Surviving traumatic events is common amongst folks who live with eating disorders. Whether a person who lives with anorexia or bulimia meets criteria for PTSD or not, there’s an excellent chance they have gone through overwhelmingly painful and terrifying experiences that in a very real sense are never truly over.
The National Eating Disorders Association estimates that as many as 30% of people who live with anorexia and bulimia are survivors of childhood sexual abuse. We hold in our societal awareness the knowledge that body imagery gets distorted by pop culture. What’s far less acknowledged is the shame too many of us hold of our bodies by virtue of what was done to them.
For as self destructive as binging and purging are they can be seen as the perfect metaphors for living with post traumatic stress. Binging is an attempt to fill an emotional emptiness that betrayal and a lack of safety left behind. Purging can be seen as an attempt to expel what disgusts us – the recurring memories and the pain and the fears that are all intertwined.
I spoke with an especially courageous young person in recovery recently who was willing to share their experience, strength, and hope:
“How I feel after I binge is how I felt as a kid: Disgusting, anxious/paranoid/fearful, unattractive, and useless. The feelings I get in the midst of binging and purging and the way I feel in the days that follow are based on how my body reflects the experience (Did I throw up all the food? Do I look bloated? etc).
It’s kind of like how someone looks/feels trying to execute some physical skill they’ve never done before, like riding a bike or trying to hit a baseball if you’ve never tried it before; inherently awkward, incapable, and just not of use. I feel like I cannot do anything, nor could I attempt to do anything, and I am as an individual about 50% capable in everything. A really bland, mediocre self-concept.”
– For many of us, the cycle of binging and purging is a means to avoid feelings, an attempt to instill feelings, and an effort to empty ourselves of feelings.
“When I want to binge, it’s always premeditated by a very particular feeling of this kind of slowly overwhelming cloud that every other thing I might want to accomplish in my day/life is far, far too involved or complicated for me to handle. These feelings always arise when I am alone (big surprise). Marijuana never made them start, however as the high would go on if I was alone it becomes very easy to become mindless, and normally the second I would eat anything I would be reminded of the binge mindset, regardless of how I felt a second beforehand.”
I am aware that this mindset is a very different feeling from how I am otherwise, but it becomes all I can focus on and then the eating of food is it’s own, checked-out numbing experience. I will eventually snap back to my “normal” self, but usually the exhaustion of the whole process plus feeling guilty and sad would keep me from doing anything else that day. Not always, but as I got further along the purging part was a a lot harder and I found the whole thing a lot more difficult to recover from.
– On being a work in progress today:
“When I have been taking care of myself, I have a lot of energy to do small things, and I can focus on those things as meaningful (I feel accomplished reading two chapters of a book and am not anxious about how many I “should” read or when I “need” to take a quiz or exam). I worry less about my physical appearance, I appreciate it more, and feel just more ownership and self-esteem from my body because it has been cared for and however it looks reflects that; it is what it is and what it is is healthy.
I feel like I can speak better, I find small insights pop into my head quicker even if I’m not thinking about a task or actively trying to figure something out. Food is starkly less of an experience and more of a thing. I still feel anxious about the future sometimes, but again I take comfort in knowing I am okay in the moment. I feel confident that things will work themselves out, as opposed to being anxiously afraid that I cannot do anything and thus nothing will ever come to fruition.”
– Hells, yes. Fruition only comes from growth and healing. Everything gets better as we move away from self destruction and toward self acceptance. It’s unjust that we should live with shame due to what was perpetrated against us. It’s our responsibility to give to ourselves what was denied us. Finding kindred spirits makes that worlds better. We give away the things we want to receive. When we connect, that becomes reciprocal.