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What happens when you start to feed your brain again?

During my recovery from anorexia and bulimia, a lot of focus was put on establishing a healthy weight and I was well supported in doing this. I stuck to a meal plan of three meals and three snacks – feeling like I was eating ALL the time but assured that it would get easier, and I would be able to enjoy food again. During my therapy sessions, we discussed coping mechanisms, emotions, how my week had been, and it did become easier, and I became more comfortable in really speaking about how I was feeling and the role that food had taken in my life. At this time, my eating disorder was struck by the recklessness of allowing myself to eat again and at the beginning of recovery all my brain power went on fighting the rules I had become akin to.

I tackled the foods I had been avoiding, creating a list of so-called ‘fear foods’ and adding them into my diet slowly but surely. Each time, the guilt and anxiety were rife, but I suppose these feelings were something that I had become almost attuned to during the time of my eating disorder. Of course, it is extremely important to approach these feelings and beliefs around food but the thing that shocked me most about recovering from an eating disorder was the outpour and explosion of emotions which came once I had re-established a healthy weight.

During my eating disorder and recovery, I read countless accounts of people’s similar journeys and found much comfort and reassurance in doing so, and I hope that this may do the same for someone else. I want to talk about my experience of being able ‘to feel’ again.

After a period of restriction and devotion to my eating disorder, my brain simply did not have the fuel to do it all. This is a common reporting in people with eating disorders, in that the brain and body prioritise the most important functions to keep you going. This meant that for me, most of the time the world was dull and grey, I suppose because I was looking at it through the lens of my eating disorder and recovery.

Recovery was difficult and felt like an uphill battle and this was only exacerbated by the guilt of trying to leave my eating disorder and feeling like a failure in doing so. Something I can only realise in hindsight was that my emotional response to other things that were happening in life was also dull and dampened – I still went out with friends and tried to keep on going as well as I could but a part of me was detached and I lived with a weight on my shoulder. It is difficult to feel proud of yourself when you are leaving behind an eating disorder – of which the grip never loosens.

After a few months of feeling like I was eating constantly and ignoring everything I had come to believe, I managed to regain a healthy amount of weight and with that I regained a lot of life too. Restricting food is not the only part of my eating disorder, I restricted every aspect of my life and so when reintroducing the freedom of allowing myself to eat, I reintroduced a lot more life too.

The only way I can describe how it felt was that I had been living in a bubble for the past year or so, seeing how life could be but not letting myself get too close. Through many therapy sessions, we worked to get closer and closer to popping this bubble. I cannot pinpoint a specific moment when I felt that I had escaped but escape is the correct word to describe the urgency and anxiety around life away from my eating disorder.

Without this protective bubble I was back into ‘the real world’.  I could now allow myself to do what everyone else was doing – nights out, trips out, meals out, holidays, shopping – all of which were no longer dictated by food and fear. Going from none of this to all of this, reignited part of my brain which had been dampened. I was able to enjoy things again and it was like a constant rush of adrenaline. After not being able to fully enjoy these things or have any brain space to do so, I was almost hyperaware to how enjoyable life could be. In a similar way to the natural drive for an abundance of food after a period of restriction, I felt a natural drive to keep doing as many things as I could in the fear that it could all disappear again.

At the start, it was a honeymoon experience of allowing myself to live again and almost giving myself the leeway to do so after breaking through the grips of my eating disorder. I was able to enjoy things again and experience all the emotions, feeling truly happy and positive rather than the dampened emotions I had during my eating disorder. It was like putting a new pack of batteries into my brain and suddenly all the emotions, thoughts and pathways which had been switched off for the past year were coming back to life.

Looking back, it was an extremely overwhelming experience both for me and the people around me, my behaviour was urgent and erratic because I had been given back normal life but part of me didn’t know how long it would last for. I felt that I had missed out on a lot during the peak of my eating disorder and now was my chance to enjoy myself again. I really feel for the friends and family who stuck by me during this time as I had gone from the tunnel vision of an eating disorder to the tunnel vision of ‘freedom’ and I was A LOT (and this is something I will always reflect on and feel guilty for).  I had broken free from the eating disorder and life of control and now could relish in the spontaneity of normal life and not be chained down by any food, exercise or weight rules – it was as much as a rush for me at that time as restriction was at the beginning of my eating disorder.

It is in retrospect that I can see how many emotions I had spinning around my head and how confusing and overwhelming it was. I had lost the identity of my eating disorder and had lost the protective bubble wrap of it too – I was now just me, back out in the wild so to speak. I think we speak a lot about the early stages of recovery, mainly beating the disordered behaviours and reinstating a regular eating pattern and healthy weight (if applicable) but not a lot about the neurobiological changes that come with that.

I did still have therapy during this time but was under the illusion that because I had put on weight and started to eat more regularly that I was magically fixed, I wanted to celebrate the hard work I had put in over the past year and the people who had worked through it all with me wanted to do so too. Yet, a lot of work was still to be done and it was a period of trial and error (mostly error) of how to find the balance in life again.

I want to remind people of the emotional rehabilitation alongside the nutritional and physical rehabilitation, I certainly expected everything to be fixed once I had been deemed ‘healthy’ but in some ways it was more difficult and overwhelming that times of my eating disorder because I was no longer dampening my emotions and instead, they were firing off in all angles. Restriction physically changes the brain and so feeding the brain again re-creates these pathways and you have to learn how to live again and, like with any lessons, you often have to fail to learn the best way or the right way.

Maybe the takeaway point of this ramble, is that recovery itself is a ramble. It is a messy and unpredictable path along which you may stumble, it is full of learning and maybe you will find a few short cuts too – essentially, whichever path you take you will make it to the end destination and be able to look back at how far you have come, even if it felt like a blind task at the time.

Contributed by Katie