I’m in England this week. I talk about The Shire—my home village—a lot in Love Fat because it is where I was most of the time when I was ill with anorexia. I don’t go home often, in fact this is just the second time in five years. When I first moved to Colorado, I did not return to the United Kingdom for four years. That is not because I did not miss my family and friends, it was because I couldn’t face the weather and the memories.
The sad thing about “home” is that I ruined the country lanes and tracks of my village by running up and down them for hours and hours a day—to the point that I hated them. Those innocent lanes became a talisman for my exercise-based eating disorder and after ten years of running my body associated them with exhaustion and hunger. That’s just the countryside’s effect; family- and socially-wise, my disease had made dinnertimes and any occasion that involved food (about every family gathering) a point of anguish.
Now, something that drives me bonkers is when terms like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) get over-used and therefore diminished. For example, I had a yoga instructor in Boulder tell me last week that she had PTSD from being yelled at by a man in Whole Paycheck’s parking lot and that was why she was late for class. Give me strength. People claim that they have PTSD for anything that would (in my book) count for an everyday frustration or shit piece of luck.
I don’t think I have PTSD, but I will tell you that for years and years the very mention of a family dinner would send a spike of adrenaline through me, making my heart rate rise, my face flush and my hands shake. Because of this, I’d avoid family things as much as possible. If unavoidable, due to the stress making me feel physically sick, I’d turn up and struggle to eat at all—this would of course upset my eating disorder-traumatised family and spark off the stress-argument loops that we were all so used to spinning through. Also, whenever visiting home, I would get back all the tell-tale stress signs such as trouble sleeping and eczema on my fingers. (I never have eczema other then when I am very stressed—it is rather fascinating)
It is very hard to explain to anyone who has not had direct experience with an eating disorder how food is a source of panic for the sufferer and a source of conflict for anyone (caregiver/parent/friend) associated with them. Because food is such an ingrained part of society and almost all family holidays have a food significance (is it any coincidence that I hated Christmas for years) they can become a learned source of fear for someone who has had a long-term eating disorder. Even after I was recovered enough to be able to eat with my family, my body remembered and I’d feel the terror and anxiety.
I wonder if it is the same for other diseases. I am sure that there must be elements of trauma associated with any type of chronic illness, but I have to say I baulk at using the term PTSD. It is however, a learned bodily response to prolonged periods of extreme stress—which sounds really similar to PTSD doesn’t it.
Whatever one wants to call it, it is undeniable that there is an effect. In my experience, I’d feel physically sick, lightheaded and woozy, my hands would shake, and the overall result would be a stress-out Tabitha being bitchy and irritable to everyone around her. Or—and for a while this was the better option—to avoid all this, I’d simply not go. Not go back to England and not go to family stuff.
But, that is a rather miserable solution in the long run.
I’m so happy to say that the stress-reactions are decreasing with time, and that I no longer look at those country lanes with dread and foreboding. I can walk the dogs up them now without feeling guilty for not running, and I can amble along admiring the view without blaming it for my exhaustion. There are some places I have not been back to, and those are places that I will someday tackle. Edinburgh (Jesus, even writing the word brings a physical reaction) is one of those places. I spent four years at university in Edinburgh and I was incredibly sick at the time. I do plan to return one day, but I need to do it carefully.
Just in case anyone is wondering how long-term the remnants of eating disorder family mealtime stress last, I cannot answer that question with any sort of accuracy as we are all different, but I can tell you they did eventually become unlearned in my body. Last night we had a lovely home-cooked family meal of fish pie and chocolate torte. It was exactly the type of meal that ten years ago I would not have been at (because I’d have been out running instead) and five years ago I would have sat through in a state of I’m-going-to-lost-my-shit-any-second. I felt nothing other than happy.