Whenever you enter treatment for any kind of eating disorder, you will often be given about a million worksheets, pamphlets and photocopied passages from text books, about the mysterious topic of “re-feeding”.
Indeed, over the years I myself have been handed many of these scientific attempts to explain the various processes the body goes through during re-introduction of food after periods of starvation, and having been through those various processes multiple times, I thought I knew it all. I thought that when it came to re-feeding a patient with anorexia, I was an expert, an oracle of knowledge when combining my scientific genius (aka facts I memorised in text books) and personal experience. So arrogant and confident was I in my “know it all” attitude, that had I been asked to take part in the UK gameshow Mastermind, I would have chosen “the re-feeding process in treatment from an eating disorder” as my specialist subject and would have had a cabinet built for the trophy in my living room before I had even answered the first question. Luckily, nobody has ever asked me to be a contestant on Mastermind because if that had happened, I would have looked like a fool and would have had a very sad and lonely, empty of trophies, trophy cabinet.
Today then, rather than sit and mope with regard to my lack of trophies (and whopping great useless cabinet in my living room), I thought I would use my current situation as “person attempting re-feeding” to share with you the five things everyone needs to know about the re-feeding process when in recovery from an eating disorder.
This is not just the explanations that you get from the science books, this is the Born Without Marbles, real life, honest guide to get you through all the surprises that can happen during the re-feeding experience, even if you have been through it before and think you already know it all…
1. Taking it slow is important: I think there is often this misconception that the more food you can get into a person who has been starving for a long time the better, when really, that can be quite dangerous. When your body isn’t used to being given food, it sort of turns off and goes into a stand-by mode, so booting it up again is a process that needs to happen gradually. It is like if you had an out of work clown, to get them back into juggling you need to start again with 3 soft balls rather than going straight in with 10 flaming knives and a live alligator riding a chainsaw. When coming into hospital for example, people are often started off on half portions to build up from gradually over the space of a few days, to avoid the body going into too much shock and sending your electrolytes and cardiac functions all berserk. Now, this is not an excuse to let your eating disorder sneak in with “well, if it is dangerous to eat much even though you are in recovery, you should probably just eat a little bit of lettuce” because NO. All I am saying is that when you are getting back into the habit of giving your body food, you need to be gentle and start off slowly, preferably under medical supervision/working with a dietician to keep you both physically safe and to make certain you are gradually building up to the amount of food you need rather than sticking to the initial “half portions” of the first stage.
2. Any weight changes on the scales are not going to make any sense: In life, I think we treat scales a lot like calculators, machines that give us logical results and answers to various calculations of input and output made over the week. Unfortunately this is not the case, especially during the re-feeding process of recovery from an eating disorder, and instead of giant body calculators, I would encourage you to treat scales like a very drunk friend following a night out at the pub. This is not to say I advise taking your set of scales to the local takeaway for some cheesy chips and a lamb kebab (scales prefer pizza with a side of garlic bread), rather it is to say you should take everything they say not as fact, more as a vague approximation of reality/what is going on. I am not going into specific numbers here, but when I was admitted to hospital almost three weeks ago (my how time flies when you are in a mental institution!), I ate less than I had been eating at home, due to anxiety and because everything served to me was different and none of it was what I considered one of my safe foods. After a week of eating less than half I had been previously, I stepped on the scales expecting to lose weight. To my horror, I gained. A lot.
“Oh my goodness” I cried out dramatically fainting on the clinic floor. “What is this? My body is broken! Everyone says that when you eat more food you gain and when you eat less you lose weight but I am defying medical science. Someone send me to a laboratory for experimentation!”
When the doctors increased my meal plan, I was even more terrified than I had been before, figuring that if I was already gaining when I wasn’t eating, were I to eat more, my weight would spiral up and out of control. Therefore I continued to restrict in an attempt to lose the weight I had gained…and I gained again.
Soon enough, I had no choice but to start complying a bit and eating a little more, so on the next weigh day, I braced myself for another increase in kilos. You can imagine my surprise then, when I actually lost all the weight I had gained over the previous week despite having eaten double the calories. Logically, that made no sense to me, but, bodies and weights do not make sense during the re-feeding process. As food is reintroduced, chemical reactions explode like fireworks throughout the body, electrolytes get confused, the fluid levels go all over the place so when you get on the scales, any shifts you see are likely to be “false” weights due to all the internal changes going on. Thus, going back to the drunk friend comparison, when they show you a number aka tell you a story summarising the night before, though they will be able to give you a vague idea of what is going on/what your body weighs, they will not provide a logical accurate explanation of your situation/true body weight that you can gain any real knowledge or conclusions from.
3. Your body is going to do some very weird things: When people talk about the re-feeding process they will often whip out phrases like “nourish to flourish”, as if the second you start eating again, sunlight will start shining from your eyes and you will find yourself skipping gaily in a field of daisies. Admittedly, one does need to nourish in order to “flourish” and become physically well, but again this is a gradual process, and at the beginning it is likely your body will do less flourishing and more random weird things that you never expected or understand.
