Please read with the understanding that I am writing in a honest account of my own experience with anorexia and do not claim to sweep a generalization over all sufferers of self abuse. However, I think that everybody has an inner bully to some degree and that this can apply somewhat to all.
I believe that, fundamentally, for a parent or a friend of a person struggling with an eating disorder searching for understanding is both essential and futile.
Its highly unlikely that your sufferer understands why they are doing what they are doing. My insights are just those from the recovery side, and all things that I would have loved to have been able to tell my loved ones (using the term “eating disorder” I refer to bulimia, EDNOS and the behavioral aspect of anorexia).
There are many conflicts that govern the elements of this complex disorder matrix. The one that I will start to address here is the victim/ abuser element to the individual and how my own experience has left me insight.
When one has an eating disorder one is ones own abuser. By this I do not mean that one is intentionally hurting oneself, nor do I mean that one should blame oneself. Nobody chooses to have an eating disorder, in the same way that nobody chooses any other mental and/ or behavioral disorder.
But, one occupies the space that one is in. Thus, for all intents and purposes the abuser lives within oneself.
This does not make it easier to control; in fact in some respects it makes it much much harder to control. In situations where the abuser and the victim are separate entities the victim can try and escape the abuser, or at least have some time out when the abuser is not present. In the case of an eating disorder there is no time out, not ever. It is relentless in that the abuser in is the same space as the victim all the time.
I remember the sheer hopelessness that I would feel; I could never escape the thoughts. The relentless scheming about how to avoid food, avoid my family, avoid being still long enough to get hungry. The ceaseless calorie calculator in my head, the never ending guilt and internal torrent of shame.
In situations where the abuser and the abused are the same person there is no way to allocate blame other than when one blames oneself—and this merely feeds into guilt. Because of this the object of blame cannot be removed from the situation. One cannot escape themselves.
I never did escape myself to recover. I found myself to recover, and this is the same as escaping in some respects as I certainly found some kind of freedom.
When I think back and identify with the ‘victim’ part of me I felt out of control, hurt, pity, anger, shame, depression, worthlessness, pain, frustration and weakness.
When I think back and identify with the “abuser” part of me I felt control, anger, guilt, power and strength.
All these stages of emotions would play off one another. For example, feeling hurt and worthless would lead into depression and the way that I would make myself feel better would be to take control. Taking control looked like not eating and/or exercising excessively.
This would make me feel strong and powerful but also guilty and in pain. The guilt and pity would lead to anger and the anger would lead to frustration. Frustration would lead to feeling hurt and worthless and so on.
Thats just one example. Other days it might be that I felt pressured to eat or in a social circumstance where food was overtly present. This would exasperate the “out of control” element and not only bring on frustration but with a double helping of anger; I would run twice as far that day.
The victim within me hated the abuser. But the abuser in me also hated the victim.
If you attack the abuser in me, the victim will suffer. Anytime that I was made to feel guilty about what I was doing to myself I would attack myself even more. In fact, thats how I processed any negative emotions. Its a bit like kicking a dog when it is down, except one is ones own dog to kick. Sometimes it would be someone else making me feel guilty, more often it would be me.
The result was always an increase in my running time or a decrease in my calorie consumption.
With this in mind my advice would be to offer kindness and encourage activities that garner positive feelings.
This is a massive simplification of the things that I used to feel, but its the best I can do to put it into words right now. I will continually try to better articulate my experiences in the hope that someone will find it useful.
The first stages of my recovery were all about realizing that I wanted to live and surrendering to allowing myself to not be in control.
Nobody else could have helped me get to that point; quite frankly all those that tried just sent me running further away from it.
This must be the hardest part to understand and to adhere to for a parent/ friend of a person with an eating disorder. You cannot help this person escape their disorder because escape is not an option. It is up to them to find union within themselves. This you can help with!
Self love is difficult because in order to love and heal the victim you need to love and heal the abuser also. Even a couple of years into my own recovery I did not truly understand what doing that looked and felt like. Like most things you cannot pick the time and place where true acceptance happens.
Mine happened on a bike ride. The love and happiness that I felt towards my own body suddenly gave way to this realization in which I understood the part of me that had abused myself so much. The ability to admit that I was the abuser was freeing.
The bike ended up on the grass at the side of the road and I sat in a mess of tears next to it for at least 30 mins. Drivers and other cyclists stopped to offer help and I could barely stop sobbing enough to tell them that I was okay. In fact, I’ve never been better!
The tears felt sad, really sad, but there was relief there too. No more hate.
In order to change something one needs to identify it.
That day on the bike I identified my hate for the abuser within me, and in doing so I was able to turn it around. It is probably no coincidence that this came at a time that I was practicing yoga daily and was feeling the inner connection that the practice provides me with.
Similar to the high school bully who is crying out for love and acting out in response to hate—to heal myself I have had to learn how to love my whole self.
I have had to learn to love the hate out of my bully.
With an eating disorder the victim/ abuser roles are inflated, but I do think that we all have the abuser within us—sometimes we are so used to that voice that we do not even notice it.
I see it in my students in yoga classes. Those that fall out of a balancing pose and grimace; I can see the internal silent abuse berating them for not holding the perfect pose.
I can see it in runners on the trail who did not make their personal best that day. In job seekers who didn’t get the interview. We all have our abuser, the real challenge is to recognize it, accept it, love it and let it go.
Where does your bully live?
Where does it become a presence in your life?
Can you love the bully within you?
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Assistant Editor: Renée Claude/Catherine Monkman
Photo: Sean McGrath/Flickr