Rationalizing

ER Season 14 Episode 5: Under the Influence

Janet: You drank? When? Last night. You want to get to a meeting?

Abby: I don’t have time to go to a meeting. I don’t need to go to a meeting. I just I had a bad day, a very bad day, and it was just one time. I’m not going to start drinking again.

Janet: Really? Are you an alcoholic?

Abby: Yes, but..

Janet: Yes, but? All those years that you were sitting in meetings, were you an alcoholic then? Yes or no? OK, keep drinking. Do the research, see what happens.

Abby: I can handle this.

Janet: Just let me know how it works out for you. OK, I’ve got a clinic full of patients.

Abby: Janet, Janet, you’re my sponsor.

Janet: I was your sponsor, but now it’s very simple. If you’ve decided you’re not an alcoholic, I can’t help you. If you are, I’ll be your sponsor again and I’ll support you in recovery. Let me know what you decide.

This conversation between Abby and Janet reminded me of an internal dialogue I have with myself a lot – debating whether or not I really have an eating disorder, and thus whether or not I really need to follow my meal plan. My therapist often likens restricting a few exchanges to an alcoholic having one drink. Much in the same way that Janet responds to Abby, if I restrict a little she tells me that I need to get back on track ASAP, that it is a slippery slope. Too often though, I rationalize, just like Abby is doing here. I say that it’s not a big deal, that it could be worse, and that I’ll get back on track tomorrow. Kind of like Abby, I say “yes, but…”. There is always a “but.”

Sometimes though, the rationalizing goes even further. I’ll convince myself that I don’t really have an eating disorder – I’m not underweight, I’m eating enough, I’m not overexercising or purging etc. Then, the logic goes, if I don’t have an eating disorder, why do I need to follow this meal plan? Why do I have to keep eating even when I’m full, or make sure to be diligent about meals/snacks? Normal people don’t eat the same amount every day, so why do I have to follow this meal plan?

The problem is, as Janet points out, this doesn’t end well. As she says, “do the research, see what happens.” Just like an alcoholic eventually starts drinking more than one drink, I start restricting more than one exchange. One exchange becomes two, two becomes three, and then those three never come back. I think Janet’s point to Abby is that she has to recognize that she has a problem and that she has to take certain steps (perhaps going to a meeting), to overcome it. In the same way, I need to stop rationalizing and accept that I need to follow my meal plan in order to achieve recovery.

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.”

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.