My Eating Disorder will always remind me of the person I was, and am

It is the beginning of 2020 and I started writing this article at nearly 28 years old, and I have still found my relationship with food and eating to be problematic, and to have control over me in ways that I recognise but do not like.

Not to cut any tension but, broadly speaking, I am happy with the place I have found with my self, food, and exercise. I think I live a health-conscious life without being obsessive, and I am able to recognise when my brain is trying to trick me about these things more often than I miss it. This is a piece I wrote because I want to continue writing, and I find the result of writing to be beautiful and rewarding.

This isn’t the first time I have tried to put my relationship with food and exercise into words, to explain how it feels to wake and press through between three and five meals, and to inhabit a body that knows it could definitely have had a better tenant. But I think there is a lot of value in sharing an imperfect understanding of a ever evolving self, even when we’re not happy with the person we currently are.

Unlike before, my opinions on what should be publicly shared have change: there are parts of us that are sometimes like open wounds or tender joints. We want to protect them. Even if they should have healed, even if we don’t know what rendered them, even if we wish we were more whole. I don’t know if I am always aware of when I am healed enough yet to talk about something. Healing should always be our first priority, and sharing something does not heal it.

How do you go about sharing and explaining something when even a slight shift can reopen or snag somewhere you thought was much more distant?

Christmas

The festive period can be difficult for someone who prefers to have control over what and when they eat. There is a lot of restaurant-prepared food, and the traditional festive meals are not the vegetarian-protein-and-fibre-rich meals which I typically aim for. On top of that, there’s a lot of eating at unpredictable and often late times, an attitude of over-consumption, and the expectation of drinking.

Individually, these things would only affect me when I’m stressed or otherwise stretched thin. Unfortunately, I’ve spent the past six months leading up to December becomming increasingly unhappy at my lack of commitment and energy for creative outlets. I have been very technically and intellectually fulfilled, but I don’t think I was aware of the price I was paying for this at the time. Time and mental energy are oh-so-finite, but also consistently overestimated. I was exhausted by simply running abreast with the opportunities I was being given. The result was feeling as though I was an evening shadow away the same predictable ruinous behaviour I’ve relied on over and again.

Alongside this, I was starting to ask myself a lot of questions about the life that I want to live, and the life I have been living. I began to feel he forces that make up this life: my time, attention, and creative energy, drawn gradually out of my control. And then I continued to feel them pulled away from me, for months. Months where I was unable to produce anything creative which made me happy. And the result was a set of routines, obligations, and products which, while productive, took a lot from me and did not repay in all the ways I would like to be repayed. I felt winds and tides pull against the vector of my life, and saw the horizon shift, and eventually realised that I wasn’t sailing this boat.

This exhaustion of my resources and loss of a feeling of control can surface the most reckless parts of me, which I tell myself I can distance from myself. Which is a dangerous lie. I live a great deal of my life as part of the structures I have put in place to prevent a loss of a feeling of control. I have a structured exercise routine which sees me in dance studios and gyms at least four days a week, and I rarely see more than one true rest day in seven. If I don’t watch my diet carefully, I can easily flit between “why do I bother trying so hard” and “why don’t I try hard enough” attitudes about eating “good” food.

Yet no matter the distance I put between my current self, and the self who first came to terms with his mental health, who realised how unhealthy and abnormal these patterns were — we are still worryingly similar. An evening shadow away. This is something I have only been able to realise in the careful consideration and long-term nature of my writings.

2020 will be the best year of my life

As I entered 2020 (which will be the best year of my life, by the way) I was riding the wave out from this little storm. I remember vividly waking up one Thursday, ravenous — realising that I had spent about 10 hours of the last five days in intense, focused cardio and resistance workouts. The part of me that argues another 10k run with level head, cajoles me through another HIIT spin session, then temps me into another 2.5kg on the bench press. That part had come back into control, and I had renounced my judgement to him.

On mornings like this I feel a mixture of urgent hunger, pride about feeling hungry for the right reasons, and shame that my body has had to resort to shouting in the ancient primal language of hunger and defeat, to tell me that I have mistreated it.

Despite my insistence that I am basically the same person as I was in 2016, we are very different. I finished that Ph.D., moved to London, got two jobs (not at the same time), quit them both, joined a contemporary dance company (perhaps the most wild thing to happen to me in the 2010s), had meaningful romantic relationships, and made some beautiful Platonic ones. I have run and cycled farther and faster than ever before. I am saying that I find my life, such as it is, fulfilling and rewarding in ways that I honestly don’t want to tell 18-year-old me about. He wouldn’t listen anyway. Handsome devil.

