I have been asked to talk about the things that kept my eating disorder going for so long. The ‘maintaining factors’, in medical speak.
It is difficult to answer this now, when the reality of so many lost years feels like an open wound, and, if I could go back and violently shake my previous selves, I would.
It is hard not to turn to myself and say, yes, Melissa, what exactly did you think you were gaining from choosing an eating disorder over the things that most people aspire to, like jobs and husbands and families and friends…
Maintaining factor 1: Oblivion
A choice is only possible when you have a this – or a that. I didn’t see that. It was not there, when my eating disorder was this. There was no job or husband or family or friends because my eating disorder was my world and nothing – other than food and weight – featured on my radar. I didn’t know what I was missing, and I didn’t have time to find out –
Maintaining factor 2: Obsession
After ten years or so, me and my eating disorder had reached a comfortable living arrangement. Our days were structured, neatly, around a restriction and bingeing schedule, which helped me to remain satisfyingly underweight, whilst also feeding the hunger that raged throughout the day. It is, on reflection, quite hard to reach this level of disordered eating. You have to put in time, and effort, and a lot of careful preparation; and, whilst you’re busy working it all out and keeping in going, life goes on around you.
Maintaining factor 3: Opportunity
This one’s a little controversial, but I’m feeling reckless. Maintaining factor 3 was ‘because I could’. As well as taking time and a certain level of personal commitment, my eating disorder also relied on a level of financial investment (bingeing ain’t cheap); the complete negation of normal expectations (well who’d hire a walking skeleton?); and, the ability to create a lifestyle completely apart from other people (no questions asked, no explanations required).
When there’s nothing to challenge the behaviour – which happens when people give up – and there’s no need to change the routine – which is possible when benefits kick in (sorry), it’s easier, and a lot safer, to stick with what you know –
Maintaining factor 4: Fear
You know when you’re a child, and you do something wrong, and you suddenly realise that you’re in really really big trouble, and it feels like the end of the world. That is the level of fear that anorexia awards to eating. It is primal.
And, you know the sudden panic when you lose your wallet, and the emptiness when you’ve had a slight disagreement with your best friend, and the terror when you’re asked to do something that feels completely unachievable. That is what the thought of giving up bingeing feels like when it has been at the centre of your world for so long.
Even when I started wanting to change, I was far far too scared to make it happen; and, as well as having no idea of how life would feel, I had absolutely no idea of who I’d be.
Maintaining factor 5: “Nothing” (aka self esteem)
You may not be attractive, but at least you’re thin; and, you’re not particularly funny, but your self control is up there. Clever? Maybe, but we need to keep an eye on that arrogance. Boring? Well, yes, but I don’t mind that…
This is what it used to say, when I tentatively suggested that life might be a little better if the whole food issue was a little smaller. It’s how it got round the ‘let’s just see how I look with a few more pounds on me’ discussion, or the ‘maybe I don’t need to throw up today’ debate.
After so many years, I didn’t have any evidence to the contrary.
Maintaining factors 6 plus
There are more – stubbornness, proving a point, addiction, testing the boundaries, institutionalisation – but I only have twenty minutes to speak.
And there’s something about the timespan and the gradual solidification of the eating disorder’s tentacles that would be interesting to explore, on another occassion –
Because I wouldn’t like to think that somebody else out there has fallen into a pattern that only becomes harder to break and tougher to wrench yourself from…
And I wish I’d put my foot down a little sooner and knocked each factor on the head, one by one –
Because they can be moved – rather than maintained – even if you don’t believe that it’s possible.