I hated being underweight.
I hated that if I left the house, schoolkids would shout “skinny freak” at me as I walked past.
I hated that I couldn’t sit down without it hurting.
I wanted to gain weight.
I feared gaining weight, and
I feared eating more.
I used to ride this 17.2hh horse that was “cold backed.” That basically was the excuse given that he would buck the second anyone sat on him at the start of every ride. There was certainly fear around getting on. I knew the second I swung my leg over we’d be cavorting down the yard and I may end up face first in the gravel. But that sort of fear never stopped me doing anything. That sort of fear was fun. I liked the feeling of fear and focus and determination … and pride. I liked the fact I was not too scared to get on that horse.
When I was 16, before I got sick, all I wanted from my life was to be an event rider. All I wanted was to ride the biggest cross-country courses in the world. My mum basically refused to ever come and watch me ride as watching me fall off was too much for her. It would be wrong to say that I was never scared when I was riding — I’ve had some nasty falls; a couple times where the horse has fallen on top of me; I’ve fractured by back from being bucked off; and been kicked in the chest hard enough that there is a permanent dent — but that fear never, ever stopped me doing anything.
No fear I’ve ever felt was as powerful as the fear around eating more food in recovery from Anorexia.
It’s a what-the-blind-fuck fear. A paralyzing fear. A brain-freezing, mind fogging, non-negotiable, get-me-out-of-here before I hurt someone kind of fear.
If offered more food, I would often react as if my life had been threatened. I would rage at whomever had the nerve to suggest I eat more. I remember once, early in our relationship, Matt thought it would be cute to try and put a crisp in my mouth as we were watching TV. That almost ended our relationship. (Nowadays I’d love someone to feed me crisps as I lie on the sofa but I think I ruined that one for good!)
For many of us, the fear we feel when faced with eating more — despite the presence or absence of a desire to gain weight — is devastating. And confidence shattering. The good news is that you can train yourself to overcome this fear. Focus on the action that you need to take and work on blocking the feelings — the fears — surrounding that action. Yes, I just told you to block out your fear. Yes, I understand that is the polar opposite of what most talk therapies advise. The fear that you feel is inappropriate and strong. If you delve into it you will not come out on top. Believe me I’ve tried and it never worked. The key is to suffocate the fear to a level that is manageable so that you can take the action that you need to take: eating more food.
Learning to blinker yourself to your fear is something I consider to be a required skill in Anorexia recovery. You don’t need to unpack and explore it. You have an irrational fear of eating more and the only way to give your brain data to prove that this fear is unwarranted is to eat more. The fear doesn’t need to be analysed because as you continue to give your brain data supporting the notion that eating more is nothing to be afraid of, that fear will appropriately dissipate. When you eat more food, you are re-wiring your brain.
Why is more food a threat?
I never had much of a problem with eating the same thing daily, at the same times. I was excellent at routine eating. It was eating more that got me every time. Even the timing rules I had existed in order to prevent me from eating more. I couldn’t eat earlier than the usual time in case that allowed me more space later in the day. More space could mean more eating. Hence, space was scary.
Like I said, if someone offered me more food than was my normal, I would feel as if they had pulled a gun on me. I am not exaggerating. That is how threatening more food felt.
How ludicrous is that. Was I hungry? Yes, always. Did I want to gain weight? Logically, yes. Did I understand that food is not anything to be scared of? Logically, yes. Did any of those truths make a blind bit of difference to the fear reaction I would get when faced with more food? No
But why? Why on earth does my brain see more food as a threat?
I don’t have a fully proven answer to this. But I have my own opinion as to why when and a person with the AN genetics is in energy deficit and therefore the Anorexia is activated, eating more food can feel like a threat to one’s survival.
If AN genes exist as an adaption that helps us survive in times of famine and migrate to areas of abundant food, it makes sense that for that time of migration, stopping and eating “more” than the minimum needed to stay alive could be a threat to your survival.
Why? because if you stop for too long in a location where there was “some” food but not “abundant” food, you might risk never getting to the areas of abundant food. Or, when you finally get there, what if other tribes got there first? What if they were hostile and would not allow you to settle? What if they had already killed and eaten all the buffalo? Then you would surely die. I also think this is why there is such an urge to move straight after eating something for many of us with AN. Don’t stop too long. Eat only what you need to survive then move again.
In that sense, eating more could kill you. In that sense, eating more really is a threat. In that sense, it’s not so crazy that I would pitch a fit at anyone who tried to get me to stop and eat.
How to run at, not away from, fear of eating more
1. Recognize the fear
Sounds ridiculous I know, but for a long time I don’t really think that I recognised what I was feeling as fear. It felt so non-negotiable, instinctual and unlike any other fear I had felt before. Additionally, food is nothing to be afraid of, is it? So I don’t think that I directly linked these things up in my brain. For example, if Matt offered me a slice of pizza, I would be furious and yell at him, but my brain would tell me I was angry at him for trying to control me and tell me what to eat — even when he had done no such thing.
Matt is the least controlling person in the world, but I think that in my panic, my brain would direct blame for the fear I felt at him. When I became savvy enough to be able to stop and say “I’m scared of eating more” rather than screaming at him for having the audacity to offer his skinny girlfriend a piece of pizza, our lives got much better.
Fear reactions put you into your sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system. Your heart rate and rate of breathing increase in anticipation of having to run from danger. The biggest tool you have against this is your rate of breathing — as you can control this in a way you cannot control your heart rate. If you slow your breathing, this gives feedback to your brain that there is no imminent danger here. You will become calmer and more able to think clearly. Hopefully the calmer you are, the better chance you will have at running into your fear of eating more rather than running away from it.
3. Be brave and curious
Much of recovery is about running into fear. The more you do this, the more you give your brain data to show it that eating more should not provoke a fear reaction. You have to run into the fear in order for your brain to understand that the fear is inappropriate.
Putting yourself in the seat of the curious observer — the scientist, will help you mindfully detach enough to stay an arms length away from that fear reaction. I used to think to myself “what is the worst that could happen if I eat X” and use that curious mindset to help me do it. As if I were experimenting. As if I were telling someone else to eat it. The curious attitude helps with detachment.
The fear that you feel is real. Don’t underestimate it. This fear has the potential to wreak your recovery and your life. At the same time, you have to understand that this fear is outdated and not relevant now. You can say “thank you very much, but I don’t need this right now as we are not in a famine environment,” and ignore the fear. You will be more than okay if you eat more food. You get a little piece of your life back with every bite into fear.