Metaphor is a powerful tool in eating disorder recovery. We’ve all read of battles, wars, armor…
My favorite comparison has always been that having an eating disorder is like being in an abusive relationship. The false sense of safety, security and love victims feel when, in fact, they’re being controlled, bullied and hurt is really relatable.
From an outsider’s perspective, walking away from an unhealthy relationship should be easy. Why would anyone stay in an abusive relationship? Occasionally, there is judgment: How could anyone end up in an abusive relationship, let alone stay in one for so long?
But walking away from an abusive relationship isn’t easy.
Right now, I’m trying to find the “best” way to end my abusive relationship with anorexia.
However, I’m beginning to realize there is no “best” way to end an abusive relationship, is there? It’ll always be difficult, messy and painful.
There will always be a small part of every survivor that doesn’t want to let go of the relationship entirely. Yeah, it’s not always great, sure, but it’s comfortable and familiar. Sometimes it’s actually really good. And who knows? Things might even get better!
A better way to phrase what I’m trying to do in my recovery right now is that I’m trying to find a way to end this relationship because I don’t want to be in it. Not because I know — objectively — that I probably should end it. The relapse-recovery cycle is expected. Relapse is a part of recovery. But it’s frustrating. A frightening déjà vu.
When abusive relationships are exposed (for example, the victim confides in a friend, family member or even seeks help from professionals), the abuse enters the spotlight. People begin to look at the abuser’s behavior more carefully and with more scrutiny. This makes the abuser anxious, angry and uncomfortable. Usually, this scrutiny leads the abuser to become an expert at hiding any problematic behavior(s). Exposure also makes victims, too, feel anxious, angry and uncomfortable.
Now everyone knows. Everyone knows how silly I’ve been. Now everyone is worried. This is my fault.
The shame, guilt and embarrassment can be devastating.
Of course, everyone just wants what’s best for the victim. They want their loved one (service user, patient) to be happy and healthy. So they take the victim away from the abuser.
How do abusers react to having their toys taken away? Not well. They don’t often step back without a fight. They can become violent.
What about the victim? Probably, they’ll just be really confused and upset. They’ll have a vague understanding that this is for the best. But without time to fully process it all, to truly let the relationship go, victims are left in a somewhat vulnerable state. Action without understanding, motivation and no appropriate safety nets in place leaves the victim in a precarious position.
Time will pass. Weeks, months, years go by. The dust settles. It was all a bad dream. Everyone has moved on.
Then, one day, without warning, the abuser reappears. Before a party, on the bus home from a stressful day at work, in the bathroom mirror. You run back into those familiar arms immediately: before you’ve realized it, you’re in a relationship again. It feels great. For a while.
It’ll be different this time. Our relationship will be different. They’ve changed. I’ve changed. A lot of time has passed. A lot has happened since we were last together. I know what to look out for this time; I’m prepared for any potential escalation. I’m older now. I’m wiser now.
It’ll be different this time.
But it’ll never be different.
But it feels different to the victim. The nature of the abuse may be different, too, further complicating things. Eating disorders are dynamic illnesses. They adapt themselves to changing environments. Catch their victims when they’re most vulnerable.
I haven’t been punched in the face this time. Sure, there’s more shoving, but I haven’t been left with any bruises yet. I haven’t been prevented from contacting my friends and family. I have an active social life and a career.
This is fine.
I don’t know why everyone’s so concerned. It’s not that bad. So what if I’m blind in one eye? That was my fault. I walked into that one.
This time, friends, family and various authorities step in more directly. This time, we need to treat the situation with more seriousness and immediacy!
Legal measures are used. Restraining orders, tagging. The victim is moved to a different location: into a new flat or to a new city entirely. To safety. In some cases, the victim is given a new name. A new identity, even.
This is necessary, everyone explains to the victim.
But now the victim is even more confused. The abuser? Even angrier.
Now they’re star-crossed lovers. Everyone else is the enemy.
Just wait for me, the abuser soothes. We’ll be together again soon.
Even if the victim had been on board, the lack of agency involved in this scenario is problematic. Necessary, sure, but problematic.
Self-confidence destroyed. Even more guilt and shame.
I fell into my abuser’s trap again and made everything worse. This time, I’ve really made a huge mess, haven’t I? I didn’t listen before and now this has happened. I thought she would go away if I ignored her, but I fell for her lies again. Why did I do that?
Maybe I deserve this. Clearly, the problem is me. This is all my fault.
Walking away from an abusive relationship isn’t easy.
Recovery from an eating disorder isn’t easy.
I want to end my relationship with anorexia. Dump her in a way that doesn’t involve ghosting (deleting her number and pretending we’d never been involved in the first place). I want to dump her in a way that isn’t dictated by other people (ending it out of shame, guilt or because I’m embarrassed by the relationship) or only because legal measures have been put in place to keep her away from me.
The only way I’ll ever be free from this relationship — free from this endless cycle of abuse, punishment and shame, of relapse and recovery — is if I a) accept that it’s a fundamentally unhealthy relationship and b) believe that I’m worth more than an occasionally tolerable but mostly painful relationship that will only ever go from bad to worse. Abuse relationships never improve over time. They get worse.
It’s not my fault. No one else is to blame either, except my abuser.
I need to confront my abuser. I can’t just ignore her calls and take a different route to work every day. I need to pack her bags, throw all of her belongings into the trash, one at a time, until the only trace of her that remains is long-healed wounds and a support network I built to help me get over her (because a little extra muscle is always appreciated when throwing out some heavy emotional baggage!).
That’s the only way I think I’ll ever be able to end my relationship with my abuser for good.
I need to close the door on her myself.