You will probably get tummy aches and indigestion, feel full one minute and ravenous with hunger the next, your bowels may go to sleep or into overdrive, you may fall asleep all the time or even be unable to sleep at all, night sweats and drastic changes in temperature may occur, blood sugar levels will be unpredictably random (recently mine were highest after a day of very little food and then too low after the biggest meal of my admission so far – another reason why medical supervision in re-feeding is vital), and you may experience abdominal bloating as well as this weird thing called Edema. Edema is basically when your body goes through dynamic fluid shifts and parts of your body (mainly your feet and legs) may puff up.
This Edema thing has been especially bad for me this time and my legs and feet swelled up as if someone had thought I was a bouncy castle and plugged me into one of those air machines (during this time I learnt that life is hard when you are a bouncy castle as children are constantly jumping all over you. On the positive side, if you are business savvy you can charge them a few quid a time and make a tidy profit to buy yourself something nice/ice packs to soothe all the bruises made by violently jumping feet all over you).
I think the Edema one had me especially scared because naturally your mind will convince you that rather than water retention your legs are swelling with actual weight and fat, and as someone who is currently managing Edema I can hand on heart promise that is not true. Like I said, I swelled up like a bouncy castle, but after keeping my feet elevated for the past fortnight my legs and feet have started to deflate a little. It feels as if it is a disaster and going to last forever, but it DOESN’T. Me warning you of all these things is not to put you off the re-feeding process, far from it, as it is far more dangerous to remain undernourished with no chance of flourishing in the near future. Instead what I am trying to do here is let you know what might happen so that if it does, you are prepared and know that this kind of thing is totally normal and it is not an excuse for your eating disorder to convince you that it is your body and yours alone being weird and “rejecting food”.
4. Your mind is also going to do some very weird things: You would think that with your body off galavanting and causing mayhem, your mind might perhaps wait to kick up a fuss until after all the physical stuff is over, but no, your mind is going to go a galavanting as well and will also be doing some very weird things. The re-feeding process is very much like the descriptions of puberty I was given in a lesson by my primary school teacher (good Lord was that a terrifying conversation), in that your emotions are going to go all over the place. Like I said, when you are not eating, your mind and body go into standby mode and occasionally emotions shut down. When you start eating again however, the emotions turn back on at weird and unpredictably inappropriate moments. One minute you will be numb and feeling nothing at all, the next you could be laughing hysterically at your shoe, then you will be filled with rage for no particular reason before being overwhelmed with sadness and crying yourself to sleep…It is a lot more fun than it sounds…actually it is not, but again this is not to put you off the process, rather so that you know what to expect!
5. It is different every time: This is probably the most important lesson I am currently learning as I go through the re-feeding process and I imagine it will also be the most important one for people who, like me, have been through it several times before and may be reading this thinking “this is not new information, I know what to expect” much as I may have two weeks ago. I thought that because I knew how my body had reacted to re-feeding before, I would be able to predict how it would be this time round, but that was not the case. Every time you go through re-feeding it will be a different experience and your body will react differently. The longer you have been ill or the more trauma your body has been through, the weirder the experience may be. Like I said, I have really struggled with Edema this time round, and the reason I mentally struggled with it so much is because it has never happened to me before.
I knew all about it and had seen it happen to other people, but when my legs swelled up I was convinced that it was real weight rather than water retention, because my body hadn’t reacted like that on any previous occasion and therefore I thought that kind of problem could never affect me. Had I had Edema before I think I would have coped better with it, as well as the weird things I have noticed this time round on the scales, but it was the fact that “my body doesn’t do this usually” that had me frightened that something was going on and I was actually gaining and swelling with actual weight. Just because your body hasn’t done something before it doesn’t mean it won’t give it a whirl this time and if there is one thing I would want you to take away from this post it is that for all the preparations you make, this is still going to feel very random and very unpredictable…
…What a great final point to end on! Basically I have just told you a list of things to expect during re-feeding and then told you to go into it with no expectations because you cannot predict what will happen…hmm…Great advice…Good one Katie…
To be perfectly honest with you all, I have no idea what is currently going on with my body, what it will do tomorrow and quite frankly I don’t understand a damn word or second of this re-feeding malarky right now.
All I know is that it is scary, it doesn’t feel necessary to me, and I am still doubting the words of every doctor I come into contact with/struggling to accept or trust any of this.
Regardless of any of the mental rationale behind this admission or eating however, this is an honest account of what is and what can happen physically during the re-feeding process as I am trying to get through it, so if you have ever wanted to know what to expect or are going through similar things and are scared, you know that it is not just “your” body being weird and that there is someone else out there with swollen legs covered in the bruises of toddlers who have mistaken you for a bouncy castle.
Take care everyone x