Let’s talk about sex … (and relationships)

Salt and Pepper. Yeah, I’m old.


Sex and anorexia don’t usually go all that well together. I’ve known one or two people who have told me that their sex drive actually went up when they were in malnutrition, but that tends to be the anomaly. Most of us experience a plummeting of our sex drive, which is totally appropriate really. Your body is worried it will die of starvation. It is hardly the time to be thinking about making babies.

I know psychoanalysis might relish in this decreased apparent desire for sex, and can link it up with all sorts of juicy reasons like need for control, peter-pan syndrome, penis envy if you are a girl, and vulva envy if you are a boy. But I tend to think it is much more boringly biological than all that. Your body doesn’t want sex because what is the point in procreation when you are apparently in a famine? There is already not enough food to go around, it would not be good, right, or proper to have a kid. Your body has your priorities in order.

On top of that, your body is malnourished, and is has had to accommodate for the lack of energy coming in by taking measures to lower metabolism. One of these measures was likely to shut down the baby-making facilities until further notice. That’s actually the primary reason you don’t feel like sexy-time much — lack of sex hormones. Duh.

Plus, your body is just all self-absorbed, because it needs to be, because you are in a state of malnutrition, so it isn’t all that interested in other people. It’s certainly not bothered about being attracted to people, and it doesn’t need to waste energy on flirting.

None of this — lack of sex drive, irritability, aversion to being touched etc etc — that some of us feel when we are restricting food will stop you feeling like you are missing out without those things. At least it didn’t for me. It didn’t stop me wanting to be close to people either, at least not all the time. For years I orchestrated my life to facilitate anorexia. I lived alone so nobody could see all my weird habits and rituals or stop me over-exercising. I was simultaneously happy to be not challenged by other people in my space, and desperately lonely. So the desire to be alone and hating being alone can both be true. In the same way, I could flinch if someone tried to hug me, and be yearning for a cuddle.

Anyway, here’s the thing. Food is one of the three substances that the human body cannot survive without. If it doesn’t have enough food, or your brain believes it is in a food crisis (which is the message you give it when you restrict) then it is going to obsess about food. When it is all busy obsessing about food, it doesn’t care about sex.

Say, for example, you have a house to live in. Great. You might start to think about things like carpets and curtains and paint. Now, if you are homeless, and you don’t have a house to live in, you’re not going to spend much time fretting about what colour to paint your bathroom, or where to hang the chandelier, are you? If you are in malnutrition, you aren’t at the thinking about the frills stage. If you’re in malnutrition, you aren’t even sustainable yet. So your brain isn’t going to be thinking about much else then getting out of malnutrition and getting your body sustainable. Family planning is not required if your brain is worried that you’re not going to survive.

The lack of sex drive you feel has a number of consequences. There are the biological and psychological (which I briefly outlined above) and then there are the effects that this has on other people. If you have a partner, they have likely already noticed that you don’t feel much like hanky-panky. Some partners notice and tell you that they have noticed. Some partners notice and keep it to themselves. I’ve yet to meet a partner who was oblivious to this. And yes, in a perfect world all partners would understand that this is a medical condition side-effect and not to take it personally, but people are people and people are not perfect.

If I look back at the way I was when I first met my now husband … I have no idea why he stuck around. I was in that perpetually irritable state that results from being hungry yet scared of eating more. Yeah, I wasn’t a low enough weight to alarm my doctors anymore, but I was still underweight for my body. I was still restricting food. I was in that place of eating more, but not enough more. This meant I was hangry, irritable, stressed, anxious, and a complete pain in the arse. I would not have tolerated me. It scares me to think now, that I could have lost him. He should have not bothered putting up with me and waiting the years he waited for me to sort this anorexia shit out. But he did. I was lucky.

Looking back I feel like I took advantage of his good nature. Just because he wasn’t always threatening to leave unless I ate I could pretend that he wasn’t noticing my restriction. It has only been years later he has expressed to me how much it hurt him to see me restrict. He’s such a sweetheart, and all he ever really says about it now is that I was worth waiting for.

I was really, really, lucky.

I have known plenty of good good people who have not been able to wait it out. And I don’t blame them because I am not sure I could be with someone with anorexia either. I’ve seen too many wonderful partnerships break up because of this illness.

I also know too many people who are lonely or alone because they can’t live with another person and satisfy anorexia at the same time. I was this person for ten years. Alone. Lonely. Stuck. Derelict. I know that many adults with anorexia find themselves wound into the same desperate and alone situation as I once was in. And this is a great waste, because these are people with so much to give. Anorexia can really rob other people of the gift that is you. 

I guess the message here, is do whatever it takes to get better. Sooner rather than later.

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