For a long time, I struggled to accept help because I didn’t believe I deserved it. I didn’t agree with my diagnosis and I thought I was attention seeking. When I finally started attending therapy, I felt like an imposter. I thought guiltily of the girls who really did need help, believing that I personally was depriving them. At that point, my mind twisted any acknowledgement of progress as confirmation that I was ‘giving up’, that I was weak-willed and selfish. I still feel my toes curl inside my socks and my jaw clench whenever I hear the dreaded, “You’re looking well!”
After three months of therapy, I was invited to attend a Body Image Awareness group alongside my one-to-one sessions. My experiences with university seminars (stilted silences and holding in a cough until my throat was about to explode) put me off at first. I agreed eventually, under the condition that if at any point I’d have to contribute an ‘interesting fact about myself’ I’d be allowed to leave and never return again (“My cousin’s met Captain Birdseye,” never got the reception I hoped for). After a few weeks of nervous silence, of opening my mouth then biting my lip or chewing my cheek, I finally explained this fear of progress to the group. I was astounded by the reception.
We spend a lot of time, as humans, nodding at other people. Nodding to let a car go in front of you, nodding to say thank you when someone holds the door, nodding along to music, nodding to confirm you like your neighbour’s new kitchen when actually it looks like a colour-blind toddler decorated it. The instinctive, physical act of nodding has become so entrenched in our social routines that the actual emotional connotations are lost. However, after attempting to put my most private thought processes into words, the overwhelming concurrence was palpable through their head movements. The others nodded so forcefully I could hear their necks crick and see their earrings catching against their hair. When others were given the opportunity to reflect and contribute to what I’d said, it was as though they were verbalising my own feelings. Suddenly, I was hearing the ideas that I’d never said aloud to anyone spoken through another’s words. All my toxic, seemingly irrefutable thoughts were vocalised through a different accent and cadence of speech, but with the essence uncannily identical. This gave me an indescribable sense of relief. When other people have the same thoughts as you, a distance elongates between ideas you’d been accepting as unchangeable aspects of your personality, and the truth. Thoughts become thoughts, thus losing their so far uncontested position in your mind as gospel facts. They are symptoms, not personality traits. Thus, a gulf between your eating disorder and you emerges.
So when I hear the other girls speaking of their experiences, I feel my nose tingle and my chest ache. I want to hug them and want them to believe me when I tell them how brave they are. I think that’s what we try to do when we nod manically at one another, smiling even though our noses are hurting and our chests feel like they might explode. This showed me the immeasurable capacity for compassion exhibited by people who have suffered from eating disorders. It is self-compassion we struggle with. I think mastering self-compassion is an important learning process incorporated into group therapy.
First, through vigorous nodding and watery smiles, we become aware of our own facility for compassion towards each other. The next step, I think, is achieved through an exercise in tracking the development of your eating disorder. After completing a homework activity that involved looking back on my relationship with my body over time, I was shocked by how early my obsessive tendencies were apparent. I remembered being five years old in P.E., sucking in my stomach and stepping into my shorts as quickly as I could. It was a poignant image and one I could recall with disturbing efficiency. I could see my bare feet, tiny toenails, against the rigid, play-dough stained floor of the classroom. Chapped and scabbed knees buckling as I tried to make myself as small as possible during the few seconds of semi-nudity. I wouldn’t eat my school dinner on P.E. days. I didn’t know what calories were back then. Instagram didn’t exist. MyFitnessPal didn’t exist. My adult teeth didn’t exist. Yet, somehow, my eating disorder, or at least my unhealthy relationship with body image, did exist.
What strikes me most about this memory is the distance between the image of myself I had as a five-year-old, and the coffee-stained, wilting photographs we’ve retained. These images prove that I was an entirely normal five-year-old. Despite the blotchy, moulting skin around my septum and the loose, untidy blonde plaits peeping over my shoulders, I was beautiful (as are, in my opinion, all five-year-olds).
When I think of that small girl with eczema inflamed skin and a pair of Tweenies trainers over cold toes, I feel my nose sting in the same way. I can hug the other girls in my group (with their permission), but I can’t hug Little Rosie, who would believe that fairies lived in her pocket before she’d believe that she was beautiful. That stinging nose and ache in my chest can never be remedied because she doesn’t exist anymore.
As things continued to improve (steadily, not always linearly), the distance between the little girl who liked the Tweenies and the one today shrivelled. By understanding first my own capacity for compassion, and then learning self-compassion at arm’s length (through the image of Little Rosie), I was able to see myself in the same way I see the other girls in my group. Brave and strong and doing so toe-curlingly well.