Someone made a comment to me today (actually it was just 3 simple words) and i began to reflect on something that i really struggled with when i began re-feeding in hospital. I wanted to blog about this as i know that so many others will be struggling and i want you to know that you are not alone. However uncomfortable it is hearing these three words there is more than likely a reason for the reaction it brings out in you.
Three words that cause dread to anyone in the grips of an eating disorder (and those who are recovering, even those who are recovered) Three simple words that are intended as a compliment, words that thousands of women all over the world would love to hear every single day, but sends eating disorder sufferers into a fit of panic and anxiety.
Can you guess what they are?
That’s right, hearing the words ‘You look well’ or a variation on this ‘your looking great’ ‘wow you look so much better’ and ‘it’s good to see you are getting back to normal’
We have all been there and just hearing these phrases now has probably brought back feelings both positive and negative (sorry about that) to how you have felt in these situations.
I felt it important to write about this because it is one of the hardest, mood destroying, soul destroying parts of recovery from an eating disorder and can be experienced from day one of recovery all the way through the stages and ultimately when you reach a healthy weight, especially when you reach a healthy weight.
I remember the first time i heard this in my latest (and final) re-feeding. I think that i had just been admitted to inpatient treatment and i had a family visit. I can only have been in hospital a week and already i got the ‘your looking better’. Of course what was really meant was i no longer look ready to drop, not so grey in the face and actually functioning! I had colour in my cheeks and was smiling (the first smile they had seen in a long time) You look well didn’t carry the meaning of how i interpreted it. Of course i didn’t look ‘well’, but i looked better than i did prior to admission. My family may have just been being polite because that is what you tend to say to people who are in hospital. They never expected their three words to have such an impact on me. I don’t think that they thought anything of it after it was said, but i did.
What was actually said, ‘Your looking well’ said as a two second passing comment.
What i heard, ‘Wow, you have put on weight, you don’t look ill anymore, you must be getting better, why are you in hospital, you cant be anorexic anymore, see, eating wasn’t so hard was it?’ Amazing how those three little words can be heard so differently when they fall upon eating disordered ears. Of course i didn’t look better, i hadn’t even gained any weight, i still looked like a walking zombie but that didn’t matter, it is what i heard. It is what the anorexia heard and held on to.
So, why do these comments make us feel so awful? I wont sit here and pretend that i have a psychology degree but with the first hand experience i have i feel qualified enough to talk about this. It will be different for everyone however i am sure that i am scratching the surface here, i am definitely on to something for hundreds of people who have been or are in the same situation as i was.
YOU LOOK WELL YOU LOOK BETTER
Well and Better. These imply health, they do not imply illness, suffering or being sick.
As someone suffering we don’t want to be healthy because it symbolises that we are well, and if we are well then everything is OK. If everything is OK we are not struggling, if we are not struggling then we are better.
Well, Better, Healthy = NORMAL
From experience my eating disorder was a coping mechanism, a way of showing my family that i was not OK. I was suffering and struggling with something that was so deep rooted but i couldn’t tell them what. I didn’t have the words or strength to talk about it. As i wasn’t able to talk i did the one thing that i knew how to, i lost weight. I lost a lot of weight, very quickly. As long as i was losing weight and at an increasingly low weight i was unwell. I was ill. They could see that i was physically suffering and this was enough. Really i was suffering mentally, i was mentally ill but because this was too hard to admit or show i just maintained an unacceptably low weight so they would know something was wrong and i was not well.
As i gained weight they were seeing me ‘get better’ (physically) and hearing people say ‘you look well’ felt as though i had been kicked in the stomach a thousand times over. People thought i was better and physically i was no longer unwell but mentally nothing had even begin to change at this stage. This is where my relapses occurred. This comment triggered at least three relapses, causing me to lose weight as fast as i could getting myself back to my ‘safe zone’ of looking unwell. Hearing these comments was just too difficult and as mentally nothing was getting better i was not able to see past the weight gain.
It wasn’t until i had learnt to talk that i began to show people that i was still unwell even though i was back at a normal healthy weight. There came a point where my family began to understand that i was still very unwell and this made it easier to accept the ‘you look good’ comments because my weight wasnt serving a purpose of showing that i wasn’t well anymore.
I remember the day that i went to see my mum and dad and my dad said to me ‘your looking really well’. Instead of that initial sinking feeling i smiled and said thank you. I genuinely felt proud. I wanted to look good. It was nice for them to see me looking well and also for me ,as my body image was improving my aim became to look healthy and strong not skinny.
I cannot begin to explain how good it felt to be able to accept a comment like that, that i have been avoiding for over ten years.
It does still fell strange when people who are not so close as my family tell me that i look well because i know that to them they think i am fully better and that the weight gain did symbolise becoming well. I don’t blame them because i cant expect them to understand the complexity of the eating disorder and the purpose it served. Anyway it doesn’t matter what those people think, i don’t need them to know if i’m better or not. The only thing that matters is that i’m able to be more open and honest with my family and now they know what is going on with me. I am learning to communicate through healthy alternative means that are not food or weight focused.
My advice to anyone out there who hates hearing these comments, if it causes you to breakdown then try to ask yourself why? On the surface you may think that you just don’t want to look ‘better’ or ‘bigger’ or ‘normal’ you want to be ‘thin’ but if you dig a bit deeper then over time you will see that there is more to it than that. Those three words are/were symbolising something to you. If you are like me then try to learn to communicate by telling people how you feel rather than seeing weight loss as your only means.
I no longer need to maintain a low weight because i am able to say ‘yes, ok i am struggling a bit at the moment’. I don’t need to lose weight to show this. This was a really important realisation for me which helped me being to recover and see that i don’t NEED to lose weight, and you don’t either.