My Brain Works Differently

I’m an alcoholic. I don’t have one drink. I don’t understand people who have one drink. I don’t understand people who leave half a glass of wine on the table. I don’t understand people who say they’ve had enough. How can you have enough of feeling like this? How can you not want to feel like this longer? My brain works differently. ~ Leo, The West Wing, Season 3 Episode 10 – Bartlet for America

I was watching this episode yesterday in anticipation of The West Wing Weekly podcast about it, and this quote really stuck out to me. Leo is talking about his experience as an alcoholic, but I can relate this very much to the eating disorder.

For most people, restricting their food intake is an adverse experience. They don’t have a chance to eat lunch or a snack one day, and they feel like crap and think “I am definitely going to make sure I have that tomorrow.” However, for me the opposite happens. I get this sort of high, and think “I want this feeling to continue.” I want to keep feeling that hunger, that emptiness. As Leo says, my brain works differently.

This is also why restricting is such a slippery slope for someone with anorexia. Just like Leo cannot have one drink, I cannot have one missed meal or snack. It just leads to more restricting. There are many days were I want to miss a little, and think it’s not that big of a deal. But if history is any indication, pretty soon that one exchange or one meal becomes two or three, and it just keeps on going. Why? Because as Leo says “My brain works differently.”

Being Alone

They found this guy in Maine who had been living completely alone in the woods for 30 years. They called him the last true hermit. 30 years without the warmth of human touch, without conversation. The hermit felt more lonely when he was out in the world, than he ever felt in the woods by himself. Surrounded by people, but drowning in solitude. That kind of loneliness can swallow you whole. ~ Grey’s Anatomy, Season 11, Episode 10

I am very lucky that I have a great support system. I have a great treatment team, a great family, great coworkers, and great friends. However, there are times when the eating disorder makes me feel completely isolated. I’ll be out to eat with someone or a group of people, and everyone else is laughing and talking, and I’m sitting there calculating how many calories are in what I’m eating/drinking. I’m sitting there drowning in thoughts of self-doubt, poor body image, and racing thoughts about calories consumed.

When I think of recovery, I think of being able to be fully engaged in these situations. I think of the eating disorder not making me lonely and isolated, even when surrounded by people. That would be true freedom.

Worrying

“We’re all susceptible to it, the dread and anxiety of not knowing what’s coming. It’s pointless in the end, because all the worrying and the making of plans for things that could or could not happen, it only makes things worse. So walk your dog or take a nap. Just whatever you do, stop worrying. Because the only cure for paranoia is to be here, just as you are.” ~ Meredith Grey, Grey’s Anatomy Season 6, Episode 3

I am a chronic worrier, and it is something that I have been working on a lot. I worry about everything, and often try to plan out my every waking moment. Even when I have a day off, I will plan out what I am going to do with each hour. I end up feeling chronically exhausted because I never actually have any time off from the constant planning and worrying.

Recently though, I have been trying to let go and stop planning. I will never be as spontaneous as some, and that is something I have to accept. But, I can do things like pet my cats or watch TV and not count the minutes that pass by, or worry about what I am going to do to pass the next hour. To be more technical about it, I have been trying to practice mindfulness. Just being present, and trying to focus on the sights and sounds around me. As the quote says, it’s impossible to plan for everything, so I should stop trying.

When You Least Want It

From ER Season 8, Episode 7 “If I Should Fall From Grace”:

Carter: Want to tell us about the scars?

Grace: I used to be a cutter…I developed an eating disorder. It was my way of dealing with stress….

Lewis: And what about now, are you still cutting?

Grace: No.

Carter: Show me your arm….Grace you have a fever…maybe from an infection. Maybe from using a dirty blade. 

Grace: I told you I haven’t eaten.

Lewis: So the eating disorder continues?

Grace: No! I’ve just been cramming.

Carter: Let me see your thigh.

[Lewis lifts up her skirt, revealing fresh cuts, and Grace becomes angry]

Lewis: We just want to help.

Carter: If you don’t stay and agree to speak to somebody, you are going to force me to put you on a psych hold.

Grace: Stop. You are blowing this way out of proportion. Why are you doing this?

Carter: Because I know what it’s like to need help when you least want it.

Grace: Please just leave me alone.

Carter: I can’t.

I love Carter’s line “because I know what it’s like to need help when you least want it.” For those who are not familiar with the show, in Season 6 Carter developed a drug problem after being nearly fatally stabbed. He was confronted by the rest of the ER staff and ultimately went to rehab.

I wish I could find a clip of this scene online because the transcript really doesn’t do it justice. Noah Wyle (the actor who plays Carter) does a great job delivering the line with sincere empathy. I love the way he tells her that no, he can’t just leave her alone.

As much as I can be resistant to help, I am very grateful to all the people who continue to stick by me, and help me even when the eating disorder is fighting back and I appear not to want it. I know for me, it’s often when I least want support that I need it the most.

