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.

Keep Fighting

From Grey’s Anatomy Season 11, Episode 14 – “The Distance”:

Dr. Amelia Shepard: “The key, though, win or lose, is not to fail. And the only way to fail is not to fight. So you fight until you can’t fight anymore. Hold up you head and enter the arena and face the enemy. Fight until you can’t fight anymore. Never let go. Never give up. Never run. Never surrender. Fight the good fight. You fight even when it seems inevitable that you’re about to go down swinging.”

I actually don’t have a lot to say about this quote – I think it pretty much speaks for itself. The process of recovery from an eating disorder is grueling, and it’s easy to feel like a failure. I often actually feel caught in this vicious cycle of failure – if I make pro-recovery decisions, I feel like I am failing the eating disorder, and if I choose to listen to the eating disorder, I feel like I am failing at recovery. It sets up this impossible scenario where I just feel bad 24/7.

Every time I have to go back into more intensive treatment I feel like a failure too. I don’t feel that way when friends tell me they are stepping up treatment though. I think this quote is a good reminder that continuing to fight, even if that means having to go back to more intensive treatment, is not failing.

It also gets exhausting fighting so hard, day after day. Some days it feels like I just can’t fight anymore. But as the quote says, I need to “Never let go. Never give up.” Just keep fighting.

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.

Dreams

From Grey’s Anatomy Season 3, Episode 23 – The Other Side of Life, Part 2:

Meredith: At some point maybe we accept the dream has become a nightmare. We tell ourselves that reality is better. We convince ourselves it’s better that we never dream at all. But, the strongest of us, the most determined of us, we hold on to the dream or we find ourselves faced with a fresh dream we never considered. We wake to find ourselves, against all odds, feeling hopeful. And, if we’re lucky, we realize in the face of everything, in the face of life, the true dream is being able to dream at all.

I think there is a huge tendency, both in the press and among individuals, to glamorize eating disorders. I know I am definitely guilty of falling prey to the “dream” that the eating disorder promises. The eating disorder promises that I will be thin, that I will be happy, that it will solve my problems. As the quote says, however, at some point there has to be an acceptance that this is not a dream after all – it is a nightmare. The eating disorder does nothing but wreck things. It wrecks real dreams, life goals, and relationships.

When that realization happens, it’s easy to just give up all together. The eating disorder is not the answer, but in the face of years of destruction, life doesn’t look all that great either. The original path I set out on after graduating from college doesn’t exist anymore, and it’s really tempting to just give up.

I know logically, however, that it’s not time to give up. As Meredith says, it’s time to find a fresh dream. While several doors have been closed due to past decisions and past struggles, that doesn’t mean that all doors are closed. It is so easy to lose hope when things do not seem to be improving at the pace that I want, or when reminders of the dreams lost keep popping up. But I do hope that if I keep going, that hope will come. That I will continue to be able to dream, and realize that if I can just keep fighting through recovery, the dreams can be far bigger than I ever imagined.

Hope

From House M.D Season 4, Episode 14 – Living the Dream:

House: “No, you’re afraid to change. You’d rather imagine that you can escape instead of actually try. ‘Cause if you fail, then you got nothing. So you’ll give up the chance of something real so you can hold onto hope. The thing is, hope is for sissies.”

I blogged about this quote previously as part of a longer entry on how the eating disorder serves as sort of a scapegoat for not meeting the high expectations I have for myself. However, I was rereading the quote the other night, and it spoke to me in a new way, so I wanted to touch on it again.

Specifically, this time the part about imagining the escape stood out to me.Often before starting a higher level of care, I feel hopeful. I imagine myself feeling better – not having headaches, not feeling so cold. Because I know I am not doing well with eating, I blame all of these physical symptoms on the eating disorder, and thus have hope that things can get better if I can stop the symptoms. However, I then start eating more and the reality is, I don’t feel better. My head is still pounding, often worse than before I started eating more (probably from the stress of eating more). I’m tired. I’m nauseated. I then lose all hope and get really depressed. I struggle to hold onto the hope that I will ever feel better. In turn, I start to lose hope that I can ever have a normal life.

What I take from this quote is that the hope I get from holding onto the eating disorder may feel good, but it’s at the expense of achieving something real – a life that consists of more than the eating disorder. Although it’s hard, I have to figure out a way to keep up the hope that things will change while I’m actively trying to change. Rather than focusing on how awful I feel and how things don’t seem to be improving, I need to remember that the alternative is not much better.