A paradox of eating disorders is that you spend a lot of time in your mind, but you end up thinking less and less. Yes, you think about how to hide food, about the next lie you’re going to tell, about calorie counting, etc. But you lose your abilities of rationality and critical thinking. The eating disorder brainwashes you and creates a parallel world for you to live in, that becomes more and more cut off from the real one and that you don’t question even when its premises are more and more absurd and unsustainable.
This post has a triple aim: to raise awareness that EDs are serious mental illnesses and not just “diets”; to lower the frustration of those living with someone who has them and they don’t know why they can’t get her out of there; and to reassure those who are still struggling to get rid of these kind of beliefs: they’re completely false and you have to keep fighting doing the opposite of what the voice in your mind tells you to do.
On pro-ana pages, to be perfect means to be thin. That’s it. This is first of all, obviously, physical perfection. They don’t admit that there can be many different beautiful body types or that health and beauty, being two good gifts, can’t be contradictory. There’s only one standard, marked by thinspirations —girls, famous or not, that we think have reached that perfection—: to be skinny.
It’s also a moral perfection. We think it denotes willpower, discipline and self-control. It doesn’t help when society praises us for it —“I wish I could resist chocolate”, etc.—. In fact, we’re not in control, but controlled, manipulated by the disorder, that directs our thoughts and actions.
Lastly, it may also mean, as in my case, religious perfection. To start with, by a simple association of terms. Once you’ve interiorized that perfection = thinness, when they tell you that perfection is holiness, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that holiness = thinness. The exhortation “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5, 48) turns then the desire of thinness into a divine commandment. From there on, all the Bible can be twisted to support that idea.
And, on the other hand, we have all the appreciation of sacrifice, mortification and fasting, that is extremely triggering when it’s not well explained or we just hear simplistic clichés —such as a holy fasting is for God and an ED fasting is for your vanity; as if God and the ED hadn’t been transformed for you into one thing and the same—.
2. Fat in the brain
From here on, the train of thought spirals down without control through a way that’s more and more irrational and decadent, until you end up thinking things that now, seen with some perspective, are absolutely shameful. I don’t want anyone to be afraid of admitting their own most disturbing thoughts, so I’ll start myself.
To believe that, the less food you eat, the more intelligent you become. I guess you’ve all heard about cholesterol accumulating in the arteries. Well, I extrapolated it and thought that, when you ate too much —also, understand what “too much” meant for me at that time (it wasn’t even enough)—, fat would accumulate in the brain (?) and prevent the neurons to be able to do the synapse right, so you would think more slowly and with more difficulty. All of this, while I was destroying my brain tissue.
Moreover, certainly prolonged fasting, as I’ve been able to contrast with many people —not just with eating disorders, but people who do “detoxes”, intermittent fasting, etc.—, ends up not causing you hunger, but giving you a “high” feeling, as if indeed you had more lightness and mental clarity, as if you were… high. A strange euphoria. There are several scientific explanations: the body enters ketosis, the brain releases certain neurotransmitters to cope with the stress, etc. Add to that the adrenaline when you do forbidden things with the pressure that you can get caught. But all those reactions, that justify why you think you’re more intelligent and holier (remember the ecstasies), only mask the deterioration that’s happening by leaps and bounds.
3. A family
In my delusion I even created an “ideal life”. One must understand that for me anorexia wasn’t something bad or an illness, but a lifestyle (that’s the motto par excellence of pro-ana pages), and what’s more, the best one, a gift, a privilege I had been granted to discover. That’s why my ideal life consisted on finding a Catholic and anorexic guy (???) and adopt —for obvious reasons— children we would raise in this lifestyle. This is maybe the part that hurts me more to remember, the one I feel more rejection and repentance towards. Because I intended to irreversibly damage the lives of innocent human beings.
On the other hand, the co-morbidity (presence of two disorders simultaneously) between ED and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is frequent. And some behaviors can be clearly linked to one or the others, while in others they combine and the limits are blurry. At some point I’ll write a post on my experience with purely obsessive-compulsive behaviors. But both are about rituals that you feel you must fulfill exactly, because otherwise it’s like the balance of the universe is broken, as if suddenly order and symmetry were missing (nothing to do with the wrong idea of “being tidy” as a synonym for having an OCD). That lack of harmony causes a great stress and feelings of guilt.
Rituals related to eating disorders include: eating the food following a specific pattern, for example in my case a shape like the number 5 on dices; getting rid of food following certain steps too (such as looking through the door to see if someone’s coming a certain number of times); having to measure every gram of food and count every second of exercise; obsessing about every gram of your body weight without understanding that it can fluctuate; checking constantly some body measurement such as the diameter of your arm, etc. Other ones I haven’t experienced but I’ve seen might be: eating just at certain hours (with their minutes), only using certain pieces of cutlery and plates, etc.
5. Calories everywhere
The obsession with calories makes you start to see them everywhere. If I hadn’t discovered later that indeed the same thing happens to other people with EDs, I wouldn’t dare to say this. The first step was to make sure that water really didn’t have calories, because there was a time I was even afraid of drinking.
I was also scared that when I used body lotions, the fat in them could penetrate through my skin and be absorbed (?). And smelling food: could calories travel in the particles across the air and enter through my nose? And what if I swallowed toothpaste? And if I had sniffle the snot? Should I compensate if any of this accidental events happened? Medicines were another problem, and I did compensate for them.
