Mental health

The ambivalence of eating disorder recovery 

It’s really hard for people who’ve not experienced an eating disorder to understand the pull towards destruction.

Ambivalence…the coexistence within an individual of positive and negative feelings towards the same person, object or actions, simultaneously drawing him or her in opposite directions.

When your life’s completely falling apart, you’re not able to hold down and job, you’re losing friends and you’re feeling physically unwell, how could anyone not grab hold of recovery with both hands and run with it?!

If, however, you’ve lost everything else, the only thing you have left becomes your identity and a place of safety. If you feel like your eating disorder is the only thing you have in the whole world, how could you possibly consider letting it go?

Eating disordered behaviour not only becomes habitual but it’s a compulsive addiction.

tape measure on bathroom scales

Weight restoration is a significant part of anorexia recovery and this, for me, was terrifying. Having spent years trying to lose weight, put my body through all sorts to try and obtain the unobtainable skinny body of my dreams, thinking about throwing all that work away is unbearable. All the professionals who claim they have my best interests at heart are trying to make me fat, how could they not understand that’s the one thing I can’t do?!

It feels impossible to understand when you’re told “you have to put on weight before you can engage with therapy”. Once your weight is below a certain level and you’re body is malnourished, your brain is not receiving enough energy to function to do everyday tasks, let alone process and absorbed any new understanding in therapy.

“But I can’t gain weight unless my head is straightened out”… this feels like an obvious plea as multiple professionals are telling you your medicine right now is food. “How am I meant to eat when every fibre of my being is telling me not to eat?”

Person illuminated by blue street lights

That is what anorexia does, it takes over every fibre of your being, it infiltrates every cell and permeates every breath you take. It feels like you become anorexia. I didn’t feel like I existed beyond my eating disorder therefore doesn’t it make sense that I wouldn’t want to let it go? That’s the impact it has, that’s what it makes you believe, anorexia is your identity, without it you are no one, you do not exist…

Now, I didn’t want to exist, part if my anorexia was about losing so much weight that I would disappear but there was a tiny part of me hanging onto life. In an odd way, although anorexia was killing me, it was also enabling me to hang onto life. When I stopped and thought about my life and what a mess it was, ending my life was an appealing option but focusing on avoiding food and losing weight gave me a purpose.

The first step towards recovery is putting more faith in the people around you than in the anorexia that’s been with you for many months and helped you cope with all that life throws at you. This is quite a tall order. The leap of faith feels impossible.

As I started making progress towards recovery, it felt like the anorexia fought back, as though, it felt threatened.

The voice I heard in my head began shouting louder, it continued to tell me I had to lose weight. How do you keep following the meal plan when day in, day out, you’re being told how fat you are, you’re eating too much, your greedy and you should engage in all behaviours to lose weight?

fork surrounded by tape measure

I had so many questions, if let go of my anorexia, who will I be? What will I do? What else will I think about? I was scared there would be nothing left, it felt like I would be nobody and I would be completely empty but as my recovery journey developed, I learnt who I was and things naturally became part of my life.

How could I stop weighing myself multiple times per day?…I had no idea how I would cope with not knowing how much I weigh!

How could I start eating chocolate?…what if I enjoy it?

How could I eat food if I didn’t know how many calories were in it?…then I wouldn’t know how much to restrict the next day!

How could I stop exercising?…how would I know how much food I’d earnt?

I confess, when I was in a full blown eating disorder intense recovery programme, I would engage in searching for the web for hints and tips about how to “stay anorexic”, how to stop the hunger pangs without eating, what foods had the fewest calories, how to exercise when exhausted and on the verge of fainting, it’s all there and it’s down right dangerous.

The ambivalence is unbearable, desperately wanting to recover but also, desperately not wanting to recover. I could see the pain I was causing those around me, I honestly did want to recover so I could live a “normal” life but at the same time, I wanted to lose more weight and cling onto certain aspects of my anorexia.

