Protection in Emptiness
Eating Disorders and Personality Disorder – #6
“Closing the drawbridge” – eating disorders and rigidity
PLEASE READ WITH CAUTION – this post contains discussion of eating disorders (primarily anorexia), description of my eating-disordered thinking patterns, and a link to an article about studies on calorie restriction
[Wow, again it has been too long since I have posted in this series. Sorry.]
Many books about eating disorders, in particular anorexia, mention rigidity of thinking as a symptom which emerges as restriction of food increases and weight drops. When I worked at an eating disorder service, it was frequently described in inpatients on the ward. I’ve been pondering why this is and how much did I experience it when I was anorexic. I never used to think that my eating disorder was about control, although I now would take that back and I think I did use it if not exactly for control, in order to separate myself from my mother’s abuse and protect myself (and, I thought, others too) from demands, emotions and the dangers I felt they presented.
Perhaps it is logical that counting calories and measuring portions and exercise, forcing yourself to adhere to a punishing regime of starvation and painfully excessive activity in the very weakened physical state of anorexia, requires a strong, almost angry, obsessional drive. Sticking to this above and against all the natural urges of your body to keep you well and nourished, to the point that your body consumes its own muscle for energy, requires a steely determination that must be fuelled from somewhere. This could be seen as rigidity. It could easily spread to other areas of cognition and daily routine.
Certain chemical changes in the brain are thought to contribute to this rigidity as well, I believe. Two studies were conducted in the 1950s, using as participants conscientious objectors to National Service and former prisoners of war. One of these is the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, where starvation was imposed on physically and psychologically healthy participants who had no history of eating disorders. As the participants’ calories were reduced and their weights dropped, their thinking patterns became more rigid and obsessional thought and behaviour patterns emerged. When their calories were no longer restricted, they also became vulnerable to binge-eating. You can read more about Ancel Keys’ Minnesota Study here. (It would be considered highly immoral by today’s standards, although perhaps it is worth bearing in mind that one purpose of the study was in order to find out how to care for and manage re-feeding and weight restoration in victims of starvation in several countries following World War II.)
I am not sure to what extent rigid thinking was a big feature in me when I was severely underweight. Others who knew me at the time might disagree! It was mentioned to me on a couple of occasions.
On further thought, perhaps I did not struggle so much with rigidity over, say, my daily timetable – with the notable exception of excessive exercise, as I forced myself to swim a certain distance a certain number of times per week, until I was so exhausted and weakened that I could no longer move through the water which felt ice cold, my legs cramping, and I would drag myself to the changing rooms with my skin purple and blue, bruises appearing that did not heal and no number of layers of clothing warming me up.
However, if the rigidity was not externalised, it was certainly internal. This is what I think of as the “closing drawbridge” of anorexia that locks up or locks away everything we fear. I’ve talked in previous posts about the blissful, safe numbness of anorexia, ensuring my emotions were in check and flattened, and ensuring the evil I perceived in me was locked away to hurt only me, weaken only me, so that I could not hurt anyone else. Locking up the perceived evil locked up feeling, too. No more panic – just obsessive counting calories, distances, how to hide or avoid food. No more fear – just explicable pain, wonderful blanks and emptiness, safe empty gnawing in my stomach. No need to feel others’ feelings. No need to be hurt or be overwhelmed. Just glorious numb, nothing, whiter. lighter, clearer than before. No needing; no taking; just closing down, separated, apart from everything, locked up safe, pushing away and always succeeding, taking nothing in, frozen.
As a friend pointed out to me recently, emotions take energy, just as physical exertion takes energy, so with vastly insufficient calorie intake, there simply is no energy with which to feel. Despite the lack of energy, the drawbridge was shut tight and closing harder. The further I starved and restricted, paradoxically, tighter shut the door and even stronger came the energy driving me on, not to need, not to feel, not to fear, not to touch anyone or anything.
Coupled with that strength came a desperation never to leave this closed up place and never to need or feel again, to remain unreachable, to keep safe away and to keep everyone else safe away from me. If I could just be sure to hurt myself enough and never to eat, this wonderful place would stay with me. The fear of everything the drawbridge kept away joined the energy and both drove me harder and deeper into the numb place of anorexia.
Combined with my mother’s illness and abusive actions, there was no shortage of reinforcement from the outside that this numb place was good. The only period of my life in which my mother’s emotional abuse and threats reduced and in which she was even caring towards me, in which interactions with her were free of threats and scorn and twisted statements about the harm I was doing to her and my father, was when I was severely underweight with anorexia so severe it was probably life threatening. I was no longer a danger and no longer seemed to be so evil. I even thought perhaps she loved me. I even dared to hope perhaps the evil thing I was sure was in me and that came out and hurt and controlled and deceived everyone, was gone. If I could just stay like this, perhaps it wouldn’t come back. On the other hand with the drawbridge tight shut my body was mine as well, only mine, and the anorexia was mine, and she would never come near me again, literally never touch me again.
(Perhaps that was the one thing that was eventually true in all my twisted anorexic thinking. She did abuse me sexually during the anorexia but afterwards, she didn’t ever abuse me sexually again.)
Until I started to eat again and weight restore, there was only one thing that cut through my rigid defences, and that was singing. I’m not a particularly good singer but I was in a musical at my school (more because I used to be able to dance, than for my voice, I think!) and afterwards I took singing lessons, which were about the only part of my later school years that was enjoyable. Although I enjoyed singing, during the anorexia I would find that the music had a peculiar effect. We didn’t usually sing particularly emotive songs but I would often find music bringing me to want to cry or causing a strange twisting feeling of unease inside me, as though it was draining away the rigid kind of energy but I wouldn’t let it go. My mother prevented me seeking any professional help for my eating disorder but the only two people to whom I did talk about it honestly at all at school were my singing teacher and my art teacher. (My swimming coach was also very concerned about me and to some extent I did talk to her but, for some reason, although I knew she cared and was a safe person to trust, I was never able to be truthful to her, I think because in some way I feared hurting or disappointing her too much.) I don’t know why music and to some extent art, broke through the rigid protective mechanisms, but it did. I know that music can be very helpful in therapy for people with various conditions, including dementia and depression. I’ve never read about it in relation to anorexia but that might be something I should look into!
The struggles I have with overpowering, overwhelming emotions in my Borderline Personality Disorder, are the complete opposite of the protective place I entered in my anorexia, and they are an excess of feeling and needing which are probably, actually everything I feared. If I’m honest the numb place was safer. I’ve long lost the way back there and lost the key to the drawbridge and I hate that and I’ll admit that in the worst times, when I really hate myself and everything I feel and need, I wish I could return and it’s hardest at these times to try not to punish myself with cutting or purging. I’m trying to learn how to choose life and staying connected to other people – and to my body and my emotions – without the unbearable and dangerous becoming all that there is.