Deciding to Live, Not Just Exist
In our latest first-person story, Pippa, 26, shares her story of opting for recovery.
I’ve heard it said that ‘if you’re not recovering from an eating disorder, you’re dying from one’. Though I agree that, as a principle, the opposite of recovering is, very much, dying – after all, eating disorders are the deadliest of all mental illnesses – I do think the phrase somewhat overlooks an equally dangerous, but less obvious state into which many of us who attempt recovery fall at some point: when we aren’t really ‘dying’, but we aren’t truly living, either – we are merely ‘surviving’.
Now, don’t get me wrong, eating disorders are dangerous and manipulative illnesses that can certainly lead to death, if not other serious medical conditions, if left untreated or to their own devices. Having nearly lost my life to an eating disorder – becoming so weak I was unable to walk, roll myself over in bed, or even stay awake longer than an hour at a time; kept alive only by the grace of God, the wisdom of medical staff and a concoction of tubes and drips - I know first-hand quite how dangerous they can be. And I certainly do not mean to undermine the trauma, pain and utter despair that can lead to for both the sufferer and their loved ones.
But, up there with that time I spent truly on deaths door and in the long and lonely months in hospital that followed, some of the most painful moments I’ve experienced during my 12-year battle with anorexia have been those times where I’ve found myself surviving in this ‘half-life’ – one foot in my life, and one foot in my eating disorder. It’s like living in no-man’s land – no longer on deaths door, not at risk of hospitalisation, no longer drawing concerned looks or worried comments from friends, family or passers-by – but still internally tormented by the harsh, aggressive, demanding voice of an eating disorder; slave to its’ demands, following its rules, believing its lies. Not to the same extreme as before – but still enough to put a lid on my life – restricted, trapped, alone. I can honestly say that being in this place of ‘quasi-recovery’ or as the ‘functioning anorexic’ as it’s often referred to, is one of the most agonising and exhausting things I’ve ever experienced.
And I think the one of the reasons it is such a painful place to be is because of the intense isolation it causes. Even when I was around people – out with friends, hanging out with family, in work meetings – I just felt so alone. So lost in a sea of thoughts and negotiations with my eating disorder that no one around me knew about. And that was just it - I kept finding myself in this same realisation, no-one knew. To them, I was doing well – healthier, happier, stronger than I’d been before. And yeah, maybe it looked that way, because, on the outside, that was true. I was eating more than before, I was at a higher weight, not spending all my time exercising or sleeping, able to hold down a job and attend social occasions. But what they couldn’t see was the network of rules, restrictions and compulsions going on behind the scenes, the guilt and turmoil in my mind, the veil of ‘eating disorder’ that covered everything I did and kept me from being fully present, fully free, fully me.
And, yes, I could have chosen to live the rest of my life like that. A lot of people do. I could have settled for doing ‘just enough’ to get by in life – constantly battling to please both my eating disorder and my recovery. I could have continued to drift through this ‘half-life’ - functioning, existing, surviving – but never truly living.
But thank goodness I didn’t.
Thank goodness I decided that ‘good enough’ was not good enough.
Thank goodness I decided that I didn’t come this far to only come this far.
Thank goodness I decided to live.
Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not like it was that easy. If it was easy, I wouldn’t have got stuck in the first place. Or the multiple times after that where I’ve found myself drifting again. Most of the route ‘there’ - to that free, unrestricted life I so long for - actually feels pretty terrifying, relentless and unknown. There is no instant gratification, no quick fix, no shortcut to move from that place of ‘surviving’ to full, unrestricted freedom. Because it takes a conscious effort, it takes intense commitment and consistent, deliberate action - often against what every bone in your body seems to be telling you is right.
You see, what I’ve come to learn is that, choosing to live doesn’t come from a one-off decision to recover, some arbitrary standard of weight or meal plan set by a treatment provider, or some large-scale performative action that everyone around me could see and celebrate. No, choosing to live is in those everyday decisions, those moment-by-moment choices, actions taken and battles won behind closed doors in which no one would know, apart from me, if I took the easy way out.
It’s in that stolen extra chocolate from the box when no one else is looking.
It’s in that extra helping of my mum’s lasagne when everyone else is declaring themselves full.
It’s in that phonecall taken while lying on the sofa, rather than pacing around the flat.
It’s in those unmeasured coco-pops in the middle of the afternoon, devoured in 5 minutes between meetings.
It’s in that milky coffee with sugar syrup and full-fat milk, instead of ‘just a long black, thanks’
It’s in that burger and fries ordered straight from the menu, despite the urge to go for the salad.
It’s in that pizza at home alone on a Saturday night, completed in full rather than just the half it says on the packet.
And slowly, slowly but surely, through each individual act of rebellion against the eating disorder – I have found myself beginning to live. It’s as though the frost is slowly beginning to thaw, the fog lifting, the whole world coming back into focus again. With each moment-by-moment decision to take recovery action, I’ve found that relentless chatter of thoughts fading into the background; those urges to exercise, to compensate, to take the safer option gently subsiding; the rigidity and coldness that has been my existence for so long, beginning to ease. And in its place – experiences, emotions, passions, hopes, friendships, spontaneity, excitement, laughter, and tears – LIFE, in all its completeness and beauty.
Thank goodness I decided to live.
- Oct 2021