) Sometimes finish food from other people’s plates (if I know them well!) and scrape out saucepans etc. after cooking.
  • Eat unfamiliar foods and check their calories → Eat unfamiliar foods without looking up the calories → Forget many of the calories I used to know → Know the calorific values of very few foods I eat.
  • Empty my bowels first thing in the morning.
  • Cycle often with just my shoulder bag, or with one pannier for food, gym stuff, or other things.
  • Like being warm enough → Often feel warmer than other people. (A former yoga teacher used to warm her hands on me!)
  • Fill mugs slightly fuller than most people do.
  • Use whichever crockery and cutlery is to hand, though with stronger aesthetic preferences than many other people’s → Have a special mug and teapot kept for me at my mother’s house.
  • Get ready for bed at bedtime – but still love slippers.
  • Have something sweet before or in bed → Decide to stop that for a while → Not need something sweet before sleep.
  • Eat with book, magazine, radio, other people, or none of the above, as I feel like.
  • Stop writing a diary altogether → Write once a day, first thing in the morning with tea in bed.
  • Live with a partner → Live partly alone, partly with a partner.
  • Shower most days, and wash my hair twice a week → Shower about twice a week, and wash my hair once a week.
  • Love fatty foods as much as sugary ones.
  • Buy trousers in normal shops.
  • Often watch a TV episode before sleep.
  • Read barely any magazines or supplements → Read some magazines → Read some magazines and sometimes photographing snippets for people.
  • Not mind eating even if I need the loo.
  • Dislike most overhead lights, and like lower lighting than many people. 
  • Not feel colder while eating.
  • Feel hot in bed.
  • Sleep naked.
  • Stop treating my parents’ homes as my home.
  • Make my tea in teapots.
  • Develop a healthy obsession with Waitrose.
  • Wear mostly skirts, rarely trousers.
  • Go shopping for clothes often → Go shopping for clothes rarely.
  • Have little interest in the tidiness of kitchens.
  • Have little interest in the visibility of my items in shared fridges. 
  • Dye my hair → Let my hair grow → Have long undyed hair → Have long dyed hair.
  • Wear my glasses for driving and watching TV → Wear contacts.
  • Drink fizzy water with meals → Drink next to no water.
  • Eat some fruit → Eat next to no fruit.
  • Love powerlifting.
  • Cycle when I need to get somewhere.
  • For long journeys, love driving fast, ideally with roof down.
  • Wake up in the morning.
  • Hate setting an alarm to wake up to, and almost never do so. 
  • Read for pleasure a little → Read for pleasure almost every day.
  • Listen to Radio 4 almost never → Listen to pop/dance music most days → Listen to football (soccer) chat on Talksport quite often.
  • Support a football team (Swansea City, if you care).
  • Not sweat in my sleep.
  • Dream a lot → Dream now and then.
  • Not list money spent → List everything I spend while income is a problem → Not list money spent.
  • Write in a page-a-day diary.
  • Speaking in a richer deeper though still quiet voice.
  • Avoid cycling in the rain, or get wet hair → Wear a raincoat when cycling in the rain.
  • Pursue an academic career → Get some job and grant rejections, realise I like other things more → Spend several years writing an academic textbook without a paying job → Create a primarily non-academic primarily freelance career.
  • Work mostly at the office or in cafés.
  • Love skiing as much as anything in the world. 

Using the lists yourself

In themselves these kinds of list might seem silly and/or obscurely over-specific, but make one for yourself and I suspect it won’t feel that way. Indeed, writing your own list before you’re in a position to fill in any of the second section yet may be poignant in a way that feels a new kind of galvanising. Or doing it halfway through recovery might be a little inspiration to carry on – to create a partial ‘after’ list as a snapshot of now, and maybe some predictions about what else will change and keep changing. And wait to gradually find out what things you couldn’t yet see as accessories to the illness but which at some point in recovery are revealed as such.

I’d love to hear some of your items, on either list at any stage, if you’d like to share them!

Recovering versus growing up?

This kind of exercise actually gets rather effectively to the heart of what identity is, and how illness changes it. The broad brushstrokes of the classic anorexic personality traits (anxious, depressed) and habits or life circumstances (having few friends, never taking vacations) are part of the picture, of course, and they all derive systematically from the damage that systematic undereating does to a mind and body. But the tendrils of anorexia creep far further into the minutiae of life and personality and physicality than can automatically be grasped as consequences or correlates of self-starvation. If you’d told me before I started recovery that recovery would mean my voice changing pitch, my radio being tuned to a football station, and my hair getting long and brightly coloured, I’d have laughed unamusedly at you. And of course, life being the uncontrolled experiment that it is, I can’t say that anorexia was the only reason I spoke, listened, or styled my hair in those ways, nor that recovery is the only reason I do them differently now. Maybe some of these changes were just me growing up. But then, you don’t grow up while you have anorexia, you just get old without growing up, so recovery is still the prerequisite. I know that had recovery not happened, most of the things on List 1 would still stand. And I find it hard to think of anything that induces such a sharp simultaneous reaction of bleakness and gratitude.

Anorexic or not?

I don’t know how representative my list is; maybe lots of people who get better go on to have a hair-colour trajectory from dark blue back to normal and then to turquoise and then pink-and-blue and then blue with blonde overlay and then turquoise with blonde. I suspect that quite a few of the things that seem rather arbitrarily unconnected to anorexia may actually be fairly common manifestations of it. With hair colour, the obvious connection is the discomfort, in anorexia, with being looked at and with expressing one’s personality through any physical qualities but thinness (because the personality is itself reduced largely to what the thinness dictates) – and the willingness that recovery brings to both see and be seen. I could tell an easy ‘this is why this was actually anorexic’ tale about anything on List 1, and all of them would have had truth to them, and many would also be over-simplifications.

