How are you coping with your eating disorder (ED) during the COVID-19 pandemic? Even if, like me, you have been in recovery or recovered from the illness for some years, the social and physical isolation restrictions enforced by our health providers and governments to fight the virus spread, have probably triggered memories of the loneliness and aloneness that an ED brings.
Sixty years have passed since I developed anorexia nervosa, at a time when there was no help, and most of my childhood, adolescence and early adulthood was endured in a bubble of isolation. I was 55 when I emerged from ED’s solitary prison, free to embrace life.
Jump forward to 2020, and the sudden spread globally of COVID-19, and the need to self-isolate has been unsettling. The abrupt change has sparked thoughts of the years incarcerated with ED. However, the many lessons learned during recovery, are serving me well, not only in defusing the ED thoughts but also in safeguarding my healthy sense of self against the virus fallout.
The dual challenge of an internal battle with invisible ED, and an outward battle with invisible COVID-19, can sorely test our resolve to self-care. However, while the effect of the pandemic will largely depend on which stage of the illness or recovery you are at, a heightened state of vigilance will help get us all through this.
Importantly, in many ways, the skills and self-awareness techniques required to heal from an ED, can be admirably applied to effectively navigate the lifestyle changes caused by the pandemic. I hope that my story will help you feel a little less alone and a lot more hopeful that you can not only survive but thrive through this challenging time.
Focus on what you can do
This strategy is the most powerful. Focusing on what you can do helps you to feel in charge of yourself and your situation. Don’t waste time or energy dwelling on what you cannot do – it will only make you feel drained and dreadful.
Focusing on what you can do means we need to accept the things we cannot change. Make a list of what you can do, and you will be surprised at how long it becomes. For instance, I am in the senior age group, considered more vulnerable with COVID-19, so I need to maintain social and physical distancing from others. I could stay indoors for a year or two and not run out of things to do. Spring clean the cupboards, sort old letters and papers, archive boxes of photographs, create stories, do jigsaw puzzles and needlepoint, and the list goes on.
First and foremost, I focus on maintaining a daily routine – sufficient sleep, exercise, meals and snacks, work, and relaxation. The highlight of my day is venturing outdoors to take my English Staffordshire Terrier, Maisie, for walks by the sea. The engagement with nature is a great tonic.
I have a small flower and vegetable garden and am having fun trying old and new recipes. Being unable to meet friends at the local café for a chat over a cappuccino, or at a restaurant for a conversation over a meal, I have found other ways to catch up.
Due to COVID-19, hugs with children and grandchildren are not allowed so we connect from a distance — on FaceTime, text messaging and phone calls. Tactile expression of love is the thing I miss most during this challenging time but focusing on the next best thing helps to ease this longing. I connect with at least one member of my family every day. I connect with friends and colleagues on the Internet and through social media and I might be alone, but I am not lonely. Members of the local Rotary Club are generally in the more senior age group and we miss our weekly dinner meetings but by focusing on what we can do, we now meet on Zoom instead. Thinking about what we can do, like learning a new skill and using Zoom, is empowering for our wellbeing. What new skills are you learning, to help you connect with yourself and others?
Communicating in a safe and supportive environment with like-minded others helps us to feel all is well with our world. When we share our story, we give others permission to share their story. The benefit is mutual and ongoing. Communicating helps us to feel we are not alone. Writing is my favorite form of communication and so long as I can write, I never feel alone. Words are my friends, and I love to share them with others. What is your favorite way of communicating your thoughts and feelings?
Nobody is sure how the pandemic will play out, but it does seem that life as we knew it before the virus outbreak will be different. We can connect and communicate all day long, and yet continue to feel lonely and afraid of the unknown. Focusing on what we can do, day by day, can help to ease the anxiety and the fear.
I have been delighted to note, during this pandemic, people of all ages are being encouraged to record their experiences, thoughts and feelings in a journal or diary. As someone who has been journaling since age 11, and has a PhD in the therapeutic effects of diary writing for people with EDs, I know that confiding thoughts and feelings in a diary can be a great comfort for one’s sense of self. Baring our mind, heart and soul in the haven that is an extension of our self is a very helpful strategy in surviving and thriving through and beyond challenging times.
Sometimes, diary-writing can become self-defeating, however. This happens when we slip off the wellbeing track a little, and dwell on things over which we have no control (for instance, the ED or COVID-19). Negative thoughts and feelings can launch themselves like a tsunami and we can quickly feel helpless and powerless in their wake. If you find this happening, quickly be brave and reach out to someone you trust – a family member, a treatment team member, a mentor or friend – and ask for help to get back on your path of positive thinking. Ask for help in focusing on what is under your control – things like your three meals a day, your three snacks, your rest and recreation, your exercise, your support team, and your methods of connecting, communicating and confiding.
In what way are you recording your thoughts and feelings this year?
Together, we will be okay; together we will get through this challenging time.
I have written nine books about eating disorders since my recovery (my “reconnection with true self”) from anorexia nervosa and other long term mental health challenges in 2006. In 2017, I graduated as a Doctor of Philosophy (Creative Writing). My contribution to the eating disorder field was recognised at the 2016 Academy for Eating Disorders International Conference in San Francisco where I was awarded the Meehan/Hartley Award for Public Service and Advocacy. I am currently a co-chair of the NEDC Steering Committee Evidence of Experience Group, a foundation steering committee member of the annual World Eating Disorders Action Day, and an Advisory Panel member for F.E.A.S.T.