By Nicola Redford
In introducing our second guest post on this site today, I am going to give you a bit of background first.
Nicola, known to many of you as Gloria, began her recovery process many months ago, when the originalforums were up and running. You may notice similarities in her recovery path, or you may not—individual mileage may vary.
When I sought out Nicola for a guest post, I relayed that I have no guidelines for guest posts beyond an honest voice. Here is what I said:
“Here's the few limited things I've learned in the last 4 years of being immersed in eating disorders while not actually having one (that's a strange head space in itself actually):
1. People will enter the process positively because that is human nature. Like those at their first chemotherapy appointment (after a cancer diagnosis), you cannot undermine that innate sense we all have that we will beat the odds and that we are different.
2. No one is put off of the recovery process because you are brutally honest, counter-intuitively they are actually more likely to embark on the process, not less.
3. The messiness and realness of the process speaks most to those in the depths of the process (the darkest space before you turn the corner). And they only osmose the truth of things they have been reading for months when it actually speaks to them where they are at that very moment in time.”
And here is the result of Nicola taking my loose framework and running with it. I am blown away and I hope you will be too:
I was 32 when I started recovering from a two-year storm of anorexia. I had struggled with an eating disorder throughout my teens, but I was entirely free for most of my twenties. I had no idea, then, that it could creep back in so easily. There came a bout of flu, a family tragedy, an appetite lost, a door left ajar: the familiar story, but concentrated, I thought. Contained.
A few months into recovery, I would fixate on this background. I “only” starved for two years; I was never “that bad”— yet the reaction of my body was extreme. I soared above my pre-ED weight, and continued to gain. I barely noticed at first, too busy negotiating the elation and sheer panic of early recovery. Six months in, I went to the doctor about a chronic cough and wheezing I'd developed within days of beginning to eat again, suspecting my family’s asthma genes had finally caught up with me. I could try a reliever inhaler if I wanted, he said - but really, I could just do with losing some weight— was I aware of the health risks of my weight category? I was horrified. Within months I had spun into obesity, spread into my husband’s T-shirts when once I could wear children’s clothes. It took months to get an asthma diagnosis and proper treatment, because each doctor would note the substantial weight gain, and draw their own conclusions. I tried to explain that the breathing difficulties had coincided with my decision to gain weight, that this was more than just being out of shape, that I was a recovering anorexic, that I had clawed my way up and was barely holding on. The gentlest doctor asked me a few questions, and then put her hand on my arm. “Well, you’re not anorexic anymore, are you?”
This feeling of being “no longer anorexic” was one of the strangest, most unexpected hurdles for me. Why was it so hard to let go? In the surge of emotions that knocked me sideways as my body expanded, the most powerful and shocking were anger and shame. I came to realise how deeply the anorexia had affected me, changed me, as the process of healing and rebuilding began to feel like a hostile takeover. By month nine, I was getting hives every day. My periods were weeks late, or weeks early. My hair continued to fall out. Blood tests showed my thyroid was slightly out of whack, but the doctors I saw increasingly recommended I lose weight and exercise, stage an intervention, quickly, before things got out of control. I kept going, but a year in, I slumped. Nothing seemed enough. I couldn’t read, couldn’t write. Our budget creaked under the strain of feeding a family and heating a house in the longest winter of my life. There was no money for clothes. I couldn't bring myself to look at old photographs, because the reality of what I had lost felt unbearable. I didn't want to have to find myself outside the anorexia; I knew who I was, before. Anorexia had sidled into my happy sanctuary, the ghost of my difficult teenage years, and ripped me up from my roots. I was fourteen months in, and then sixteen, seventeen, and I was fat and miserable, and I couldn’t even be sure I was getting better.
Then something happened, or maybe a few things happened. My daughter celebrated her twelfth birthday, and we cleared out her room, bagging up too-small clothes for charity. My old jeans and shirts lay crumpled at the back of her wardrobe, too tiny for my beautiful, innocent twelve year old. I held them up against my plus-sized body. Really? These were mine? I heard from a good friend and YE comrade, who had flown across a country to see a doctor who confirmed to her that sometimes, in ED recovery, bodies just behave unpredictably, and that the important thing is to eat more, way more: enough to feed each and every cell of one’s poor, battered body, enough to end the hunger for good. I finally managed to let go of the whole "is it? isn't it?" thyroid uncertainty. It was both a relief and a shock to shrug it all off, to accept that there was nothing wrong with me; only the lasting damage of all that starvation. The accumulation of fat is a survival mechanism, just as the eating disorder itself is thought to be. There had been long, impatient months of only just eating enough, which had slid, lately, into not-quite-cutting-it. Walking the hilly streets of Sheffield on creaky arthritic feet. “Not anorexic any more”, and yet not better, either; two ancient survival mechanisms clashing: fragments of the urge to starve and to move remained, even as my body determinedly, carefully wrapped me in its protective layers.
