I’m writing about my own experience. Your experience may be different so don’t overly compare and contrast. Some people don’t ever lose their sex drive when they have an eating disorder. Some people lose it and don’t want it back; not having a sex drive feels like a positive side effect of restriction. We are all different and there is no right or wrong path to recovering a sex drive. As with all blogs – take what helps and leave what doesn’t.
Initially, my lack of sex drive didn’t bother me. It wasn’t like I had a roaring sex life before my eating disorder started. Despite being in my late teens, I wasn’t sexually active. I was interested in boys but more interested in horses. The odd snog at a party on a Friday night was about the sum of it — and that was only going to happen if I didn’t have a riding competition that meant I had to get up at sparrow-fart on Saturday morning. Getting a boyfriend was a long way down my to-do list in life. So for me, lack of sex drive went largely unnoticed. For those of you who are in relationships or sexually active already when you develop your eating disorder, I expect it stands out more.
As I moved into my early twenties I longed for a boyfriend. I wanted the companionship more than than I wanted sex. Plus, I wanted to stop being the weirdo who had never had a boyfriend. As each year passed I became more and more self-conscious about having always been single. I dreaded the question from kindly relatives “have you got a boyfriend yet?” It reminded me how lonely I was. It reminded me how weird I was. It made me feel like a failure. A reject. Well and truly left on the shelf. It embarrassed me to think people might guess I was still a virgin. But none of that is to do with sex drive. That was all to do with feeling that I was failing miserably at life and being alone. I wanted to be loved, not bonked.
Of course from a biological point of view, it is appropriate that an under-resourced body would experience a decrease in the desire to have sex. Your body doesn’t want to deal with all that nonsense when it is chronically low on energy. Energy deficit is not the time nor the place to be reproducing as far as your biology is concerned. I think that most of us know this on an intellectual level, but it doesn’t really sink in. That’s anasognosia for you. In my fully recovered state, I look back with astonishment that I was walking around with no period and no sex drive and I thought I was okay. I want to grab my 22-year-old-messed-up self and yell “Wake the fuck up, you idiot! Your body is not okay!“
So yeah, to be very clear, in case you were wondering: your lack of sex drive is due to a lack of sex hormones which is due to your body struggling because you are not feeding it enough. It is not because your body has some mysterious defect. You don’t need to go get a load of tests done to determine what the problem is. You are not a medical mystery. Your body is not broken.
The root of your problem is simply that you are not feeding your body enough. Before you go get hormone therapy, spend a long while eating without restriction. I imagine you will find the problem is magically solved. I don’t even know you and I’m certainly not a doctor, but if you have no period and no sex drive and a restrictive eating disorder I’ll but my bottom dollar that unrestricted eating will sort both of those things out for you — along with a heck of a lot else.
How long will it take for my mojo to return?
Now because I didn’t know what I was missing, I wasn’t particularly concerned about not having a sex drive. That’s not the case for lots of people. I often speak to people who once had a sex drive and due to their eating disorder is has gone, and they miss it. If you have a partner, the lack of sex drive can feel like a slight on the other person, and not having it can bring feelings of guilt. Hence, when in recovery, people often want to know when it will come back. The answer to that, like with most things in recovery, is that it will come back when your body feels it is appropriate to bring it back. Focus on eating the food and resting and giving your body everything it needs in order to function. Be compassionate for what your body has been through, and be patient.
Denial of pleasure
If, like me, you don’t know who you are or what you like when it comes to sex before you develop an eating disorder, it can be difficult to work that out afterwards. My advice there is don’t rush it. It was a good couple of years after weight restoration for me until I really began to enjoy sex. And that is not to say I hadn’t enjoyed it at all before then — I had — I just mean a whole new level opened up for me further down the line.
I have my suspicions as to why that took so long. Firstly, on the biological level, my endocrine system took a long while to kick off, and a long while to figure things out. It wasn’t until that all settled down that I began to feel a much higher level of interest in sex, and got more physical enjoyment out of it.
Secondly, my eating disorder … turned me into somewhat of a prude. I don’t know how else to describe it. I went from being a fun-loving, risk-taking teen to being utterly … boring. This was mostly down to whatever system in my brain that deals with openness to pleasure deciding that pleasure of any kind had to be denied whenever possible. I am sure you know what I mean. It is similar to the reason most of us delay eating, save the favorite food to last etc,. Just with me it was very exaggerated. I was a hoarder, a prude, and I couldn’t allow myself to wear the new pair of jeans that had been sitting in my wardrobe for three years due to the thought of “saving” them. Anything at all that could be considered pleasurable was to be rationed and starved from. Sexual pleasure included. I was a frigid person when I had anorexia in just about every way possible. I mean, I used to wash and re-use Ziplock bags for Christ’s sake. Picture me hanging my rinsed out plastic bags around my kitchen sink and tell me it isn’t obvious that I wasn’t exactly Jilly Cooper.
