It’s hard to disentangle the conflictual resentment held towards something which is generally considered a ‘good thing’, yet also has caused significant pain. Like my time at university, exercise is something that, used in a certain way, may be of long-term benefit, but in my experience has too often wrought identity-dissolving waves of anxiety and obsession.
Going to the gym while in recovery is a bit like walking on a healing broken leg. A small amount of pressure is good, but too much and the healing process might go backwards and cause more damage. Trying to retrain the attitude towards exercise from compulsion to enjoyment requires self-awareness and a continual evaluation of motivation. When attempting to repair a fragmented self image, it can be counterproductive to spend time in a place in which appearance and physical exertion are praised with moral fervour. When I go to the gym I plug in my headphones and try to pay attention to only my own activity, with the aim of out-weighing aesthetic concern for actual interest.
In spite of this, last week I found myself distracted after catching sight of a girl who, reflected in the mirror, looked like the ghost of my former self. She was on the cross trainer, veins straining through the skin of her forearms, as if yearning for the comfort of flesh to cover them. Seeing her made my chest ache, in a nauseating deja-vu of the palpitations which would clutch my heart each time I exercised. I stopped what I was doing and went to the gym office, to ask whether there might be a policy regarding being medically competent to maintain a membership. The trainer was sympathetic, and assured me that he and his manager were aware of the situation, but said that there was nothing they were able to do.
They were unable to prevent the girl — obviously ill — from sweating out another inch, another step deeper into that shallow grave. He said there was nothing I could do to help that girl. But when talking to the trainer, explaining my observations and personal experience, I described myself, for the first time, as ‘having had an eating disorder’. There was nothing I could do to help that girl. But by being a ‘former’ anorexic, I have the strength to write about these things, and might be able to help those with similar experiences across this distance of words.
I try to write about my recovery, detailing the beneficial ways my health and perspective have changed since being in treatment. Yet there have been days and weeks in which I have been unable to leave the house, so traumatised by the sight of my newly healthy body: the confusing conflation of shame and disgust having distorted my frame in a Violet Beauregard-esque inflation, discomfort swelling to such a size as if I literally cannot fit out of the door. There have been months in which I have avoided looking at myself, wearing loose clothing and no glasses if inescapably confronted with mirrors. Sometimes, it’s been necessary to adopt this tactic in order for me to eat that day at all. Of course, a recovering body is constantly gaining, constantly swelling with renewed reserves. To be abruptly confronted with this incremental increase at once, after months of avoidance, is overwhelming and has more than once sent me to my knees, in a not-wholly-rational attack of anxiety. It is as if the seemingly continuous state of flux and inconstancy mounts, becoming at once unbearable, like the shifting plates of a sea bed triggering a volcanic explosion.
It’s a build up of the physical pain of refeeding, of forcing yourself to eat unwillingly, stretching your stomach with unbearable amounts of food, dealing with the effects of oedema and bloating. It’s confronting the trauma of a returned period and the hormonal barrage of acne and emotions which so happily accompany it. It’s managing mealtimes and resisting the urge to run far, far away when confronted with an unfamiliar dining environment or an unknown menu. It’s overcoming self-consciousness and embarrassment enough to actually talk about your illness and having the courage to label it as such. It’s ignoring the full-body scans of surprise as your body is seen for the first time after a long absence: it’s the continual tug between wanting health yet also thinness.
It’s rewiring the nerves of your mind and repressing the urge to slip back into that bath of acid, which has the safety of an unrelenting burn. It’s the trauma of dissociating, of feeling like you are renting a foreign body with new parts which belong on billboards, not beneath your bra. It’s passing through your wardrobe, trying on clothes like Goldilocks trying each porridge, except nothing is ‘just right’: nothing fits and the thought of shopping is nauseating. It’s resisting the barrage of talk which will incontrovertibly tell you that your body is not the right kind of body, it’s flying in the face of the purity propaganda of ‘clean eating’ and allowing yourself to just. eat. It is exhausting.
Next week’s appointment will mark 341 days since I first started treatment, and 373 since I first spilled my dirty not-so-secret and wrote the words, ‘I have an eating disorder’. It has taken nearly a year, but I am happy to be able to say, ‘I had an eating disorder’.