Confronting old triggers and silencing them
“Mindboggling” describes the milestone event I’m about to embark on. This significant event acknowledges my achievements and the stronger person I’m becoming. Perhaps you’re wondering, “What’s so mindboggling?” Oh, it’s a biggie! As of early April 2021, two years will have passed since my discharge from The Geelong Clinic following a six-week stay in the Eating Disorder Program for life-saving treatment. Two years have slipped by since my release back into the big wide world, surrounded by seemingly faultless people going about their seemingly faultless lives, somehow navigating my way back in. I’m not sure if two years feels long or short, good or bad, or if I should feel proud or restrained. I know I’m happy there hasn’t been a need to return for further treatment, something which is common, yet nothing to be ashamed of, for people with Eating Disorders. I’m also filled with a sense of curiosity.”
That’s my big news for this blog; two whole years have passed since I came home, frightened and feeling very vulnerable to everything and everyone around me. I have no idea where that time went; it feels like one day I was leaving the hospital, and the next, it’s two years later! What happened within those two years is a big cloudy blur.
Yet, here I am two years on, and interestingly, I’m bursting with a combination of curiosity and heightened alertness in response to anything that has the potential to lead me astray. Interestingly, life has begun to throw a range of curveballs my way, leaving me to wonder, why am I now seeing such familiar and not so pleasant reminders of the life I led before my hospital admission two years ago? Why now? Is this a timely warning urging me not to allow myself to feel too complacent?
On reflection, my life before treatment was one massive curveball. When I speak of curveballs, I’m referring to challenging situations. Situations that can throw someone like me down a hole towards a spiralling relapse in mind and body. Previously, these potential triggers played havoc in my mind all day, every day; I would struggle to pull myself out of this horrible cycle. Yet now, I find such triggers are leading me on a path of reflection. I’m looking at my life in a new way.
I know my eating disorder challenges haven’t magically gone away, and with COVID-19 dominating a considerable part of all our lives, the challenges we’ve each faced have probably doubled or tripled in frequency. So why do I feel I am seeing these challenges for the first time now? What’s this sense of Déjà vu I’m experiencing?
Before unpacking this idea, I want to address my current state of health and well-being. Thankfully, these triggers I speak of have not caused me to fall back into the grips of my own eating disorder. I may have taken a step back at times and experienced some of the most challenging scenarios, but that’s okay because I’ve managed to get back up, continuing to move forward. Such challenges may have taken my breath away for a moment, yet, in the bigger scheme of things, they’ve prompted me to reflect on the life I experienced just two years ago. Better yet, I can see and feel the struggles of other people, but from a different perspective.
Curveballs are inevitable
Raise your hand if you have Facebook? How many groups have you joined in which you are seriously invested in the topic of relevance? This social media platform previously played an integral part in what was a major problem for me. Knowing I had a problem, even before my formal diagnosis, I spent a lot of time conducting research about bodies, food, diets and eating disorders in a futile attempt to fix myself. I also spent way too much time reading about the experiences of others going through similar battles. Reading about another person’s horrible day initiated by their eating disorder, I would relate to and absorb their emotions.
In hindsight, what these groups did allow me to do was to be me with all my flaws with a bunch of other likeminded people. I wasn’t hiding in the corner; in a small way, I’d come out. Simply knowing there were other people just like myself filled me with a sense of comfort, knowing I wasn’t completely and utterly alone in my struggles. I felt a sense of belonging.
On the flip side, the story is not so bright. While helping me to see I wasn’t alone, reading about others’ daily experiences also served to feed my eating disorder. Messages abounded, like:
“She can get through the day and only eat ___________.”
“You can’t do that; you’re weak and greedy.” Or:
“You should strive to do the same as that person.”
So, in reality, these posts:
- Presented me with a new idea on how to fall further into my eating disorder’s control.
- Reinforced the feelings that resulted in me hating everything about myself because I wasn’t matching other people’s experiences or behaviours.
- Reminded me of who I was, how horrible I felt, and my disgusting self-image.
- Caused me to take on the feelings experienced by the writer of the particular post (because I was disconnected from my own!)
- Reminded me of all my slips, trips, setbacks.
