Facing the fear of losing ‘control’

Fear, an eating disorder's major control method, can be dismantled--at every age!

Facing the fear of losing ‘control’

Facing the fear of losing ‘control’

I hate admitting this, but I’m a fearful person. The list of what I’m afraid of is long and detailed. Some fears are fairly typical and global, like the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected many people. Before the pandemic, I was not much of a germaphobe, but that’s near the top of my list these days. Other items range from the trivial (mice, bats, reptiles, birds indoors) to more serious things like gun violence, war, climate change and another pandemic. Most things I’m afraid of are out of my control. I can take steps to keep myself safe, but I can’t control much beyond that. For example, I’m not afraid of death, but I am afraid of how I’ll die.

I don’t know why I’m this way. Perhaps being labelled as shy when I was a child has something to do with it. In my mind, shy = timid and cautious, so that’s the story I’ve told myself. Living up to that self-fulfilling prophecy has kept me “safe” and in control but has also held me back, something I didn’t realise until I was diagnosed with an eating disorder.

Fear lurked behind my eating disorder

The diagnosis and subsequent treatment of anorexia nervosa a few months before my 65th birthday helped me to face the fact that fear, namely fear of losing control, was what lurked behind my eating disorder. (It also probably lurks behind all my fears, now that I think about it). During treatment, I came across a pneumonic for fear: False Evidence Appearing Real. This would become a useful tool for combatting the lies the ED had fed me for decades. I also learned that the stories I’d told myself since childhood, that shy people don’t do brave things, are false.

For example, the ED constantly told me that if I gained weight, if I let myself go, no one would love me, and I’d be alone forever. I approached each moment of each day as one does when trying to “look good” for a big event like a wedding or class reunion.

The ED convinced me that I had to either attain or maintain “perfection” no matter the cost. Aside from the stress of counting calories or points, how long I exercised, how long I could go without eating, the number on the scale and the size of my jeans, the stress that preceded an important event always loomed in the foreground—even when there was no event on the calendar, just my day to day life. Because of this, I was in a constant state of anxiety, which I considered normal. The ED convinced me that controlling my weight and my body was how I had to live. I was willing to do it. I was all in.

The number on the scale determined my kind of day

One example of fear dominating my daily life was my obsession with the scale. This is something to which many people with eating disorders can relate. Every morning, first thing, I would step on the scale. If I liked the number, it would be a good day. If I didn’t, my day would be ruined, filled with harsh self-recriminations and a decreased food intake.

Sometimes, I weighed myself more than once a day, repeatedly giving away my happiness, power, and self-worth to the inanimate object on the cold, hard tile of the bathroom floor.

I was convinced that if I didn’t engage in this ritual every day, I’d lose control, and my weight would increase. I knew it probably wouldn’t skyrocket overnight (as the ED told me), but  I told myself it was a slippery slope, one that would lead to a never-ending weight gain. Looking at that number every day was my ballast; it kept me grounded and focused on the prize, which was being thin enough.

Being ‘thin enough’ was not possible

The problem I didn’t want to face then was that thin enough never existed. The saying that one can’t be rich enough or thin enough had always made me smirk and roll my eyes, but deep inside, I knew it was true—at least for me. The lower the number on the scale went, even when it got to a place that made me gasp a little, it quickly became my new normal. That would be the new number to maintain. It was gruelling and exhausting.

One of the first things I did when I began outpatient treatment was stop weighing myself. It’s a blur now, but I think that at the first visit, I was told my weight when I asked, but after that, the weigh-ins were done blindly so that I couldn’t see the number. I went home from that first visit and weighed myself on my scale to see how it compared to the one at the clinic. Doing that provided control at that moment, but it was the last time I did it. After that, with the help of my therapist and dietitian, I stopped weighing myself at home. The only place I was weighed was at my ED physician appointments.

I cannot adequately describe how strong and ever-present my fear of gaining weight had been for decades. It had always been at the forefront of my mind, always. As I wrote above, I feared I’d lose love, value, respect and my identity if I gained weight. The ED made sure to reinforce that fear every moment. It was a very lonely place to be.

Amazing: when I restored weight, no fears came true

Now for the amazing part: In the course of treatment, I did gain weight, and none of those terrible fears came true—none of them. The ED had lied to me all those years. It had taken so much from me that I could never get back, but now, that’s over. As I gained weight, I also gained a new-found respect for the human body and its resilience and a new relationship with the truth.

Recovering from an ED in our thin-obsessed world did not make seeing the sizes go up on my clothes or my changing dimensions easy. Recovery was one of the most challenging things I’ve done. At first, by letting go of my relationship with my scale, I felt like a tightrope walker without a net, but my ED team helped me keep my balance. Putting my trust in them made the difference. The daily ritual with my scale is a thing of the past. It doesn’t even cross my mind anymore. Letting go has been deeply empowering!

Do I know what number the scale says now? Yes, I do. I asked my physician at the ED clinic. I wanted to know and see how I would feel. Guess what? I felt fine! I felt proud. The ED voice didn’t pop up and berate or scold me. It simply rolled over and kept sleeping. The revelation was that I had restored weight, which levelled off. I trusted my body for the first time in decades to know what it needed and where it needed to be. It would take care of me; I only had to let it.

The false evidence that appeared real for decades didn’t exist

An interesting thing happened when I restored weight: the story the ED had told me for decades never came true. The support I received when sharing my story was beyond what I could have imagined. No one thought less of me. The false evidence that appeared real for all those years had kept me oppressed and afraid of something that didn’t exist.

Recovering from my ED hasn’t cured all my fears. I’m still afraid of the things listed in the opening paragraph. (Although I did hold a live snake early in my recovery!) Recovery has helped me realise that I am brave. It has helped me see that although the fear of losing control of my body haunted me for years, I am more courageous than I’ve given myself credit for.

Today, I am free of the Eating Disorder’s fear

The good news is that the ED no longer rules my life. There is hope and freedom from the fear that the eating disorder imposed upon me. I still live in a world immersed in diet culture, so challenging moments continue, but now I have the tools to combat the lies diet culture promotes. False Evidence Appearing Real no longer dominates my life. Now, I know the truth.

I am an author who writes fiction as a way to make sense of things for myself and hopefully, my readers. Exploring complex, often painful issues to find meaning and hope is central to my motivation as a writer.

I live in Minnesota with my husband, where the long, cold winters provide ample time to write. My novels include A Charmed Life, Ahead of Time and most recently, A Battle for Hope, a novel about eating disorders. These books are available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble in both digital and print form.

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