You can’t overcome something that you can’t challenge. You can’t challenge something that you can’t recognize.
Fear, despite being present in everyone I have ever worked with in recovery, is a bit of a slippery eel sometimes.
My relationship with my fear was something that evolved throughout my recovery. I did learn, that my fear was present in places that I didn’t know it was, and that my fear expressed itself in forms I hadn’t been aware of. So it isn’t as if I always was an expert on my own fear, but I sure as hell had to become one in order to recover fully from my eating disorder. Even so, nothing annoyed the shit out of me more than other people telling me about my fear. Or should I say, projecting at me.
“I think you are scared of gaining weight because you don’t think others will accept you.”
“You’re scared of not being in control.”
“You’re scared you will be a failure in life so you are self sabotaging.”
Oh fuck off.
I’m not saying that all the above aren’t things that people are afraid of. Most of them are actually. Which is kind of the point. These are common culturally-inflicted fears that most people feel on some level (and shouldn’t, but that’s a largely a social justice thing especially the first one). These were the fears I heard and saw in my friends at school. Those are the fears I saw frequently on TV shows like Friends. Those were the fears that were always the subject of the agony-aunt column in Just 17 magazine. Those were all things I knew that are common and horrible fears for many people. My problem with being told, as a person with anorexia, that being afraid of not being in control or being afraid of not being accepted was the reason I was starving myself pissed me off simply because these are such low-hanging-fruit fears.
You could walk up to just about anyone and tell them that they were afraid on some level of not being accepted and it would be true. There is nothing clever about recognizing the people are afraid of not being accepted. There is nothing specific to eating disorders about feeling that way either. I just didn’t buy it that these common-or-garden fears were the cause of my massively fucked up reaction to being offered a ham sandwich.
So what did I learn about my fear, and how it presented itself?
- I learnt that my fears of weight gain and of eating more than my “usual” safe amount were illogical (at least, illogical in a non-migration environment, it would have been perfectly logical if I was migrating) and that digging and delving into the “why” behind my fear was futile, and on some levels, indulgent. Trying to find the reason behind my fear was a procrastination.
- I learnt that my fear was being generated from my brain stem area — which is pre-literate — which means it doesn’t need to explain itself with logic.
- I learnt that — and this one is important — fear doesn’t always present itself as the typical “I’m afraid of that thing” response we so often see illustrated by a person jumping up on a chair if a mouse comes near them. More often, fear presents itself as anger, irritability, or resistance. So if my mother offered me a ham sandwich I wouldn’t scream and run out of the room like I would if a tarantula had walked in. Rather, I would feel angry at her personally. I had to learn that this anger was an expression of fear, even when my brain was insisting that is wasn’t about the sandwich, it was about her having the audacity to offer me one.
- I learnt that my frontal lobe (that’s the part of the brain that controls logical thinking) would try and make sense of my fear by making excuses for it. So, when my mother offered me food, my brain would tell me that my anger response was valid and must be because my mum is a controlling B-word and I hate her. (She isn’t, and I don’t).
- I learned that another way that fear presented itself for me, especially in situations where anger would not be acceptable, was feeling a strong and hard-to-explain resistance. So for example if a person other than my mother offered me a scary food. I couldn’t very well tantrum at them, so I would squirm and wiggle and screw up my nose and generally be a “no.”
- I learnt that resistance would lead to my frontal cortex generating excuses, and that these excuses would feel valid even when they were not true. “I’m not hungry,” “I just ate thank you,” “I’m not a big fan of chocolate,” (seriously, who the fuck says that?)
So the main thing for me was understanding that fear didn’t jump up and announce “Hi, I’m your eating disorder and I am afraid of that ham sandwich,” but that rather, fear presented itself as resistance, and the excuses coming out of my mouth were the clue.
Understanding that fear often feels like anger and resistance was HUGE for me in recovery. Once I was able to see my fear, I was able to start challenging it.
When I recognised that I was making excuses I would stop for a second. Take a breath. Stop the excuses. And say “yes please, I love chocolate/ham sandwiches/etc etc” That’s how I challenged the fear. Never, ever, allowing it to persist once I had detected it.
I didn’t know that then, but challenging my fears — walking into them rather than running away — that was me neurally rewiring my fear.