The lack of energy you have when starving yourself makes the fight even harder. The recovery journey is tough and the tougher it gets the easier it feels just to stay indulging in anorexic behaviour. It gets even scarier when you get to the point when anorexic behaviours aren’t second nature anymore, what now? I thought, “if I’m not anorexic but I’m not recovered, what am I?”. At this point the feelings of failure are rife. Feeling like a “failed anorexic” is all too common but feeling like you’ve failing at life is also a tough obstacle to overcome. At this point, it feels like there’s no way back but the way forward feels equally impossible.

bumpy road

I did make it though, I did put faith in the professionals, I started listening to my body, when it was hungry I would feed it, when it was tired I let it rest. The signals are mixed at first, hunger pangs are confused with feeling full, tiredness gets confused with a lack of motivation. I found it really hard, I’d spent so long ignoring my body I had a brain-body disconnect so initially trusting the professionals and going through the motions was all I could do. I had to trust that they’d been through this more often than I had! It does help when you hear it from people who’ve actually lived through it, when recovering I found it helpful to speak online to people at various stages of recovery.

For me, therapy was the most important part of my recovery but it couldn’t have engaged fully in it until I was properly nourishing my brain. I tried to kid myself that I could sort my brain out while still starving myself but I was wrong.

I may not be totally happy with my body but now I nourish my brain I’m able to think more objectively about it and see that now, my life is full of all sorts of other things that wouldn’t have had space if I’d not let go of my anorexia.


    27/06/2017 at 16:45

    Ow, thanks, that’s really kind. I do find the blogs I write straight from the heart with an element of confession are received the best. My aim with this one is to help those who have no understanding to have some understanding and those who’re struggling with this stuff feel like they’re not alone. I hope I achieve this on some level.

      Catherine hamblin
      28/06/2017 at 06:27

      You can be sure that you do. I feel more enlightened with each blog and that is what the world needs. Thank you

29/06/2017 at 10:08

Well said! I identify with all of it. I’m still new to recovery so am still struggling a lot but finally did get on track with, you know, actually being compliant with my meal plan and exercise restriction. It’s hard and it sucks! I’m past the ambivalent stage although it can float back at any time. Now I am at the bargaining stage. Is the fatigue, depression, isolation worth starving? Yes. Is the decreased immune system and all the physical problems worth it? Yes. Maybe someday those will turn to Maybe and then eventually No. I suppose it takes time and lots of food, food, food….

09/07/2017 at 08:03

Absolutely fantastic post

17/07/2017 at 16:04

Such a great post! I identify with a lot of it although I am bulimic rather than anorexic, but there’s always people that ask why do you do it, why don’t you just stop….

18/07/2017 at 15:34

Such i great post, there are so many things i can relate to and shadow my own experiences. Thank you for putting your journey in to words, it is inspiring.

20/07/2017 at 03:11

nourish your brain.. i like that perspective

23/07/2017 at 21:00

This was such a good read. Thank you!

27/07/2017 at 14:07

This was so wonderful. You really nailed the emotions, thoughts, and perceptions I felt when everyone was asking me to put on weight but all I could think was “if I gain weight than who am I anymore?” Of course now, a few years and many pounds gained later I know that I’m a much happier and more fulfilled person – but you totally nailed the voice of ED trying to keep you away from the recovery 100%. Very well written – I wish you luck and love on continuing recovery ❤️

02/08/2017 at 04:46

Wow, what a powerful post. I really feel like I got a feeling of what anorexia is like by reading this. Thanks for sharing your story.

08/08/2017 at 20:40

I’m so glad you’re in a better place now and took that leap of faith. Recovery is a long, exhausting road. I have been in recovery for about 14 years now. I will never say that I am “recovered,” because truthfully I know this is something that I am going to have to fight for the rest of my life. Sometimes recovery is easy and feels like second nature to me. Other times it’s a struggle. Unfortunately, right now has been one of those hard times for me. Reading things like this though reminds me of how important it is to keep fighting. Thanks.

03/08/2018 at 04:42

what is The ambivalence of eating disorder recovery ??

    03/08/2018 at 11:07

    Where a sufferer desperately wants to recover but is pulled towards the aspects of the disorder that are of benefit, for example it’s a way of avoiding thinking about difficult circumstances. For more detail on my thoughts, please do read the article 🙂

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