One reason why also writing List 2 is important is that some of the items are the same as or very similar to items on List 1. And that allows some aspects of the life that was anorexic to stand as valid parts of a life that is no longer anorexic – for me, say, not eating fruit (unless there’s a strong social reason to, or it’s nicely disguised in a crumble or a pie), or liking having my own pretty bone china and silver mug for tea and coffee at my mother and stepfather’s house (the mug, as it happens, given to me by one of the two friends who helped initiate my final recovery effort). Those things are harmless, now, and actually more than harmless: for me they feel, respectively, part of a rejection of stupid dietary dogma (e.g. the UK’s nonsensical ‘5 a day’ public health mantra) and an expression of an aesthetic sense for fine china. I used to not eat fruit because I wanted to save all possible calories for ultra-sweet things; now I don’t eat it because I don’t especially like it, because it’s nutritionally pointless, because I don’t need the ‘I’ll eat fruit cos it’s healthy’ excuse to have something sweet, and also I suppose because I quite like the oddity of not liking it, as of not drinking water. Similarly, with the crockery, I used to have special mugs because I needed the biggest ones possible, and I needed them to be consistent. Now I only use that lovely one a few times a year, and I have other preferred mugs in some other places, and having flexible preferences is fine. So context is everything. It’s the difference between something being part of a pathology and being a little life enhancement, or something that helps make me not a cookie-cutter non-person: something a friend might tease me about or a parent remember about me.

In almost all cases, as in these two examples, the things that have reverted to how they used to be haven’t done so with total symmetry. In most cases, they’ve returned to something similar not identical: eating not very much meat instead of none, for example, and for the professed not concealed reasons; or writing a daily diary but with completely different book, timing, and spirit; or remembering why when I was a teenager I liked watching football, and now actually supporting a team as well (beyond England at Euro ’96). And this is part of the broader fact that nothing is all-or-nothing: rediscoveries are no less valuable than new discoveries, new preferences evolve out of old likes and dislikes, and the things you are and do keep interacting in new ways to create new patterns of change and learning. 

It is counterproductive to demonise everything about one’s life with anorexia, forever. I think there’s often value in thrusting all that rubbish away from you with the zeal and the anger of the newly converted – this is the logic of the pendulum that has to swing to the other extreme before it can settle in a stable middle, which I’ve discussed elsewhere in the context of both eating and sex. But anger and distrust have a habit of poisoning the person who feels them if allowed to persist too long. Having anorexia was mostly miserable, but having recovered from it gives you wisdom and a capacity for profound appreciation that you would otherwise never have known; learning to appreciate precisely that is crucial if you’re not to be left with a sterile resentment of all the ‘lost years’. And of course not everything from the whole of your time with anorexia was irredeemably awful. 

The flipside of the need to embrace the potential for change is the fact that not everything may need to. You aren’t throwing the last x years away and starting again; of course you’re not. There is continuity in everything, just as there is permanence in nothing. Just because you happened to love hiking or Cadbury’s creme eggs or postmodernist prose poetry while you were ill doesn’t make those preferences inherently suspect, even though some time away from them will probably be needed to test whether the love is love or dependency (or snobbery!) – and that time out often happens automatically, as you realise the sheer scope of things the world offers that you haven’t even begun to explore yet. (With anything exercise-related, a proper break will be important to insist on, regardless of whether you feel like it or not; see the pair of posts on 'Should you exercise during recovery from anorexia', starting here.)

Radical openness to change

Ultimately, recovering is about letting things big and small change if they need to. Recovery cannot happen if change is resisted – on any dimension at all. If you approach recovery with the view that, well, you’ll sort the eating and exercise but you expect everything else to stay the same, you’ll end up making decisions that in subtle ways ensure it does, and then recovery will probably not happen for you, because while still ill we are incapable of separating anorexic from non-anorexic, and also because change is itself inherently anti-anorexic. 

This relates to the fact that some of the things on my list can be classified as ‘voluntary’ changes (I didn’t just wake up one morning to find my hair had been bleached) and some as ‘involuntary’ (I didn’t decide to modulate the pitch of my voice). But this easy distinction doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny: I made the appointment at the hairdresser’s only because I found myself wanting to, and recovery changes everything about what we are able to ‘voluntarily’ choose. This is part of why it’s so scary choosing recovery: I’m not choosing a definable set of things that my life will be, I’m choosing a life that will involve wanting and needing to choose an unpredictable, uncontrollable set of things, including some I currently both fail to understand and despise.

The necessity of openness to change applies to the big things: if you assume you will stay in the same romantic relationship, or stay in the same career, after recovery as before, and refuse to contemplate or allow change, you will probably not get fully better, because you are setting arbitrary limits on what you are willing for recovery to mean for you. It also applies to the little things: if you assume that your hairstyle, reading habits, clothing choices, or bedtime will stay the same, and refuse to contemplate or allow change, you will probably not get fully better, because you are setting arbitrary limits on what you are willing for recovery to mean for you. 

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
John Everett Millais, Spring (Apple Blossoms) (1859)
Source: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

At both levels, you are pretending to know who you will be when you are no longer who you are now. You are pretending to want to be free of anorexia while allowing anorexia to dictate what that freedom from it will mean. You may feel different degrees of fear, nervousness, curiosity, cynicism, or excitement on the macro and the micro scales, but change will happen on both, if you let it, and your eating disorder will survive in both, if you don’t. This urgent need for a radical degree of openness is not something many people ever have thrust upon them – and it’s one of those times where being forced into something is actually a privilege. It can be the beginning of an important lifelong habit of liking seeing where life takes you next.