I started eating more again. The difference was swift— whether it was the calm of recognising that, all along, I'd still been desperately hungry, or just an end to the mental conflict and uncertainty, or maybe both— I suddenly felt able to accept everything: the weight gain, the distance and timespan and sadness and upheaval of it all. Physically, too, the changes came quickly: my horribly cracked feet healed, and I felt so much warmer. I had been waiting for so long: I’ll get some decent clothes when I know my weight’s stable. I’ll start writing again when I feel better. I’ll feel better when my body sorts itself out. It was a circle that would never start. Never end.
The biggest change is the body acceptance. Before, part of me was struggling to recognise myself in the woman I saw in the mirror. I would stare and stare at myself, desperate to see my "old" body beneath the fat— not my sick, skinny body, but the body Ihad lost, the body I mourned— seeing instead a body hastily reassembled, shapeless, unformed. I was terrified of ordering new clothes, the first brand new things I've bought in the past 20 months. But in proper, decently fitting, kinda cute plus-sized clothes, I could suddenly see myself as a fat woman. Like me, fat. And it was okay. I'm flirting with a weight I never imagined I would hit, which would have sent me spiralling into pure, deathly panic not so many months ago. But I'm here. I feel good. And I look... dare I say it? Pretty fierce. All that time, I had been expecting remission to appear as a physical change. I was so there, mentally, I thought, so when and how would my body announce its return? Instead, remission arrived as a sudden clarity, a new way of seeing. Like the moment when, after staring at an optical illusion, the image slides into view. You pay attention to the little man behind the curtain, and the smoke and the mirrors can't affect you anymore. What had I been afraid of? I didn't die. I am not chronically ill, or alone. Life goes on, challenging, difficult, beautiful, joyful. Why had I been so ashamed? I had a chronic condition, and I escaped unscathed. I got fat. That's all. I let it happen. I held it in my hand, that discipline, that control, that dubious strength, and I blew it. No, I'm not anorexic anymore.
A year or so ago, I remember reading a heartfelt blog post on a doctor's website, discouraging parents from pushing their kids towards higher weights in recovery. “Don't drive the car over the cliff! Don't drive over...", the author implored, because it would be too difficult, too devastating. I'm aware that, from that viewpoint of recovery, mine must look like a wreck. I suppose what I came to want from recovery, and specifically from following the HDRM guidelines, was to be able to stand up and say, well, yeah. There was an accident here. But anorexia caused the crash, not recovery. Not food. I drove over the cliff, and I'm here waving from the wide blue ocean, free as a fat little bird. I was so disappointed when things didn't happen neatly and quickly and happily-ever-after. But what I've come to realise is that true remission, for me, means leaving all that behind, and sailing off anyway. I don't think for a moment that "becoming fat" is an inevitable part of recovery for everyone, although obviously, weight gain is critical. But whatever the reasons, getting fat, not just chubby but really quite large, was my body's way of dealing with the aftermath of starvation. I don't think BMI 39-point-something is my set point. But after twenty long months of recovery, I'd be failing myself by holding my breath for weight loss. I finally realised that remission would be empty if I couldn't accept myself at this size, too: very "obese", un-distributed, unfinished. But alive, and fucking fortunate, and perhaps a little more patient, a little kinder to myself, a little more understanding of others. I was slightly wary about writing this post at first, afraid that my experiences would confirm the darkest fears of eating disorders everywhere. We examine one another's threads, we gobble them up, searching for the clues that will unlock our own bodies, all the while knowing that it's impossible; that no one can dig out the black box or translate the blueprint of these starved bodies, the bodies which perceive famine amongst the supermarket aisles. There's no easy way out, and it's terrifying. I know that fear. It swallowed me for too long. I want to leave this here, for myself as much as for anyone else, as a reminder that, now I see it clearly, remission isn't about tapering, or going back in time to how I used to be. And that, trapped on the road with an eating disorder, driving the car over the cliff is sometimes the only way out.