Having only been allowed to leave the four walls of the ward a total of six times since October (one of which was for my COVID booster vaccine), I was incredibly fortunate to have spent three nights at home for Christmas, and a further two nights for New Year. And, in all honesty, it was one of the most special and memorable festive periods I have ever had.
Of course, it was not seamless, for the woman upstairs tagged along in my suitcase. But, if you’d asked me three months ago whether or not I’d be able to eat roast potatoes, go out for lattes, enjoy wine and cheese, and put butter on my toast this Christmas….it would have been a hard and hearty no.
To find myself exactly a year on from my Gregg’s gingerbread man ordeal, happily devouring an identical sugary humanoid in a single sitting…the intensive driving lessons certainly have their place, and I am so very thankful for the rocket-launch into recovery they have given me.
Unsurprisingly, after nearly three months of inpatient treatment, there have been some other noticeable changes. The system would certainly be failing us even more than it is if there hadn't been at least some significant physiological improvements during my time here.
I knew that weight restoration was a significant part of treatment. When I agreed to come here, I knew what I was signing up for. And I know, deep down, that it is absolutely necessary, however difficult and uncomfortable it can be.
I've said it many times before, but anorexia is about so much more than weight, shape and food. The woman upstairs has set up camp in my brain, not my stomach. Weight loss and/or being underweight is simply a potential, but not a guaranteed, side effect of this mental illness, and nor is weight an indicator of how much someone is or isn’t struggling.
Unfortunately though, it’s popular culture’s stereotype …and one not easy to dispel. And given that no-one can actually see the woman upstairs…I guess it makes sense that the layman's attention is drawn to visual markers of how well things appear to be going.
Christmas coincided with the dawn of the "you're looking wells". Anyone who has had to go through the conflicting experience of weight restoration will know what I mean.
"You're looking well", uttered by well-meaning friends and relatives, is never intended to be harmful. It's always intended to be an encouragement. Semantically, and to any rational person, of course, it is. It's honestly more often about how my face looks brighter, and my eyes look more alive, than anything else. Yet, the woman upstairs has a way of putting phrases like these through a translator, so that by the time it reaches my frontal lobe, all that is understood is “you’ve gained weight, and it's obvious”.
I have gained some weight. And I still need to gain more to return to optimal functioning. Again, semantically, and to any rational person, the fact that this process has begun is surely something to be happy about. Rachel's brain knows it is a very good thing. But comments like this still make Rachel writhe and squirm with discomfort and insecurity.
I absolutely hate that I am so bothered, guilty and ashamed of my body mass increasing and my appearance changing. I hate that I can’t accept “you’re looking well” as a compliment and be thankful for it. I hate that this illness irrationally fears what is best for me. I hate that this illness takes much deeper hurt and expresses it through internalised fatphobia weight bias, such as is present in many of us in the West. I hate that it is present in me, too.
I hate that hearing compliments like this makes me want to dig my heels in and stop moving forwards, as I look at how far I still have to go.
This is touching on an incredibly complex and multifaceted conversation around diet culture and fat shaming that I'm not going to enter into here. But, a question I have been asking for a long time is this: why do I, and why do we, focus on the physical condition as the primary marker of wellness? What is ‘wellness’, anyway? What is the benchmark for ‘well’? ‘Well’, compared to what, or whom? And why am I fearful of not being unwell?
The thing is, I am in many ways, comparatively well considering where I was three months ago. Stuck in the woman upstairs' rigid, ruthless, and merciless routines, feeling constantly so desperately weak, cold, lonely, fearful, and caged. Inpatient treatment has fully thrown me in the deep end, and I needed it. Increasing my body mass indeed has been, and continues to be, an incredibly important part of my remission process. Regular bowel movements, as I often mention gleefully to anyone willing to listen, have been one of the particular highlights.
I had a few more weekend home leaves since beginning to write this piece. I've now noticed a particular pattern when I return to the ward and am woken up to step on the scales at 6.30am the next morning. As I repeatedly see that number go up week after week, the woman upstairs has a funny way of making me forget and even regret all the joy I've also experienced as I've been gradually reclaiming the pieces of my life. Suddenly that number, the guilt, and the disproportionate shame I feel for having allowed it to increase yet again, clouds everything. Being unwell has been a numbing agent, and a security blanket, for so long.
Yet, that number going up means so many more things than the strength of my gravitational attraction towards earth. It means enjoying a home-cooked meal with my parents, playing with my godson without getting tired, letting friends cook for me, engaging in academic discussion without my brain fogging, ordering something other than a plain coffee in a café, going for a muddy, welly walk without worrying about my energy levels, saying 'yes' to a top up of mulled wine, spontaneously going to a dinner party and actually joining in, tucking into late night ice-cream with my friends just because, and falling over in fits of giggles because that glass of Prosecco has gone straight to my head.
These are the things that that number going up has enabled, but the things that number cannot quantify or communicate. To me, these things are the signs of improved wellness. These are the things I want more and more of. These are the things that make life worth living, even if pursuing them means continuing to squirm and battle the guilt when my perceived wellness is commented upon.
I am certainly through the worst part of this journey into remission. I’ve been thrown into the deep end, done a big belly flop, but found my way to the surface and have begun treading water.
As a friend helpfully put it, I am through the Monday and the best part of the Tuesday of recovery and restoration. But, I recognise that there is still a long way to go until the weekend...and this is true, regardless of how 'well' or 'unwell' I look. The woman upstairs has been given a final eviction notice, but she's naturally putting up a bit of a protest. Most of that, you can't see.
Tuesday afternoon is certainly dragging. Sometimes the discomfort along the way makes me not want to show up to work on Wednesday. For on Wednesday, I will look even weller.
But I continue to remind myself that on Wednesday afternoon there are new friends, on Thursday new opportunities, on Friday new adventures, and then a weekend of bottomless brunches and joy that far outweigh the numbers in front of me. As no time-machine or magic cure has yet been invented, I must keep treading water, and eventually doggy-paddling my way through the uncomfortable, fear-inducing, and somewhat uncertain, Tuesday.
“Because it's not perfect, let's not bother."
That's crazy! Even if we take three steps forward and two and a half back it's still going half a foot forward.”