Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Rethinking Everything, by Matt Wetsel

Lately I’ve been preoccupied with wanting to do something adventurous. Move across country, travel, do something totally out of my comfort level. Maybe it’s because I’ve lived in the same city for twenty years, and a lot of my close friends have already gone on adventures or are planning to. It’s interesting the way our sense of identity gets wrapped up in our day-to-day lives: our jobs, our neighborhoods, our social groups, our areas of study. Reinventing oneself can be a difficult task. I was thinking about all this when I was invited to do this guest post, and how reimagining where you live, what you do, or other aspects about your life factors into recovery.

Years ago, when I was early in my recovery and had finally gotten into therapy, I was honestly terrified of what life without an eating disorder would like. It consumed so much of my thoughts, time, and energy that it felt like a part of me. Thinking about recovery, I worried about who I would be and what would be left of me afterward. As weird as it can sound, anorexia had become like a close friend. Even though it was the main driving force behind all the misery, malnourishment, and depression in my life, it offered a misplaced sense of structure, normalcy, and comfort.

I should mention – a lot of those feelings of positive affect towards an eating disorder are perpetuated by malnourishment. It’s like I always say – a poorly nourished body and mind are a poorly functioning body and mind. We can’t possibly expect to be in full control of our thoughts, feelings, and rationality when our bodies aren’t getting what they need to function properly. That’s not just conjecture: brain scans of patients with anorexia have even demonstrated reduced brain activity when looking at both themselves in the mirror and the bodies of others.

I was speaking with a friend recently about when I was in recovery, and recalled a time when I was arguably at my worst with anorexia. Some new friends at college invited me out to dinner, and I almost told them, “Thanks, but I don’t eat.” I almost said that. Thankfully, I caught myself, but back then I honestly had trouble remembering what it was like to eat like a ‘normal’ person. As a freshman in college, I would frequent the dining hall and be perplexed by all the people enjoying food and eating seemingly without any anxiety or concern. Though I had been able to do the same just a year or two prior, the eating disorder that had taken over my life made it seem as foreign and impossible as it could be.

How thrilled I was, years later, to find myself on the opposite side of that experience: it has been so long since I experienced any anxiety about food that I have trouble recalling having any kind of unhealthy relationship with eating. That isn’t to say I don’t remember the period of my life that was more or less defined by anorexia; far from it. But the emotional and physiological response to meals, the anxiety over getting dinner with friends or going home to see my family is similarly foreign. Instead of the daily struggle it was once, it’s now a distant memory.

If you are currently struggling or in recovery, you might be thinking as you read this that you can’t imagine ever not feeling anxious about food or meals – I’ve certainly heard that before. But a close friend of mine who is fully recovered from over a decade of being active in her eating disorder has always said: never underestimate the resilience of the human spirit and the body’s ability to heal. After all, it’s only through that resilience and adaptation that our bodies withstand years of mistreatment at the hands of an eating disorder. Sometimes, that healing is such a gradual thing that it feels as though we aren’t making much progress. I used to think my sense of identity and self-worth were intimately tied to the chaos in my head and the number on the scale. But just like anything else you spend a ton of time focused or absorbed in, there’s a life outside of it.

What would happen if…
You stopped weighing yourself?
If you were weight restored?
Never binged again?
What would you do with all that time and energy that you aren’t expending on those things?

I know it’s far easier said than done. In fact, recovery is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s also the most worthwhile. Without recovery, I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish many of the things I’ve done since – like finishing college with a much higher GPA than when I started, running a half marathon, visiting my best friend while he was living in Japan, become a dedicated activist, or be there for my family through some challenging times.

So what are you waiting for? What will your life look like without an eating disorder?

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