A closing drawbridge and a silent cry
Eating disorders and personality disorder
When it’s less safe, but I am no longer my abuser’s child
WARNING: this post contains mention of childhood abuse, discussion of my experience of anorexia and disordered eating and the purpose it served for me in my eating disordered thought processes.
When I started drafting this post, I didn’t actually intend it to form part of this series on eating disorders and personality disorder. I didn’t realise that it would be so much about my eating disorders, but it turns out that it is. I started writing tonight in preparation for my therapy group tomorrow. Last week, we were talking about feeling safe. In the discussion, I said that at some points during therapy (around the past 14 months so far), I’ve actually been less safe than when I was not in therapy. In hindsight, perhaps I should say, felt less safe. It has felt less safe. Despite this, I still feel therapy is a process I need and want to go through. Someone asked me a question about that, to which I struggled to verbalise the answer. I’ve thought on her question during the week. I’m not going to write what she said because I don’t want to break her confidentiality, but I wanted to share the reflection she has led me to about becoming more or less safe during therapy.
As soon as I tried to explain, the familiar eating disorder thought came into my mind – when I was anorexic it was safe. I know how sick and dangerous that thought is and how illogical, the physical destruction of my body having been so clear. Yet, there was a point not very long ago in therapy where I so desperately wanted my anorexia back, because it would have been safe, and not so much too much. With anorexia, I wasn’t too much and nothing was too much. (Except food, of course!) I was encased in a safe, protected place, and I felt nothing but its power, voice and drive. My emotions and my body made no more demands.
With anorexia I could be certain in the knowledge I was starving, punishing, weakening, enough to atone for what my abuser told me I was, enough to avoid the damnation I thought I otherwise deserved, enough to ensure I was not a threat. Enough to satisfy my abuser. And even years after I had got away from her, I thought perhaps anorexia could take me back to that one time where it had seemed she wanted me, seemed through a child’s eyes that perhaps she loved me, the one time I wasn’t bad, where I was so weakened she took total control. That would be totally safe.
I was never cared for by her. Total control stood in for care instead. The closest thing to care and safety for me was my total self-destruction, total physical weakness, allowing her to take total control of me. My BMI was about 13. I was in unbearable pain in my back and legs. I could just barely walk with crutches and had to spend a lot of time in bed. She took control literally of my movements, my food, my use of the bathroom and toilet, my washing, my dressing and undressing, my weighing (any action that could have and should have been private, she invaded) my contact with other people (even the doctors who wanted to help me, whom she prevented me seeing most of the time). Telling me what I was thinking, telling me what I was doing to the family, telling me what to say, total control – but this total control was the only time that the terrible powers and terrible intentions she told me I had, seemed to cease. My body and my mind ceased to make demands and I succumbed to her totally. This was the only safe place. The rest of the time I lived in fear of what I would do to her or the family and of her terrible threats coming true.
Paradoxically, at other times my anorexia gave me something that was nevertheless mine. It was my anorexia and my body. I think I’ve written before how when she had me strip in front of the mirror, a fierce voice in my head said, this is my body and you will never touch me again, and I resolved to lose as much more weight as I could.
That determination and angry strength was unusual. It was more about cutting off. Later, I stayed as numbed and weakened as I could. Long after I was out of the anorexic weight range, physically safe, I continued to punish myself. Starving. Vomiting. Cutting. Overdose. On the outside, I could do what was required and expected. I achieved. I was together, doing what they required in terms of education and work. Again, that was safe, because I was doing what was required, my dangerous emotions were numbed, my atonement continued. Until I imploded. Everything went to pieces.
As everything fragmented, numb was no longer sure and safe. I desired the end and wanted to end my life. At the same time, my child voice that I had suppressed so successfully for so long, was screaming and desperately needed to be cared for. This was explosively dangerous. My abuser’s threats about what I was would come true; they’d be proved to be true for all to see. The evil in me would explode out of control, if I could no longer punish and weaken myself. I would cause unlimited hurt to others without even seeing it myself, but everyone else knowing the evil I was. I would never be cared for (ie in someone’s total control).
Straight away, the rejections began. (Again. Just as I’d been rejected when I had needs and sought help as a child – terrified what my abuser’s reaction would be; my father not knowing what was going on, so not protecting me.) I was not under my abuser’s control any more, but there was no care for me, no one to protect me, and the few people I trusted were not there for me. The pressures – I don’t know if consciously or not – piled on me made it very clear I am a disappointment, not good enough, not what they need me to be, that they will only accept me as long as I am moving in the direction they think I should be at the pace they have dictated.
I cannot silence the needs any more. Anger boiled out of control, hurt screamed. Going through therapy, the feelings intensified. There was no way back to the protection my eating disorder had given me. Now, when I write about how it worked and why I wanted my eating disorder back, I am horrified. I am horrified at the power my abuser had over me and how I allowed her to have it and how that made me feel safe.
I will never receive now the care I did not receive when I was a child being abused. I will never receive again the closest thing I knew to care, the total submission to another person and control by them. Terrible as that was, I feel as though I will never be sure, as I could for a brief time be then when I was totally dependent on her, that I am not the bad, evil thing I had been taught that I am.
With the loss of all my coping mechanisms, including stopping self-harming and stopping overdosing, as I have somehow by the grace of God managed not to do in the past few weeks, it does feel more dangerous. I don’t know how to find any reassurance, internal or external. My feelings, my emotions, experiences, feel so out of control and dangerous. I am no longer my abuser’s child. I am no longer what my family requires. I will never have the care and security I did not have as a child, nor will I have the safety unconditional acceptance would give, because I do not have that now that I’m no longer what they require. I don’t yet know how to exist without these things.
Part of me grieves for the loss of the eating disorder and mechanisms that kept me safe, because stupid and twisted as it sounds, they did at least protect me; despite the harm they caused, they protected me from ending my life, and though it was fairly illusory, they gave me the closest thing I had experienced to being cared for.
I should say that I think that another important part of the safety issue in therapy is coping between sessions with the emotions that have come up in sessions. Also, the impact that this disorder and the recovery process has across your life. Until very recently having the help of my support worker, I struggled badly with the social isolation that followed the loss of many important relationships, and the “domino effect” of all the material stability in my life falling away because of the financial problems caused by losing job after job and my erratic spending when I was out of control. Struggling with this at the same time as my emotions were going out of control anyway, my desperation for help increasing but being unheard by everyone I tried to get help from and had been led to believe I could trust, brought me very much too close to the edge. My support worker has greatly contributed to my safety now.