If you’ve been a driver for a while, operating the car and following the rules of the road probably come naturally. You don’t have to think about changing gears, clutch control, or stopping at a red light. You just do it. Of course, no two journeys are ever the same, and you must always be aware of that child about to run out in front of you. But when they do, slamming the brake is second nature. It is, though, likely that you've also picked up a number of so-called 'bad habits' since becoming road-legal, too...
Now, imagine getting into a car that was, as much as it could be, wired completely backwards. Everything looks and even feels the same, except you must do the precise opposite of what your intuitions are telling you. Turn the wheel left in order to go right. Change down a gear as you speed up. Your clutch is on the right, and you brake with your left.
Let’s throw in some extra topsy-turvey road code for good measure. Green means stop, red means go. Speed signs become target minimums, not maximums. And if you intend to turn right, you’d better indicate left.
If you can't relate to the car metaphor, perhaps instead think about speaking your native language. The grammatical rules of English, say, come naturally to you. You don't have to think about the position of a verb in a sentence. You know that 'I walk' and 'I am walking' carry different meanings, and that adding -ed to the end of most verbs creates the past tense. Now imagine, for all intents and purposes, you had to speak your native language according to a whole new set of rules. The words are the same, but their order in a sentence is completely different. Therefore, everything you say, you have to think very carefully about in order to get it ‘right’.
After nearly 18 months of driving this car, speaking this language – catalysed by repeated COVID-19 lockdowns – driving according to anorexia’s user manual and Highway Code has become old hat. Like an experienced car driver, or a native speaker, it comes to me automatically. Calculating calories, working on the principle of restriction, suppressing hunger cues… has become almost intuitive.
My automatic response to eating what the woman upstairs deems 'too much' earlier on in the day would be to compensate for it later. The idea of being hungry, eating something, and not having to work out and calculate into my schedule...that’s utterly foreign to me now.
Doing what I need to do to nutritionally rehabilitate, i.e. doing the opposite of everything my brain and diet culture is telling me, feels like I'm trying to drive a back-to-front car. It feels like I'm trying to use English words but German grammar.
Not only does every move I make require a huge amount of cognitive effort, but every move feels uncomfortable and wrong...and it's utterly exhausting. And, what’s more, the majority of people can't understand what I'm saying or where I'm trying to go, because they’re all driving normal cars.
My relationship with food and my body was wonderful for a good number of years, between the ages of 18 and 23. I know I should be able to remember how that language worked and just pick it up again fluently.
But this is where my metaphor breaks down, because, as it turns out, returning to a 'normal' relationship with food is not like riding a bike. It doesn't just come back to you. I know that I used to order vanilla lattes, cook with olive oil, and eat my friends' deliciously baked goods without even thinking about what I’d just had for lunch.
I know it never used to be either/or when it came to choosing sandwich fillings. I know that I used to eat a whole bagel in one sitting, and buying “bagel thins” wouldn’t have even crossed my mind. We were fortunate enough to receive three course meals in my university dining hall; skipping a breaded brie starter would’ve been simply unforgivable.
Even though I know this, I don’t know it anymore. I have forgotten what it feels like to go back for seconds just because I want to, or to order what I fancy off a menu without knowing the ingredients. I wish I could relate to the girl that spoke that language. But I don’t know her anymore.
But, I do know that I miss her. I miss being able to drive a ‘normal’ car. Because, the reality is, my car is wired normally...but I've been driving it backwards. I've been in reverse, yet convinced somehow I'm still going forwards. I've tried to tell myself that it’s everyone else that is doing it wrong.
Even though I've been a passenger to those who drive more ‘normally’, and I can see how much better and smoother it is, I've still buried my head in the sand and continued to drive this way, somehow determined to still reach the same destination.
Miraculously, I've avoided any significant accidents or breakdowns. Here and there, with Herculean effort, I've practised better technique all by myself...but after a time, going back to the familiar always follows. I must admit, I‘ve felt too comfortable to change. I’ve wanted to cling on to the familiar. Even though it has never been safe to drive this way; even though driving this way scares me.
18 months of relapse down the line, I have been slowly coming to realise that I really don’t want to stay this way anymore. As much as it’s comfortable and familiar, anorexia’s Highway Code is nothing other than a highway to hell. Not only that, but the whole road is in flames. It certainly lights up the road and I often feel safer this way. Changing how I steer will require changing my direction, and heading off into the terrifying and dimly lit unknown.
But I now know that surely whatever lies on that new road surely can't burn me so ruthlessly and relentlessly.
It has been proving very difficult to do a U-turn by myself...especially when this whole time I've been steering the wrong way. Sometimes, we need a bit more help than just going out for a drive with a well-meaning parent, or picking up our GCSE French book. Some intensive driving lessons with a qualified instructor, or an immersive language course, to put us in a better position to tackle that foreign road again.
Hence, this week, I've voluntarily accepted a bed in a specialist eating disorders inpatient facility for some of these intensive driving lessons. As a teenager, my experience of hospitalisation was one of the most traumatic things an adolescent can go through. But this time, it is my choice. My heart aches to be travelling, exploring, running, walking, sensing, feeling, loving...without the rigid and nonsensical road markings of the woman upstairs.
I am older now. Wiser? Maybe. I'm certainly wittier. Am I any less scared? Definitely not. But, this time, I feel more hopeful, determined, and sincere.
It is never too late to re-wire, re-route, and redeem. Because I really, really just want to enjoy a bloody good bagel.
"Great is thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed thy hand hath provided.
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!"
My favourite hymn, written by Thomas O. Chisholm in 1923