None of this matters as I rise with the sun and greet a small crowd of familiar feelings as their long-serving subordinate. This remains constant. This part of my life, the way I respond to stress, my tendency towards trying to starve myself to gain control — remains. It isn’t a plant I can pull up, roots tangled. It is part of the dirt and gravel over which I try to build myself.

When I feel like this, I remember all of the worst parts of me: the sadnesses I prayed nightly to end, and woke up every morning to find unshifted. The people I distanced myself from, condescended to, or mistreated. The conversations I was too scared to have, the spaces I ruined.

It reminds me of versions of myself I have tried my absolute hardest to burn, and scattered his gritty ashes uncaringly over grounds I never want to set foot on again. He is gone to me and it wasn’t an accident.

I am having to start 2020 by coming to terms, yet again, that I will likely live with this little quirk of my brain for at least the next 5–10 years. That I will feel these things, be these people, and act this way even though I do not want to. More realistically, I am expecting to battle this for the better part of the rest of my one wild and precious life. I am okay with that, mostly. Except when I am not. And right now, I don’t think I am, but I’m not sure if that particular wound is ready to be dressed.

There are times when I wish for a better, more fertile soil. When I wish I could build from something cleaner. But mostly I am learning to love it and accept it. I am trying not to idolise the things it brings me, or over vilify the bad things it does.

A sickeningly-nervous man walks into a bar…

I don’t do New Year’s Resolutions, I prefer yearly themes, but I do have a goal for 2020: I want to try standup comedy for the first time. Like, I wish to stand in front of strangers and make them laugh on purpose by telling jokes.

To prepare the things I want to say in front of them, I have been looking into the parts of myself and my life which have defined me most strongly, or which are things I often find myself arguing. Things like the often unrecognised biases we have about genders and races, or how people of notoriety just can’t seem to keep their dicks out of their hands in front of other people. You know, funny things.

When I think about the other parts of my mental health, like social anxiety or depressive episodes, I think there’s some funny stuff in these often-difficult or problematic histories. But I also think we need to be careful about artificially manufacturing humour from these situations, because if we aren’t careful it can seem like we’re mocking or belittling the idea of mental health, or dismissing someone else’s lived experience. Just because we are okay belittling our own stories, thoughts, or actions — doesn’t always mean that we can mock someone else’s. Worst still, just because we don’t understand them.

That said, I think it is possible (and even common) to make mockery of one’s own past and difficulties. It takes away power and taboo from something which can be very difficult to earnestly or truthfully address. It’s like when Nevil puts Snape in his grandmother’s clothes and hat.

However there is nothing, quite literally nothing, funny that I can find about my history with food and eating. I want there to be. I really, really want to be able to use this history to make me a better, funnier, more creative person. I want to make profit from something which has robbed me unforgivingly of time and mental energy.

I want something in return for the regret I have felt for deserts I both have and have not eaten, and time lost in social gathering where all I could think about was the food we were eating and the conditions it was prepared in. I want jokes about the, ironically, countless number of calorie balance sheets I have made on stray paper, or I want snappy anecdotes from every time I felt powerless over everything except for the things I consumed.

I want to find it funny that the only way my brain can rend control is to risk starving itself.

But I can find nothing. I can speak humorously about terrible first dates that I wouldn’t have changed for the world, and the end of relationships which I still legitimately question ending. I often joke about my existential fears and discomforts (truly, we will all be dead in 100 years.) I am increasingly comfortable talking about how my skin (in my late twenties) still behaves as though I am half my age. I work hard not to take my lucky self or my amazing life too seriously, and to not question the things I enjoy but rather just lean into them.

I have looked but I can find nothing.

I am going to be okay. This is just who I am.

Despite all of this apparent negativity and resentment, I have come to my most recent encounter with my mental health with a lot more understanding of myself, and my tendencies. This is a positive thing, one that can only really come from spending a lot of time watching myself, patiently.

There was a time when I glorified the things I did to myself, how abstinence and discipline were the things which gave me super powers. I don’t think I am any less prone to thinking, or even believing, these things now than I was, but I accept them as just a peculiarity of who I am — not as things which are true.

It’s okay to accept something, but still wish it were different. Or still be blindsided every time it comes into view, despite its inevitability. It is okay to be many things, even when they might seem in opposition. What matters is getting through the tough times, without making things tougher than they have to be.

This piece is part of an anthology about my experience with food and eating disorders. You can find the other ones here.