Moving on from an eating disorder with help from diary writing

by June Alexander

Be the Master of your Ship: Journeying through an Eating Disorder

… I am the master of my ship.

I am in control.

Yet, all too soon,

it feels so wrong …

… Yet, I can still choose.

                                                                                         I grab a hold.                                                                                         

Anne

Even when you know that clinging, however ferociously or desperately, to a daily regime of weights, calories and exercise routines is playing ED’s game, letting go of these behaviors to embrace freedom can be scary. However, the moment when you break through the bonds of ED is exhilarating. There is more work to do, but when healthy self-re-integration reaches 51 per cent, you have one per cent more say than ED. Decisions in favor of self and health, and eventually in favor of a healthy self and body, become easier because now you have most say.

When early intervention addresses ED symptoms before they get a chance to penetrate normal thought patterns, daily routine and relationships, you may seamlessly merge back into mainstream living, resuming study, career, friendships and family roles. Or if achieving recovery after some years, you may find, like me, that choices appear overwhelming.

When adolescent years and young adulthood slip by while entrapped in ED, there is much life learning and experience to catch up on. With little idea of self, after more than four decades with an ED, in 2006 I became free to discover, investigate and experience life as ‘me’.

Diary entries at this time reflect efforts to recover on many fronts, including pacts with self to practice:

  • Decision-making—without asking others a million times if it is the right decision;
  • Social engagement—with family, friends and community; play with grandchildren, attend parties and meet girlfriends for lunch.
  • Self-awareness—learning to think in a deliberate, deeply conscious way, while new ‘real me’ thoughts develop sufficiently through repetition to become automatic.
  • Mindfulness—focusing on this very moment helps self and body to feel as one, and defuse inevitable times when remnants of ED threaten to return. Nudges of ‘something’s not right’ must be investigated and resolved promptly.

Lists and rules relating to self-destruction gradually disappear from diary entries. At the same time, older diaries serve as a reminder of where I have been, and why I will never go back. Contentment replaces ED’s voice within but self-shaping is on-going, a daily process. It is about tending to and balancing spiritual, social, psychological and physical needs. This quest for self-hood and self-expression fosters continued healing from past losses. The process of developing a positive sense of self, and connecting, belonging and engaging in personal, family, social, and community life, is as long as life itself.

Using the Diary to Re-Story

I will never know if I am the person I would have been if an eating disorder had not developed in my childhood. Nobody can turn back time and create a different life story. However, hurtful, even traumatic, experiences can be re-storied in a way that gives release and perspective to make the most of the current moment.

Life is Not Fair

The diary provides a place to record and reflect on life lessons. One such lesson is that ‘life is not fair.’ I felt incensed at the injustice of this statement when my psychiatrist pronounced it, bluntly, during one of our many sessions, because I was feeling sorry for myself. But when I pushed aside ED’s interpretation, and absorbed the meaning of the psychiatrist’s words, I found them helpful. I had been expecting life to be fair; indeed, often doggedly insisting it “should be.” It wasn’t, and there was no universal dictate that it need be.

Expecting perfection, and everything and everyone to be ‘’right” and “just,” fuels anxiety and sets the scene for continual and disappointments.

Getting hung up on an issue, usually in relation to family, employment, or mental health care, because it ‘wasn’t fair’, served only to strengthen ED’s hold, as it ‘found’ yet another ‘reason’ for me to binge or restrict, or engage in other self-harming behaviors.

Being Flexible in Problem-Solving

Using my diary as a tool, when things did not work out fairly, as planned or envisaged, I began to re-assess and move on quickly, rather than get stuck in a bog, nervously analyzing why. Beliefs and issues not supportive in maintaining and elaborating ‘me’ were increasingly recognized and dismissed before becoming a bother.

When ‘Plan A’ failed to solve a problem, rather than spiral into a tailspin, I focused on exploring Plans B, C, D or E until the right solution was found for ‘me’. By concentrating on what was under my control and influence, and letting the rest go, this new flexibility in thinking led to another important step—feeling confident enough to let go of things, and sometimes relationships that did not work out, as hoped or planned, or align with ‘me’. In this way, disconnection from ED was on-going.

Lessons from the School of Life

Lessons keep coming. When ED has been part of your life since childhood, you may find yourself, as I have done, hung up on numerous emotional and developmental issues, like still wanting parental approval in adulthood. This is because ED has interrupted independence in the process of decision-making. I continue to practice feeling at ease in making choices primarily in my best interest. It has involved experiencing and working through adolescent behavior in adulthood.

  • My psychiatrist, kindly describing many of my choices as ‘not right’ for me, offered encouragement: “It is not that you are wrong but that (solution/person) is not right for you; keep trying.” My children, by now young adults, seemed far more wise and mature than me. With encouragement, I began to learn and feel comfortable in setting forth—trying things out, accepting that mistakes create opportunity to learn lessons, and began discovering the identity of ‘me.’
  • Another lesson is that self-preservation is my prime responsibility. This view has required a re-ordering of the belief, taught from early childhood, that care for others must come first. Accepting responsibility for my own health and happiness, before taking care of others, has to occur, all day, every day, and in this order.
  • My grandchildren accentuate this lesson with another: it is okay to do nothing. It is okay to have fun. It is okay to just ‘be.’ This is as important as having a defined purpose. When youngest granddaughter Amelia sits on my lap, nestles in, and looks up at me with her Jonathon apple rosy cheeks, and beautiful smile, my soul purrs. No words required. After decades of being a slave to ED, unable to rest or sit still in peace, this is a grand lesson indeed.
  • Each lesson reinforces the powerful thread of hope. Hope influences everything in the self-care kit. Hope is what you feel when someone believes in you, and you believe in someone. Hope is what you feel, and hopeful is what you are, when you believe in and trust your self. Hope is a beacon to hold in the heart, a lantern in the dark.

The Diary Healer

This post is drawn from my book, Using Writing as a Therapy for Eating Disorders—The Diary Healer . This book, the creative work in my PhD (Philosophy), explores how the diary can be integrated into treatment and recovery, and how diary excerpts from multiple sources can be used to create a book about eating disorder recovery. For details, see http://www.thediaryhealer.com or go to http://acquire.cqu.edu.au:8080/vital/access/manager/Repository/cqu:13833

More next week…