And what got on my nerves more were “transfers”. That is, what happens when someone or something touches their food and then mine. For example, when someone asks you for your knife to cut something and then hand it back to you. Or lots of times when I was cooking with my mom. The microscopical nanograms of food that may have been transferred to mine.
6. Body image
This is a clear example of the lack of rationality of eating disorders. The number that appears on the scale may say you’re malnourished, but what you see in the mirror is that you should get even thinner. That is, there’s a conflict between an objective reality and a subjective perception. Which one do you give more credence to? Bingo. And in modern times this has exacerbated because of the boom of subjectivism. Reality must not conditionate what one thinks anymore, but what one thinks is what constitutes reality. However, fortunately, some of us are still stopped in our tracks.
The greatly strong fear to get caught leads you to live in a constant state of paranoia and suspicion. This was what sadly lead me to throw my journal to a dumpster and stop writing for a while.
When my mother wasn’t at home and I threw out the food, I always used to think that in fact she could be pretending and be hidden in some place of the building. At one point I even suspected she could have installed hidden cameras. If I threw out things in the thrash bags of my building’s bins, I pushed them to te bottom in case she would check them (?), if it was in the street’s bins I used to go away from home in case she would look in the ones that were near.
Many times I couldn’t sleep thinking of the hidden food I had and if during the night she might search for it and find it. And I always had to be thinking of new excuses to justify everything I could get caught doing, how to explain that actually it all made sense and was not at all due to an ED.
8. Thinking you're such a good liar
This leads me to the next point. In my fantasy, I was like a secret agent. I really believed no one was noticing, that my lies were very smart and my plans perfect. That I was more intelligent than my mother and all the doctors. That when I repeatedly stated that I was naturally so thin and that I didn’t eat many things because I didn’t like them, everyone believed it.
Now it makes me “laugh”, and I see that the only thing missing was carrying a poster announcing I had anorexia. Granted, this has to do with the distortion of body image: I couldn’t see how obvious it was. My body was that walking poster. So if you also think that you’re very smart and are tricking people, know you’re the one that’s being tricked by your disorder.
9. Being willing to do anything
An eating disorder also requires an irrational bonding. A steadfast loyalty. Never questioning what it tells you, and never putting anything above its demands. Never contrasting opinions with others or believing what professionals and scientific articles say. Being willing to lose everything: family, friends, health, studies, job and even life. It means selling your body, mind and soul. That’s why it’s very difficult to convince someone with an ED to choose recovery by threatening her with all the terrible consequences it can bring to her. It’s not as if she didn’t already know them. But for her there’s something greater than all of them. The best solution is to give that place of honor to Whom it rightly belongs: God.
One feature that makes you think the eating disorder is so rational and scientific is its fixation on numbers and calculations. It’s all based on a system of compensations between calories in and calories out. If one time you eat “too much”, you either restrict more the next time, or do more exercise (or some people purge).
However, it’s a system that’s full of holes. To start with, you’re always going to overestimate the food and underestimate the exercise, “just in case”. And one of my obsessions was to have a margin, that is, to always compensate a bit more and try to stay in a weight that was even lower than the one I wanted to be at (which was already very low), so if at some time I had to eat more or wasn’t able to do my workouts I would have enough margin. But those times never came and the margin kept increasing.
But, anyway, this system that seems scientific is not so, because our body doesn’t work like that. It’s not a machine, but an organism. It doesn’t get fatter if one day you eat more, it doesn’t get thinner if one day you eat less, and by no means it keeps account of what you did one month ago to compensate something you’re going to do today.
This is another big irrational paradox. You don’t care about your health, you’re ruining it and you know it but you proclaim nonchalantly that “being thin is more important than being healthy!” and “better to die skinny than to live fat!”. And, nevertheless, health influences you. When they say that people have to eat less and do more exercise, you feel you’re doing things right. I, in fact, used to feel healthy and strong when I worked out, as if it were good for my body, when actually it was eating itself, breaking my own muscles to obtain the energy it needed.
12. Flagrant contradiction with your values
The last great point of irrationality that I want to highlight is how your eating disorder can be in contradiction with all the rest of ideas you have; it’s basically as if you were living a double life, but in the moment you think it has nothing to do and it’s compatible. Therefore, you may love your family, but you don’t care that they suffer seeing you like this. You may value honesty in friendship, but you don’t care about constantly lying to everybody. You may, as in my case, be pro life and go to all the demonstration, while you’re treating your life as if it had no value. You may even (yes, as in my case too) want to fight against world hunger while you’re more malnourished than many of the people you want to help.
That’s why in recovery it’s so important to trust. The ED wants to make you believe that everyone is wrong except you, and therefore they’re all your enemies. It’s very difficult to accept that others’ criteria is the valid one, and what you think, feel deepest and even see with your own eyes, is false. And to take steps towards what they say it’s going to be the best but you see as your worst nightmare. But that’s why I like recovery stories. Because I used to think the same, and now I can tell you that trusting is worth it.
I also recommend to learn. Knowledge is power. Once you’re ready and it’s not triggering to you, try to learn about how our body works, metabolism, nutrition, etc. This has been very helpful to me so as not to get tricked by my thoughts. Like, ok, I may feel one thing, but I know the truth is this other thing.
And if you’re a loved one of a people with an ED or in recovery, I want to stress that it’s irrational. Therefore, I know you want to understand, but that’s not possible, because it doesn’t fit the logic of normal parameters of thinking. It’s not about understanding, but about embracing. Embracing that person with love, because no matter how controlled she is by the illness, deep down she’s still there.