Safety In Numbers

Written by one of our members, Debra.

I have always found a safety in facts, figures, data. What it promises is predictability, stability, safety. It was because of this that counting calories came very naturally and logically to me; while the world was frequently unusual, unpredictable and upsetting to me, I found a world I could control in collecting the data of my daily intake and output in terms of food and exercise. Up to, of course, the point at which what you think you control begins to control you, and once again you have no escape from unpredictability, fear, chaos.

It has only been something I have observed recently that eating disorders seem to have at their crux a faulty reasoning specific to that individual. ‘I am not deserving,’ ‘I must always care for others before myself,’ ‘only thin people are attractive and I must be,’ and so on. While being able to see the untruths at the heart of others’ disorders I have struggled to see what was at the root of my own compulsions to restrict food and excessively exercise. I just knew that, at one time in my life, mid-mental breakdown, I had turned to binge eating as one of many tools I had in my toolbox at the time to try to give me an escape from the encroaching chaotic turmoil around me.

My subsequent dramatic weight gain was immediately followed my more dramatic weight loss as I struggled to balance the books physically and mentally. I developed new theories and equations to bind the mayhem I saw before me into something simple I could hold on to, understand and predict. ‘If i eat x, exercise x, then I’ll be okay.’ This worked, for a number of years, in a sense. Like a room filled with jenga blocks and me perched precariously on top of them, I knew that as long as I didn’t think, move or do anything I would be fine. This was the formula scrawled on the wall and too much effort and time had been poured into it for it to be wrong. It just meant that any time anyone tried to open the door to ask what on earth I was doing I had to scream at them to close the door for fear that they would nudge over the first domino. ‘As long as x, I will be fine,’ and ‘as long as x, I will be happy,’ seem on the surface to be equations of reassurance, but what they do in essence is give our power and happiness away, as embedded in them is, ‘I will not be fine unless …’ and ‘I will not be happy until…’

Outsourcing our potential for contentment and stability to set circumstances that have to be achieved in the outside world seems to be not just a tricky thing but also a dangerous one too. In so doing we prevent ourselves even trying to be happy or fine without the presence of what we have set our sights on. It is us, inside our own minds, that places limits on what we are able to feel, and when. It is to our detriment that, when using one method that is not working, humans have a tendency towards pushing forward in the same fashion just with more enthusiasm than considering a different path.

Every time I felt more out of control, I burrowed further into facts, figures, research, charts, as if there was some golden graph in the world that could tell me my anxiety about living was nothing, it’ll be fine, and the rest of your life will be sunshine and rainbows too so no issues there. It doesn’t exist. And so many of the tricks of eating disorders are about energetically pursuing this ultimate thing – whatever it is to you – that fundamentally doesn’t exist. It feels good to be going after something though, doesn’t it? And while you’re moving, you’re not feeling, and you’re also not dealing with your problems either, so there will always be a constant need to keep moving.

It is painful, and difficult, but tributaries within mental health issues often flow back to the river of acceptance. Stop running, stop panicking, just be, sit here by the river for a bit and just allow yourself what you haven’t for a long time, whatever that is. Space to breathe, to feel, to cry. To rant and rave that the world is strange and life is unfair and the things that have happened to you have been really, really painful. As bad as everything is this is a part of living, and what you are now is incredibly alive. There are other people sitting by the river, and they can be with you while you breathe for a minute.

I always hold onto the words of a psychotherapist who saved my life. ‘Feeling feelings can’t hurt you.’ But running away from them almost certainly will.

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