Yes, I was blindsided and for a long time believed that groups that claimed to be ‘helpful’ were beneficial and essential for me. The more groups I joined, the more information I received. That’s the beauty of the Internet; the more you interact with a particular website or social media page, the more familiar the computer gets to know you and what topics interest you.
Before you know it, information seems to come flooding in from social media pages everywhere! Consumed! Don’t get me wrong; in some circumstances, this can be positive. For example, I now get flooded with photography information which is valuable and beneficial. Yet, when it comes to severe mental illnesses like eating disorders, I’ve discovered this trend is severely counterproductive.
Before my admission to the Clinic, I was sure I was doing the right things to get well; but the opposite was happening. A captive of my eating disorder, I was becoming more deeply embedded within my own messed up world. Since completing the eating disorder program at the Clinic, I’ve never intentionally gone into these social media platforms to “unjoin” these groups; it’s something that slipped my mind. However, I did stop being inundated with posts or information from these groups. This meant that the subject of eating disorders was no longer front and centre in my mind. In the two years since coming home, I’ve joined many other groups that now flood my screen with relevant information. The key difference? This time the topic is positive. My mind is now consumed by photography and how to improve my skills. I guess you could say that social media has become a tool in my recovery.
So how does this relate to life today when I’m engrossed in a world of photography? Shockingly and unexpectedly, recently, my social media seems to have turned the eating disorder switch back on as I’ve begun receiving posts from some old eating disorder groups. Surprised, initially, I thought nothing of it and proceeded to read until, after just a few lines, I had to make myself stop. What I could see was another person’s desperate cry for help, an intrinsic need for a sense of self-justification, making amends and trying with every bit of energy she had to make that voice in her mind shut up and go away forever.
“Just shut up”
As I read the words written by this young female, the familiarity, the feelings, and panic came flooding back into my consciousness. The old familiar thought pattern, “Oh god, I’ve stuffed up again”, that would insist I spend my day making amends. On several occasions, this has happened, and on each occasion, I’ve come away feeling that old familiar sense of self-shame, regret, the feeling of wanting to sink into the ground. In hindsight, while the triggers may have been small, I felt the impact with great force.
The innocent reminders
Reminders can come from anything; a particular food, a walking path, a pair of shorts. My next experience stems from revisiting a place. Recently I’ve been visiting a friend who was a patient in the clinic with me two years ago and is having a re-admission. Upon entering the clinic’s ward as a visitor, I wasn’t anticipating the old familiar feelings of wanting to run and hide. My heart began racing, my palms were sweating, and I wondered if any nurses would recognize me. The locked doors, the sight of the long corridor, the common room with its long dining table and the highly restrictive rules were enough to make my heart go crazy. “Not here again, get out now”.
There I stood, filled with an intense sense of dread identical to how I had felt each morning, waking up as a patient. Flashbacks were running rife through my head. I felt weak, physically and emotionally, but I remained determined to stay and support my friend as I had said I would. And I’m glad I did.
Take home message
I would never have imagined that reading a personal account of being stuck inside a current real-life eating disorder could profoundly impact my own sense of well-being. In this person’s messed up way of thinking, she’d stuffed something up and, at the point of writing her post, was in the midst of some rather extreme self-punishment to make amends for the so-called mistake her eating disorder insisted she had made the previous day.
Likewise, I was surprised at the impact on my body upon revisiting the clinic. The fight and flight reactions were powerful. I had previously driven past the clinic several times and felt nothing. Walking through the doors, however, set the trigger off. This suggests is that even when I feel I am on the right path, small reminders can trigger fear in my mind and body. On this journey back to a healthy-self life, I need to acknowledge that this does not mean a relapse is happening. How I react to such instances will determine which path I proceed to take.
In the case of social media, I know I need to avoid those pro-Eating Disorder related groups. I know it is much better to seek help from reliable sources. In Australia, the Butterfly Foundation provides encouragement, hope, and a way forward. The National Eating Disorders Collaboration website is also a great resource to tap into, particularly when the world feels overwhelming. Regarding those pro-eating disorder groups, do what I do now, and send them straight to the recycling bin, then hit delete again.