An eating disorder is like a pair of armbands, keeping you afloat when otherwise you feel like you would drown. It makes life easier in many cases – by holding onto your disorder you feel like you have control and feel like you are able to accomplish things. Controlling your intake of food, your levels of exercise, how you eat, where you eat, who you eat with, what plate you eat on, even what cutlery you use. Suddenly the grip of the arm bands become tighter and you see other people swimming past without armbands, playing, splashing, diving, but there you are, stuck in your own safety net of restriction and control.
Being stuck within the grips of an eating disorder feels like being stuck in the ‘baby pool’ during your primary school swimming lessons, when you see other classmates move to the ‘big pool’, and despite all of your best efforts you still need your armbands. But as you improve, week on week, you move away from the armbands and towards the swimming float. Still a buoyancy aid, still something to hold on to, but not something that is attached to you. You can let go, you can swim alone, and at first it is difficult. Sometimes you go back to the float, so you can have time to rest, and it makes swimming a quicker and less strenuous activity.
Like learning to swim, learning to live without an eating disorder is a frustrating process. How can other people make it look so easy? Why is it so difficult to stay afloat? The first time you take off your armbands it takes all of your energy and commitment to stay above the water. Your head dips under and you feel like you are drowning. But week on week, practise after practise, your swimming technique improves; you can stay above the water.
Getting your swimming badges is one of childhood’s highlights. The first badge is five metres, and how difficult it was. But as your stroke becomes more defined, as you learn different techniques and find the one that suits you best, you find that you can move through the water. Recovery from an eating disorder is similar to this. You don’t want to let go; you feel comforted by the way that you can float through life. At first, when you let go, it is terrifying, and you are pulled under the water, drowning underneath the taunts from the bully inside your head.
‘Stop eating that.’
‘You shouldn’t have eaten that.’
‘You might as well eat everything now.’
But as you learn to swim, to use the best technique for you, it becomes easier, it becomes smoother. Sometimes you have to pull over to the side and take a breath. Sometimes you have to use a float, to make it easier or because some days we need that little extra support, but you stay afloat all the same.
Swimming is an essential life skill. You don’t have to be amazing at it; you don’t have to do it competitively. You can do it for fun, for exercise, or simply so you have the ability to keep above the water if you ever find yourself in danger. Recovery is like swimming. The freedom and elation you feel when you take off the armbands, when you realise that you can live, you can move forward without your disorder, is like the swimming lesson where you were allowed to swim in your pyjamas. (Which unfortunately I never got to do because, ironically, I hate swimming, but that is beside the point.)
There are things that make swimming easier, and the support that you have around you during your eating disorder recovery is like the lifeguards stood at the poolside. They don’t intervene if they see you struggling a little, for they know that it is a learning process; you must fall under the water a little for you to react to keep yourself afloat. If you are in danger, if you do need help to stop you from drowning, then it is always there. Your friends, family, GP, teachers, are all there for you. They are all the people on the side of the pool. They may swim alongside you for part of your journey. They may swim too close at times. But no one learns anything without being taught first. No one learns the best way to swim without trying different techniques. I will never be able to master the butterfly but that doesn’t mean that I won’t reach the other side of the swimming pool.
Recovery is difficult. An eating disorder is difficult. Separating what you know, what you have become and what has changed is different; in the grips of an eating disorder it is not often clear which is the best path to take. It can feel like standing on the edge of the diving board, looking down at the pool below you, looking down and not knowing quite where you will land. But know that however far down you go, however far off target you feel, you will still float to the top, you will still end up on the surface of the water, and how much better it will be when you realise that life is for living.
The clarity that recovery gives you is that of when you wear goggles underwater. Without them you can open your eyes under the water but the vision is blurry and you can’t stay underwater for long. You can hold onto your eating disorder for as long as you want, and you can return to the comfort of your eating disorder. It’s not easy and recovery isn’t linear. But with goggles, you can see exactly where you are headed. They give you the ability to swim underwater as well as on the surface.
So take the plunge. Dive into recovery. Into the pool. Move from the comfort of the shallow end, to the point where your toes just touch the floor, to where you are out of your depth, but just keep swimming.