You never quite realise how much you take your mental cues from the physical body – that is, until you try to recover from an eating disorder. Or get pregnant. That glimpse of flat abs, outline of a six-pack, the toned and lean legs, tanned and glowing skin from hours in the sunshine; these things you take for granted at the time, but are all a daily reminder that you are fit, healthy and an athlete. Recovered.
Being so recovered, I thought of myself as being “above” all of that. Above needing physical clues – indeed, I didn’t even realise how much I relied on them until they went away. You do all this work on the mind during recovery, establishing yourself as a whole person being so much more meaningful than a weight on the scales or a dress size. But what I didn’t realise is that in my successful quest for recovery, I had replaced many of the anorexic cues with athlete cues – arguably, much more healthy for me, but nonetheless a crutch of sorts for self-esteem and self-worth.
This was a deliberate strategy to a large extent on the behalf of both my psychologist and my dietician: as being particularly resistant to treatment after 10+ years of anorexia, it was eventually discovered that I work best when we replace the focus of weight with the focus of athletic performance. Function over form. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, a key component to the success of this strategy was in allowing me to continue with my athletic and University endeavours during this treatment process. My incentive was as simple as this: If I don’t fuel my body correctly, I cannot perform athletically to my potential nor academically. And for me, my self-esteem and self-worth became more hinged over time on my identity as an athlete and a smart, successful woman. I fuelled my body and mind and discovered, in doing so, that my potential was far greater than I had ever dreamed of. I found my niche in Ironman and my passion in physiotherapy and succeeded in
recovery life. Together we created visions of where I wanted to be – career-wise and athletically – and honed in on what I required of my body and mind in order to achieve these goals. Ana did not fit in with those dreams. Fuelling my body for hard training sessions, recovering well for my mind to work, and achieving some sort of balance in the way of sleep and relaxation were all imperative to the puzzle working.
I realise this strategy may not work and indeed may not be necessary for some ED sufferers. It worked for me primarily because physiologically I was, while underweight, stable enough to be allowed to keep exercising, albeit at a reduced load to my previous program. I was also at a key age: old enough to be independent and choosing to be in recovery; but also still studying at University and therefore able to easily manipulate where I wished my career pathway to go from here. You could call it “lucky”; I prefer to think it was my time – I had been in several treatment programs at younger ages and none had worked. So successful was the strategy that even now, when I’m having particularly challenging Ana thoughts that last more than a few days, I am able to trace it back to either work or training not going well for me. Focus has gone away from the things I’m most passionate about and my go-to backup is Ana. It happens subconsciously, only now I am so much better at recognising it and addressing it. Function over form. Recalibrate your life, sort it out….there we go.
The reason all of this is on my mind is that with the last 8 weeks of hell (being pregnant with the worse morning sickness ever) – there has been little training, time in the sun, intake of nutritious food, all-important sleep; even work has gone largely out the window (it’s difficult to treat patients when spontaneously vomiting). You’re growing a baby – possibly the ultimate function! – but you are so sick that it’s hard to comprehend this, and it’s also such a new identity: baby-grower. Person-manufacturer. Mum. So, day by day the Ana thoughts creep back and to make matters worse, all those lovely physical cues you didn’t even know you loved so much start slipping away – the stomach and boobs rounded, the skin grey and pale, dark circles under the eyes, muscle tone going….
But alas the solution lies in the past. Let’s get the focus back to my newest function: growing an awesome human. And yes, let’s remember that the morning sickness does not last forever. It is not Ana returning, just a transient loss of all the things that make me, me. Now that I am starting to get back outdoors, get into work, swimming and running, baking, and eating wonderful food again, sure enough the happiness grows too day by day. It might take me a while to get used to this new addition to my identity (“baby-grower”), but in time, it will come. It took a long time to see myself as an athlete, I can’t expect to click my fingers and have this happen overnight.
Chin up, stay strong, and remember that those thoughts aren’t you…..you, my friend, are far more beautiful than that.