In life I think it is safe to say that most people are born with a desire to achieve, a need for purpose, for something that they feel will make their life worthwhile. If you are an expert in biology as I am, with many qualifications in human body expertise (I did biology GCSE), you will know that this space that craves a sense of achievement comes in the form of a little hole that is located just below the liver, and when humans are born, it is empty. Naturally people want to fill it in order to feel complete, and the way in which to do this is to fill it with achievements, achievements like getting a good grade in an exam or breaking the world record for the number of potatoes you can balance on your head at one time, whilst enthusiastically taking part in a salsa class with a lady who keeps clacking maracas. The difficulty comes in finding what it is that fits in your hole (by which I of course mean your sense of achievement craving space and no other hole in the body), because when that hole is empty it can get awfully draughty, especially if you are wandering around the blustery moors like Cathy searching for Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.
Unfortunately, a lot of people with eating disorders somehow manage to wedge an almighty bout of anorexia right in their sense of achievement space, and this is in no sense as good an idea as filling it with a world record relating to salsa and potatoes.
When you have an eating disorder, you automatically obtain goals, and purpose (dangerous horrible ones that are no good to achieve, but when you are caught up in the illness they feel as important and legitimate as someone else’s goal to become an astronaut.) There are always rules and things you are striving for or you are trying to beat, a new number of minutes on the treadmill, a lower number of calories than before or a new target weight, and achieving these goals fulfils that need for purpose. Ultimately each goal you set and then achieve can feel like validation that you are doing something with your life, making your existence meaningful and making life worthwhile.
I know that personally I struggle with this a lot, especially as I appear to be friends with a lot of people who all seem to know what they are doing with their lives and are very successful. On countless occasions I have been to parties with these friends and in the general “catch up” chatter I have heard them talk about all of the fantastic universities they have got into to do their masters, all the plans for their PHD dissertations on complicated topics I didn’t know existed, and the fantastic relationships they are all happily involved in, already planning to move out of their family home, elope to New Zealand and get mortgages on houses with their partners.
Meanwhile at these parties I tend to stand there looking a little bewildered and feeling incredibly inferior. I have not been to Oxford university, been to New Zealand (or Old Zealand come to think of it), and the closest I have got to moving into my own house so far is my attempts to build my own pillow fort under my bed, which isn’t going well because planning permission is a nightmare and I am struggling to sort out the plumbing situation. Does anyone have any advice for supplying a pillow fort with running water, when the only materials you have at your disposal are a few cushions, a blankets and giant cuddly penguin who has a surprising lack of DIY skills? Even if that works out, this house is being built under my bed within my parents house, so I wouldn’t really have moved out, even when I do get things up together. I know it is disordered, but in these instances at these parties, my eating disorder is of great comfort to me, because when I am feeling like a hopeless failure, I can comfort myself with all the things I have “achieved” through my anorexia, all the hard work and goals I have reached, even if in the real world things like “only ate X calories for lunch and have a BMI of Y” means very little.
This is but one of the many reasons I find the act of challenging my eating disorder and overall recovery so difficult, because in doing so I am carving out the well crafted plug filling my sense of achievement space and leaving it empty again with the gale whistling through my abdomen.
I know that the key to all of this is simply find another thing to fill that space, but it is a lot harder than I ever anticipated because when it comes to making new goals or setting out on new pursuits that you are not very experienced in, there is a high chance of failure, something that is reassuringly lacking when it comes to the world of having an eating disorder, as I have had it for so long now that I know the rules and I know that when I put my mind to it I can achieve the goals it sets. Setting my hopes and dreams on becoming a lawyer or something is a lot more complicated because it relies on so many outside influences and there are so many places for error. What if I don’t get into law school? What if I fail my exams? What if I manage to make it as a High Court judge and then at the biggest case of my career I lose my big hammer thing that judges use after they have announced their verdict, and the jury and I are left until the end of time unable to put a murderer into prison because I cant bang my hammer on the table? With eating disorder goals, I have to rely on nobody but myself, and I don’t need to be mindful of where I am keeping my hammer.
From speaking to other people with eating disorders I know it is fairly common to use anorexia to serve your sense of achievement, and in a way it is great. The anorexia or whatever else serves the function of filling that sense of achievement and blocking that gale, but it isn’t a particularly healthy filling, because once lodged in there the eating disorder grows bigger, spidering slithery tendrils away from the hole in which is was originally placed to take over and kill the whole body altogether. Therefore when it comes to recovery, it is vital to think about and work on making a new life and set of dreams to pursue and goals to achieve alongside eating a healthy diet and getting to a health body weight.
If you are currently in recovery or contemplating it and are struggling with this issue then I guess my advice is to be brave and rip that eating disorder plug out to feel that abdomen gale for a bit. I know it sucks. It will be chilly, and put you at risk of failing whilst attempting to fill that desire for achievement with things you have never tried before. Maybe things you might be bad at, or heaven forbid, things you may fail in. But maybe that is ok, and nobody can get these kind of things right the first time. Maybe in reality, achieving or failing at anything in life is far better than fooling yourself into thinking you are achieving in an illness that is basically just starving you to death, which is not an achievement at all.
Therefore I want to challenge everyone reading this with an eating disorder to try and find something new or give a random hobby a go to try and replace the one you have that is potentially killing you. Take up chess, or tiddlywinks, collect magnets shaped like penguins in hilarious poses, hell try and beat that world record for dancing the salsa with potatoes on your head. That last one especially is a great one to start with because to let you into a little secret I have learnt from my research, nobody has even set a record for that yet, so you have a pretty good chance of winning (I still cant believe no human has dared to attempt such a feat before.)
Yes it is silly and yes it sounds pointless but I urge you all to give it a go anyway, because in life there is so much more to devote your efforts and attentions to than a silly number on the scales that doesn’t tell you anything anyway. You will never lie on your death bed and reminisce about the greatness you achieved by starving yourself and wasting your life, but by God wouldn’t it be wonderful to lie there in your final moments, and to reminisce about salsa dancing amongst all your trophies and Guinness world book of record certificates, a little pile of winning potatoes gently settled at your feet. That my friends is success. Go and get it.