Inside the Eating Disorder Mind: A Game of Courts and Cages
You may already be familiar with the fact that eating disorders are life threatening mental illnesses. You may also know that, as well as snatching away important opportunities to develop positive relationships with food, body and other people, eating disorders also starve a person of the opportunity to live a fulfilled, happy, creative and autonomous life.
If you have not suffered from an eating disorder yourself, but still have had experience of knowing a friend or loved one who has, you may or may not be familiar with the complexity of how it feels to be trapped within a mind that, at times, seems foreign, out of control and not your own.
Although we could speak for many pages about how the brain and body of someone with an eating disorder reciprocally malfunction to trap individuals within such a restrictive mindset, I think it is more important here to talk about very real lived experiences. The experiences of being a person who may feel hopelessly detached from both body and mind - sometimes feeling as though the eating disorder itself is a separate person lurking behind or within them, waiting to pounce, suffocate and claim their everyday decisions and eventually their own life.
Without understanding these experiences, we will simply continue to venture down the well trodden path of ignorance around eating disorders - especially when many people, professionals included, continue to believe that eating disorders take on a selfish and egocentric nature, where individuals choose and ‘want’ to be ill.
To help give you a clearer picture of these experiences, I recently began to reflect deeper on my own personal experiences of anorexia and orthorexia nervosa (an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating).
For myself, living with anorexia and orthorexia nervosa was a vicious game of courts and cages. Cages because I felt forever trapped in a vicious cycle of something that was being controlled by something that wasn’t me. Courts, because it felt like there was a huge parliament of angry people inside of me debating my every move, food choice and very existence.
To place this into a bit of perspective, it was although each food rule, diet and dogmatic dietary belief I came across was a person and argumentative court member, who subsequently felt entitled to enter a debate about everything I thought about eating. In a world made up of a very extensive network of diet cultures, the number of court members taking up space in my already crammed and easily influenced mind were countless.
They would incessantly argue over every little minute detail of food. If I was about to eat something with fat, sugar or anything refined in it, there was someone telling me why I shouldn’t. Following an obsession with reading everything I could about specific diets, there was eventually a person for every single food item - each of them debating with another, arguing about which was the ‘right’ choice to make. I was a judge without a hammer within the court room, as well as a prisoner about to be whisked off to a guilt infested jail.
The only ‘right’ choice which felt easier was to just not eat at all, or restrict to a very minimal subset of ‘safe’ foods in very specific and small portion sizes. I’ve never really been a follower of politics, but my mind became infested with every political party you can think of - if every party was associated with dogmatic ways of eating … fat free, gluten free, sugar free, refined flour free, plant based, organic, GMO free. Soon I would be life free...
I would have rather been placed in a bull ring rather than be left to fight off the parliament of angry viewpoints myself, because they all completely contradicted one another, creating an environment that led to deep seated anxiety and paralysis around preparing and eating food. I would literally shake at the thought of my next meal, or plan so rigorously in advance so as to avoid any internal argument I could. In effect, this argumentative court of food critics created impenetrable bars, forming a cage that electrocuted my entire body into guilt-infested spasms every time I broke a rule or tried to find a way of breaking free.
Eating disorders are not a choice - they are a very real experience of feeling out of control and unable to place your real self back into the driving seat of your own life. There are many neural pathways and ways of thinking that need to be cut off and rewritten in order to attain full recovery - a bit like filling in deep road tracks in the snow, clearing the path, and creating a new road altogether. There is an immensely strong wiring of the brain to think and act in certain ways when individuals have an eating disorder, and although its not impossible to remove and recreate them in a more life-enhancing way, it is very difficult.
Although many individuals with eating disorders do encounter immense difficulty when trying to break free from an identity of someone who is ‘slim’ or has an unhealthy relationship with food and body, most individuals do try their very best to break free each and every day.
For the sufferer, this can be immensely distressing, especially when others continue to believe that they could simply choose one day to eat and recover. Just like that, when in reality, full recovery can take several years.
If you speak to people with a current or present history an eating disorder, many will speak about the eating disorder as a third person. The monstrous IT or THAT, which shrouds a person’s real personality and the decisions they wish to make . As though an eating disorder is not actually a part of themselves, but some external force, separate from their authentic inner selves, that keeps them prisoner. To the outside, escaping seems so easy, and yet for the sufferer, the iron bars of the cage they feel locked inside couldn’t seem thicker.
I can relate to this strongly. I often felt many times that, although I wanted to recovery and eat food, there was something stopping me. A force so deep and strong inside and around me, that to go against its vicious voice would mean a fate worse than death. For the everyday person, food is just food. But for me and many others, eating or going outside what was ‘allowed’ would seem alike to jumping off a mountain.
Over the years, I have struggled to find ways of communicating how it felt to be trapped with this voice and external force that made me freeze around eating what my body really desired to be healthy. However, thinking about it as a vicious game of courts and cages makes sense to me as a way of expressing the reality of feeling confused, trapped and unable to break free from something that really isn't you.
Thankfully, breaking free is completely possible. It just takes a lot of work and support, which is massively helped when we reduce ignorance around eating disorders and enable individuals to gain hope that they really can take back control over their own lives.
For me, breaking free from the life threatening game of courts and cages involved being able to see my self-worth beyond my diet, food and perfectionistic standards through getting involved in activities away from activities that related to any of these things. For example, volunteering for a cause I passionately believed in massively helped me to see how my life is not based on how someone else views my weight or what I eat.
I was also able to get involved in gentle yoga rather than exercises that partly fuelled the desire to starve away the voices that made me feel weary with guilt and anxiety. Over time, I continued to challenge many of my fear foods, over and over again - this was a strenuous yet triumphant battle where I could gradually defeat each horrible court member from my brain. Soon, there was hardly anyone left to battle with, paving a way for a mind that didn’t feel fear around food, but instead curiosity, excitement and freedom to make my own choices.
A big contributor to your own or someone else’s eating disorder recovery is having compassionate support mechanisms that involve having a team of individuals who can understand how you feel, be there to help challenge you to your fears, and help you to love and appreciate yourself for who you are (regardless of what you eat and weigh). This team will also try their best to help individuals justify why their decision to eat whatever their true self and physical body desires is 100% justified - a million times more justified than any belief system that a nasty member of the eating disorder court tells them.
Recovery is never a linear path, and you don’t have to be at a ‘low enough’ or ‘ill enough’ wait to start recovery. The journey forward is justified simply through the fact of allowing food and/or weight to control some of your life - restricting you from your reaching your full potential.
Recovery does indeed take time, and sometimes several relapses along the way, but this is all part of the learning process. Embracing recovery may feel like a war at times, but it is a battle that we must enter, and one of the most empowering journeys where fighting everyday eventually leads to beating each unkind thought (evil court member) about food or yourself.
This makes way for a clearer path of learning about who you truly are, finding what you genuinely value, gaining greater self-compassion, experiencing authentic happiness and ultimately satisfying the soul by eating whatever you please and living life to the very full.