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.
These couple of posts have 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—.
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.
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.
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 gets on my nerves more —and this in present tense because I admit it stills happens to me— are “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’m cooking with my mom. The microscopical milligrams of food that may have been transferred to mine.
Don’t miss the second part of this post, where we’ll examine other irrational beliefs of eating disorders: body dysmorphia, paranoia, thinking you’re a good liar, being willing to do anything it commands you to do, the obsession for compensating, the twisted concept of health, and how it can be a part of your life in absolute contradiction with all the values you stand for in the rest of them.