I was moving into my 7th year of life with my eating disorder. I had been through several inpatient programs as well as outpatient programs. My symptoms were not all consuming but were always present. My eating disorder was my constant companion and my ever present enemy. I had decided to return to university against my parents wishes and had already started to feel the pressure building.
While there were many moments on my path to recovery that were significant, I find this one particularly important as I still come back to it today when life starts to become overwhelming.
It was a beautiful summer day and I had bought myself a full lunch at the university. I settled myself on a bench and prepared myself for the battle that would inevitably ensue in my head when I picked up my sandwich. I decided instead to pick up a new book, “The Brain That Changes Itself”, to calm my mind before I attempted my lunch again.
I read half the book that day, sitting on the bench, eating my lunch as I flipped feverishly through the pages. This was my “a-ha” moment.
The book contains “stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science” (Doidge, 2007). I had come to this book in search of answers. I had tried self-help manuals, spiritual/ religious books, CBT manuals and all kinds of other literature. All had helped but somehow I couldn’t quite make the leap from intellectually understanding that I couldn’t live with an eating disorder and that recovery was the only way, to actually letting go of it and truly living my life without ED. I knew a leap of faith was required, but I just couldn't seem to do it. Most of all though, I didn’t know HOW. Recovery from ED wasn’t just about eating normal meals. It wasn’t just about coming to grips with a traumatic past. It wasn’t just about family or emotional health. There was something missing in my approach and on that summer day, I found the missing piece in that book.
The Brain That Changes Itself describes how our brains are incredibly flexible and malleable, even well into adulthood. It has been scientifically shown that the brain can change and that we can affect this change in various ways. The book describes how through mental and physical practice, we can change the way our neurons fire and subsequently the way our brains function. For example, for those suffering from low self-esteem and impulsivity, certain neurons are repeatedly activated in a certain sequence, leading to lower mood and a certain chain of negative thoughts that may lead to impulsive negative behaviour. Over time, the brain changes so that this sequence of neurons is much more likely to fire than say a sequence leading to positive thoughts and more positive, reasoned behaviour. However, this can be changed. If one were to become aware of this and deliberately practice positive thinking, slowly, overtime, the brain “rewires” itself. Instead of the same chain of neurons automatically firing in the brain, new links and chains can be created, allowing the individual more thought and behaviour choices. This eventually leads to very real behavioural, emotional and cognitive change.
To me, this was revolutionary. What if my ED was a maladaptive response to stress and other situations in my life and that response had become wired into my brain and was now reflexive? Just as your leg jumps when a certain part of your knee is tapped, I would engage in ED when I was stressed, joyful, angry etc. Instead of the bundle of complex reasons for why my ED had developed, this seemed clear and simple. I realized that over the years, I had fallen into a pattern of thinking and behaviour that had been reinforced over and over again. It was so strong now that before I knew what was happening, I had already engaged in an eating disorder behaviour. My brain had become “wired” for ED. Every time I binged, purged or skipped a meal, I reinforced that chain of neurons firing that led to certain thoughts, emotions and actions. It had become almost automatic and instantaneous.
I realized suddenly, that this was where that powerless feeling came from. Often I would resolve not to engage in ED, but somehow I would find myself completely consumed by it by the end of the day. I couldn’t help but blame myself. I writhed in shame. I decided that there was just something fundamentally broken in me and that I just wasn’t strong enough. Recovery wasn’t for me because I just couldn’t find a way to take that leap of faith. I was too broken, too far gone.
But this book told me otherwise. It told me my brain was adaptable and remarkably flexible. It took the blame off of me and my personality. It gave me a tangible explanation for why breaking ED habits was so hard. Although it was only part of the puzzle, it gave me a way to tackle ED that I had never before considered.
I realized that eating my lunch that day was a step toward changing how my brain worked, which in turn was a step towards changing my thoughts, emotions and my behaviours. It was a step towards recovery. And every bite, every meal, every time I didn’t skip a meal or purge, was another step towards changing my brain to one that didn’t automatically turn to ED. After that day, every positive step I took had meaning. Rather than trying to jump straight from where I was to total recovery, I saw myself changing things bit by bit and I knew that these changes would be biologically and neurologically very real.
I began a regular mindfulness practice. I began to recite affirmations. I stopped visiting websites and reading magazines that would make me feel bad about my body. I monitored my symptoms, celebrating my good days and scientifically noting the bad ones. I created a deliberate practice that would change how my brain worked. Small breakthroughs started almost immediately. Just the awareness of my thoughts and emotions and how they were leading to my behaviour made me more able to intervene in the ED cycle.
I also felt suddenly hopeful that I was not beyond repair. True and full recovery became possible. Although I had to work through many other issues as I moved towards recovery, that deliberate practice and the knowledge that I was actually changing the way my brain functioned, kept me on the path to recovery. I had ups and downs, but I never again fully relapsed. The practice I cultivated changed the way I approached my recovery and it kept me safe, especially when I was most vulnerable. Instead of the usual automated response to a stressful situation, I felt like my behavioural options had expanded. I could engage in ED or I could do the laundry instead. It started to become a choice. And that choice allowed just enough space for true healing to take root.
Keep Fighting Warriors!