I rationed the amount of loo roll I used. I only allowed myself to use the car if absolutely necessary. No, wanting to see someone was not a good enough reason to spend pennies on fuel and drive the 5 miles to a friends house. No matter how lonely I felt or how desperate, I wasn’t allowed to use the car for social means because that wasn’t considered a necessity by my standards. If I could go without, I would. When I had an eating disorder I was a master of forgoing any pleasure. I saw it as wasteful and looked down on people who needed the things that I starved myself of. It was as if I was winning at this secret game of “doing without” that my brain had created and turned into my reality.
Of course, if you look at that from a resource scarcity perspective, it makes more sense. My food-starved brain’s reality was that I was living though an apocalypse of some sort. From that point of view, what my brain did there makes a lot of sense. Because if one is existing though a time of extreme resource scarcity, one can’t be fucking around wasting money on non-essential to life frivolities such as driving over to a friend’s house. No, one needs to save that fuel for escaping Zombies.
Seriously though; In a hostile environment, we have to graft. And only those of us who can graft will survive. We have to be able to forgo pleasure and work work work so that we have a chance of survival. We have to move, migrate, scavenge, hoard, and do whatever it takes to try and stay on top. We certainly don’t have time to indulge. We shouldn’t even want to because wasting time and resources on indulgences could deplete us and our limited resources and that could lead to dire consequences. Famine or any other vital resource uncertainty is not the time to be making babies either. What my brain did makes perfect sense from a resource-scarcity mindset.
My famine lasted a long time. Nutritional rehabilitation didn’t. When I finally started really eating, I gained weight and began to look more “normal” relatively quickly. But the mental stuff takes longer. I had to neurally rewire a lot of that now ingrained famine response. I had to teach my brain that I didn’t need to hoard anymore. I had to show my brain that I didn’t need to be so tight with money anymore. I had to very hard on proving to my brain that not only was it okay not to be a workaholic, but that leisure time was good for me, and that I was allowed to enjoy doing nothing.
I had to rewire my tendency to shun pleasure.
The first step to rewiring anything is to identify the problem. Early on in recovery I identified my tendency to delay eating. I saw it as a food rule that had to go if I was going to eat without restriction. It took me a lot longer to recognize and identify things like my reluctance to spend money, my uncomfortableness with wearing my nice clothes, and my tendency to steer away from any sort of pleasurable activity, as part of my eating disorder. When I did recognise them, I was able to rewire them.
When I finally understood the pleasure thing, it opened my eyes to all the ways I was restricting pleasure. And there were many. Sex was one of them, but so was that bottle of posh brandy that I had been given on my 18th birthday that had been gathering dust on the top shelf of my room. I was always saving things for a rainy day but when that rainy day came, it wasn’t rainy enough. No birthday, wedding, or anniversary had felt special enough to open that bloody bottle of brandy. And I realized then, that no occasion ever would. So I opened it then and there on a normal Wednesday afternoon, and shared a tipple with the old lady in the flat next door whose name I didn’t know.
Suddenly, I felt in a rush to open all the things I had been saving — to wear all the clothes, and experience all the experiences. I had been literally wasting my life. The rate I had been going, I was taking all these prized possessions and my pleasure-less life to the grave with me. I realised I really didn’t have to live this way anymore. I could take sips from this bottle of brandy, and when it was gone it was gone but it was also highly likely I could acquire another if I really wanted one. I could wear these jeans and when they wore out, I could allow myself to buy another pair. I could get in the bloody car and drive over to see a friend and when the tank was empty I could go to the gas station and fill it.
So that is how I came to understand that my aversion to pleasure was something I had taught my brain to do, and something I needed to rewire. But there is always a phase of uncovering in rewiring — you have to be able to see the problem first so that you can decide to rewire it. Once my eyes had been open to it, new ways in which I had been avoiding pleasure kept on coming to light.
For some of us, recovery is a series of liberations. It isn’t as easy as one big liberation because you have to understand you are suppressing something before you can do the work to liberate it. The good news, is that it can be a really fun journey.
Long story short. I really like sex. And I love that I allow myself to really like sex.
TL;DR: You will have better sex if you eat more.