March 2, 2010

Why It’s Not Enough to be “In Recovery” (Natasha)

Ever have one of those moments where something comes out of your mouth before you can stop it and then immediately afterwards you think “why did I say that?”. I had one such moment last week whilst being interviewed live on BBC Radio Three Counties. I heard myself say: “I have been in recovery for two years”.

During the course of my research, I must have encountered the phrase “in recovery” a thousand times and that’s the only explanation I can give for my verbal slip.

The truth is, I am not “in recovery” …….. I am cured. This is an absolutely crucial distinction.

I have been “in recovery” many times during my decade long tussle with bulimia nervosa. I used CBT, counseling, psychotherapy and antidepressants and successfully managed to stop myself from bingeing and purging for periods of up to a month at a time. I was encouraged to keep food diaries and record my emotions every time I ate, to put my knife and fork down between each mouthful to slow down my eating and help me register when I was full, to present my food nicely so that it was then “a shame” to throw it up – The emphasis was exclusively on my eating habits.

The ultimate result was the day I missed all my university lectures because I spent five hours of my life sitting in my room in halls staring at a chicken bagel.

On that day, back in 2002, I’d spent ages making myself that sodding bagel. It had light mayo and paprika and carefully arranged salad vegetables. I’d toasted the bagel gently and arranged the chicken in perfectly symmetrical slices, all as per instructions. Then, I put it on the nearest approximation I had to a posh plate back in my student days (using a plate at all was quite novel for me then), with a folded piece of kitchen roll masquerading as a napkin. I’d been told not to do anything else whilst eating which might distract me from the signals of fullness my stomach was giving me (the fact that my stomach had completely lost it’s ability to produce these signals by that point was apparently not taken into consideration). So I put my laptop to one side and placed my chicken bagel on my desk and sat down.

What followed was like a Mexican stand off between two completely different characters, both resident in my poor, overwrought mind. I stared at the chicken bagel, rendered almost totally inanimate by all the turmoil in my brain.

“Natasha 1” wanted to eat the chicken bagel and to savour every mouthful, to chew slowly and taste all the different flavours and then, feeling pleasantly satisfied, to get on with her day. “Natasha 2” was screaming at me to throw the bagel away, or, if I absolutely had to have it, I’d have to vomit afterwards and, since I was going to vomit anyway, I might as well follow my chicken bagel with a packet of biscuits and a tub of icecream. About an hour into the sitting and staring, this third character popped up – I had no idea who she was, we’d never met before. “Natasha 3” was telling me to stand up and turn my back on the chicken bagel. Natasha 3 wanted me to have the willpower to walk away from this insignificant thing which was holding me captive. Natasha 3 didn’t want me to be a prisoner and she wanted me to demonstrate my freedom not by throwing the bagel in the bin but by knowing it was still there, still edible, still delicious and that I could have it any time I wanted and therefore it was ok to turn away from it.

I liked Natasha 3. I could see her argument. Unfortunately she was outnumbered two to one. I stood up and sat straight back down a few times in deference to Natasha 3’s suggestion. And then went back to my staring.

At some stage it got dark and my mind became weary of all this internal struggle. I ate the chicken bagel and then I went to the supermarket and bought some other things and ate them too and then I vomited until I burst a blood vessel in my right eye. I vomited with extra force and vigour, to punish myself for chicken bagel-gate.

When I evoke an image of what it means to be “in recovery”, I picture myself sitting staring at a chicken bagel. For those five hours I didn’t binge and I didn’t purge. Technically, I wasn’t bulimic that day (if you discount what happened in the night time). Yet still there was this huge internal struggle, still food was an all-encompassing obsession and I still hated myself for wanting the bagel and for not being able to eat it in the way I thought I should.

The phrase “in recovery” implies that the issue is still present, that fighting it will be a daily struggle and that it’s an ongoing and lengthy process. It suggests that, whilst the behaviour might change, the emotions will remain. For anyone who suffers from an eating disorder, this is an unspeakably depressing prospect and yet it is a myth which continues to be perpetuated by many traditional eating disorder therapies.

That’s why at Winning Minds we take the focus away from food. We help our clients to rediscover who they are and break free from the shackles of their eating disorder by shedding the identity of their issue.

Whilst writing this blog I became aware of a slight rumbling in my stomach. I went to the fridge and retrieved two plums. I ate those two plums and they were delicious. Now I don’t feel hungry any more and can continue with my day. That is what it means to be cured.

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