What If?

From Season 1, Episode 6 “If Tomorrow Never Comes”:

Meredith: I don’t know why we put things off, but if I had to guess, I’d say it has a lot to do with fear. Fear of failure. Fear of pain. Fear of rejection. Sometimes the fear is just of making a decision, because what if you’re wrong? What if you make a mistake you can’t undo? Whatever it is we’re afraid of, one thing holds true: that by the time the pain of not doing the thing gets worse than the fear of doing it, it can feel like we’re carrying around a giant tumor…Still sometimes we have to see for ourselves. We have to make our own mistakes. We have to learn our own lessons. We have to sweep today’s possibility under tomorrow’s rug until we can’t anymore, until we finally understand for ourselves…that knowing is better than wondering, that waking is better than sleeping. And that even the biggest failure, even the worst most intractable mistake beats the hell out of never trying.”

I am absolutely horrible at making decisions, and I think a lot of that has to do with fear. I am always worried that I am making the wrong decision, even if it’s something minor. As a result, I often put off making decisions until, by default, sometimes the decision gets made for me.

Even when I do make a decision, I often spend hours, days, or even weeks second guessing whether I made the right decision or not. As Meredith says, this can lead to feeling like you are carrying around a huge weight.Even after a decision is made, I still carry around the “what if?” and wonder if I truly made the right decision or not. I wish I could get to a point where I could make a decision and just leave it be. That is definitely something I am working on, but am not quite there yet.

I think it is helpful though to keep in mind what Meredith says about having to make our own mistakes, and that idea that a mistake is not the worst thing in the world. I will make the wrong decision sometimes, but that is ok. I can learn lessons from those mistakes so that I don’t make them in the future.

They key is I have to let go of this constant “what if?”. There are always going to be unanswered questions, and there is always going to be fear of not doing the right thing. While it may seem like constantly analyzing and second guessing my decisions will lead to making the right choice, often all it does is keep me spinning. Being able to let go and just try to roll with what seems to be the best, as opposed to over analyzing and asking all the “what if” questions in the quote, might just lead to the sort of mental freedom and peace that I crave so badly.

You Don’t Get Cured

From The West Wing, Season 1, Episode 13 – “Take out the Trash Day”:

KAREN: Is that why you drank and took drugs?

LEO: I drank and took drugs because I’m a drug addict and an alcoholic.

KAREN: How long did it take you to get cured?

LEO: I’m not cured. You don’t get cured. I haven’t had a drink or a pill in six
and a half years, which isn’t to say I won’t have one tomorrow.

KAREN: What would happen if you did?

LEO: I don’t know. But probably a nightmare the likes of which both our fathers
experienced. And me too.

KAREN: So after six and a half years you’re still not allowed to have a drink?

LEO: The problem is, I don’t want a drink, I want ten drinks.

KAREN: Are things that bad?

LEO: No.

KAREN: Then why?

LEO: ‘Cause I’m an alcoholic.

KAREN: I don’t understand.

LEO: I know. It’s okay. Hardly anyone does. It’s very hard to understand.

Thankfully I don’t struggle with alcohol or drug addiction, but I could relate a lot of what Leo says about his struggle with alcoholism and drug addiction to the eating disorder. Even though restricting often starts out for me with “I’ll just miss a couple of exchanges here or there”, or the goal of losing weight just starts with “I only want to lose a couple of pounds”, the problem is I don’t just want to restrict an exchange or lose a pound. What I really want is to lose 10 pounds. The eating disorder is very tricky and I often don’t see that at the outset, but if I take a step back, I can see that just how Leo says that his problem is that he doesn’t just want one drink, he want’s ten drinks, I don’t want to just lose a couple of pounds. I want to just keep losing.

I also liked how he responds to Karen’s question “they why?” with “’cause I’m an alcoholic.” People have often told me things like “I don’t understand why you hang onto the eating disorder, you have so much going for you.” As Leo points out though, it has nothing to do with whether or not things in life are going poorly. Things could be going great, and I will still want to restrict and lose weight because I have an eating disorder. I think the thing is that when life things are going well, I am better able to fight off the eating disorder voice. I am able to remind myself of the things I have going for me, and what I stand to lose if I give into the eating disorder. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t still have an eating disorder, and don’t still have to fight that urge everyday. I do think that with time it gets easier, but I know that it will probably never fully go away.

I agree with Leo too that you are never fully cured. I believe in recovery for sure, but I do think it is something one always has to be diligent about. Again, that’s not to say that it doesn’t get better, or that one day I might hardly notice the eating disorder voice. But it is something I will always have to be diligent about, and as Leo points out, continue to resist day by day.

I also agree that hardly anyone understands. Unless you have lived it, it’s really hard to explain to people just how strong that desire is, and how you really are fighting every day to keep it at bay.