Eating Disorders

Checking My Self-Narrative in Order to Change


[Note: Written a few weeks ago.]

We all tell ourselves stories, and more often than not, they’re delusional. This isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, a little delusion is healthy and perhaps even necessary for survival. But certain narratives can end up holding you back if you allow them to set up near-permanent shop in your headspace without implementing a system of checks and balances. A prime example is that self-fulfilling prophecy of “I can’t change,” which is much less fact than it is comfortable, easy fiction.

In embarking once again on this eating disorder recovery journey—even if it’s not starting at the extreme point it once was—I’m trying to figure out what set me back last time, what I can try to do differently. In the past, I have often patted myself on the back for the various moments of triumph surrounding food (“Good job Jess, you ate a slice of a cake with no one forcing you to!”) but have spent less time working on ED-thought-related introspection.

One thing I’m realizing now is that I outsource a lot of my personal (and, yes, highly disordered) anxieties. By this I mean that I am quick to assume that most people in my orbit harbor the same warped beliefs that I do about food and weight—or, more specifically, my food habits and weight. They, too, want me to be painfully thin. They, too, want me to eat less and over-exercise. In fact, I sometimes tell myself, some people might even idealize these behaviors when I exhibit them.

It is an extremely self-centered perspective, one in which I am suddenly the crux of other people’s thoughts. Realistically, most people are paying much less attention to others than they are to themselves, as uncomfortable as that may be for some to admit. And while we’re often our own harshest critics, we tend to take it easier on those around us. I know I certainly do, so it shouldn’t be a stretch for me to realize that people are also viewing me in a warmer light, one in which they probably aren’t rallying for my continued starvation.

But believing that people are thinking about my body this often, that they prefer the sickest version of me, is a boon to sustaining my eating disorder. It provides me with a narrative, a reason, to continue on in this way. Others will like me more; they will only like me this way, I often think, as if my only other lifestyle choice is to be morbidly obese and incapacitated. It’s completely illogical, especially considering the amount of times my friends and family have spelled out for me in the simplest terms that they want me to ease up on myself, nourish myself properly, and allow myself to indulge.

But logic and eating disorders don’t share a bed. Instead, I’m lying on a twin across the room from rationality’s resting place, and it is somewhat up to me to will my healthier compatriot over to my side, into my fold.

It’s not as easy as the flip of a switch, of course—these disorders are deeply ingrained. But recognizing that I need to constantly check my own beliefs, to try to weed out the strain of ridiculous thinking that often runs through them, is a crucial step.

To accept what any of us are thinking, without examination, is dangerous—it just becomes even more so when it affects the systems that literally keep us alive. I have to imagine that on some level other people can relate to this: that we all often tell ourselves the things we want to hear, or that we’re more comfortable hearing. These cozy thoughts help us to sustain entrenched behaviors, rather than forcing us to do the harder work of overtaking them.

As strange as it sounds, it has become easier for me to believe that I must be uber-thin, I must restrict, and I must view any of the softer spots on my body as excessive. But continuing on that path is a battle in itself, replete with its own awful setbacks.

I could also choose to chew the proverbial and non-proverbial fat, bite bullet after bullet, do the uncomfortable—the right—thing. I can choose to reevaluate my set beliefs about others, and how they view me. I can remind myself of the great storyteller my disorder has become, how it’s furnished a world in which it fits perfectly, rather than unveiling the world that actually exists.

Yesterday, I swept into an evening class with a sense of pride at having spent the day exchanging salads for non-rabbit food. A girl in my class who makes my ED radar go haywire followed, with an exhausted expression, bruisey bags under her eyes, and a waist that—I convinced myself—I could probably fit in between my pointer finger and thumb. Of course I quickly focused on the latter point. The twisted thoughts started coming on: I started telling myself that she had it better than me, that somehow I was worse off for being “saved.” The fact that someone’s waist set this off probably seems disgustingly frivolous, and it is, but this is the brain on anorexia.

I forced myself to reevaluate, and acknowledged that she actually looked deeply unhappy—like she was suffering from terminal illness. She didn’t speak throughout the two hours, staring at her computer screen and appearing to fade away more and more as the class went on.

It was a reminder I could use more often. Instead of resting on the laurels of my ED insanity and throwing an inner temper-tantrum, I had decided to turn what has become my easy narrative on its head. In doing so, I started to see some kind of light: the realization that checking myself—second-guessing all that feels true—over and over again, is the most significant way I can hope to make a lasting change.

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