Deceitful. That’s what eating disorders are. That’s how they make you behave. Secrecy comes to rule your life. A little lie here and there adds up to a constant fiction created to hide your feelings, thoughts and behaviours from others, to protect them and to protect the disorder, which you believe is keeping you in control but is in fact steering you towards the abyss. The lie is the disorder’s mask, its fuel, and its instrument of control.
Given that deceit is a central element of an eating disorder, it is no surprise that truthfulness and honesty are a crucial pillar of recovery. Opening up, exposing the disorder to the light, removes its ability to control you and how you live. You must be honest with others, but above all, honest with yourself.
This article has come out of conversations with my therapist, my family, and with others also in recovery about how, as recovery continues, your relationship with the truth changes, but sometimes not as fast as it does with others. Part of recovery is restoring truth with yourself, and winning trust from others, a trust which long ago was shattered by the lies of the disorder. Something which I have found frustrating through recovery, and which I know others have shared, is that the people supporting you often don’t display the trust you want from them. But this is with good reason and I totally understand why this is the case: it takes a long time to rebuild all the bridges you burned down in the past.
Be True to Yourself
As you progress through recovery, you begin to claw back control of your eating habits, your choices, and your life in general from the grips of the disorder. Before, I would lie everyday. It had become an addiction, a safety blanket; it seemed like the only way to survive at a time when the eating disorder felt like it was what was keeping me from losing control. I would lie to myself: “I’m not hungry… I’ve eaten enough today… I don’t need that snack/that meal…” Endless lies that maintained the fiction that I was in control and that I was doing fine. And I would lie to others: “Yes, I’ve eaten what I need to today… I’ve not done that, honestly… I don’t need anything else… I’m fine, I feel great… I’m just tired because I didn’t sleep well last night… I’m just a bit under the weather, that’s all…” Of course, every lie to everyone else was another lie to myself. In the end, the lies become your reality, they become truth, much like ‘fake-news’.
And so when you ‘choose recovery’ (for, after all, it is a choice only you can make for yourself. I’ve talked aboutrecovery as a choice in previous articles) you have to choose truth. That is the moment where you have to begin to be honest with yourself, only then can you begin to win back the trust of others. It’s a hard, often painful choice and isn’t made overnight. It’s one you’re likely to return to again and again as the lies try to hang on.
That honesty to yourself ranges from the small, everyday decisions, to the deeper, more foundational truths that need to be addressed in order to make a sustainable recovery. You have to be honest with yourself that you do need to eat so much everyday, you have to ignore the lies the disorder will spin which tell you that you are getting fat, that you are loosing control, that you are a bad person. Listen to the truth: you are putting goodness and energy into your body; you are restoring weight, not getting fat; you are gaining control, not loosing it; you are becoming a better person; you are getting your life back. These small mantras are so useful when faced with a challenging situation. I would remind myself of them when faced with a scary plate of food, or write them down in my journal after a tough day.
As for the deeper, foundational honesty: real, sustainable recovery can only be attained when you allow yourself to access those areas that the eating disorder has been trying to hide. As my therapist said, no one chooses to have an eating disorder, and to call them ‘inappropriate coping strategies’ misses the point. They are ‘survival strategies’: they are a way of trying to cope with ourselves and with the world, however harmfully and dangerously and regardless of the life-destroying consequences. And so, you have to accept the truth that you have an eating disorder. And then accept the fact that there is something in your life that the disorder is trying to plaster over, that it has a function. And then you have to be honest with yourself and with those involved in your recovery about those difficult memories or thoughts or feelings or beliefs that are sustaining the illness.
For me, I had to finally be truthful and honest with myself that I am gay, that I had a problem with it that had developed throughout my life. And I had to be truthful that the way I was living, thinking, believing, acting even before I was ill with the disorder, were not healthy and would not make me happy. I had to be honest with myself that I had to change who I was now or face a future of constant relapse. Once I began to be honest with myself, the lies of the eating disorder lost their mask of truthfulness, lost their relevance in my life – I could let them, and it, go. The truth was the key to freedom.
Be True to Others
Once you are honest to yourself, that same honesty is far easier with regards to others. But that doesn’t mean that being honest is now as easy as lying was before. You have to be open about your struggles, let those who care about you understand how you are feeling, and that is the last thing the eating disorder wants. Because as soon as you start opening up, its space in the darkness of your mind begins to shrink. So it can be a painful process, and a hard habit to break. But that opening up process, telling others how you feel, is essential. Here’s an example. For a long time in recovery, I would close up whenever my parents tried to talk to me about treatment or about how I was feeling. I would become sharp, monosyllabic, defensive. But I came to realise that this was the eating disorder trying to maintain its grip: it was the illness’s last line of defence. So I had to break through that barrier and open up. Once I had started, it became easier and easier the more I did it, and the less of a grip the disorder had over me and my recovery.
Over time, as recovery progresses and you commit to a life without the eating disorder, you begin to be able to trust yourself around food and diet and exercise, and life in general. And that is a fantastic, liberating feeling. I can’t tell you how amazing it feels to be in control of yourself again, not fearful of making bad choices. That’s life now, and it’s great. But there’s a catch. The people who love and care about you, who saw you at your worst, who had to live with your constant lies take longer to be able to trust you again. And that can be immensely frustrating and even hurtful. But you have to take a step back and think about why that might be. It’s because they care about you, its because they saw you at your worst and are terrified of you ever going back there. For them, your decision to not complete your meal one day, which you believe is the right, healthy, recovery-oriented choice because you actually are full (for anyone not yet at the place where you can choose to not finish your meal because you are physically full and not because of any disordered thoughts, you will get there, I promise), that decision is terrifying because they remember what it was like when you weren’t completing for the wrong reasons.
It might be that you can trust yourself now, but those bridges take a long time to be rebuilt with those who care about you. Yes, it might be frustrating and you might feel that they don’t believe in you or that they will never trust you again, but I think they will. The longer you are true to yourself and make the right decisions and remain on the path of recovery, the more stones will be laid as that bridge of trust is rebuilt. Trust me.