When you unexpectedly meet a reflection of your past head on.
When I began to get well from my eating disorder, I found myself slowly disassociating from those who weren’t healthy for my recovery. I spent more time with people who didn’t have an eating disorder because that was what I needed. It was essential for me to know that the ‘norm’ was, not the weird behaviours that I indulged during my anorexia. So, when I was unexpectedly faced head on with an eating disorder, I experienced something quite strange.
A few weeks ago, I was in Germany for a holiday. I was staying with family, and one evening they had some friends around for dinner. It was instant - I just knew, and she just knew. She wore it on her face, that look of a trapped soul. I could feel her eyes scan me up and down as I walked into the kitchen. I felt uncomfortable. I can only describe it as a magnetic repel; I wanted to distance myself from her.
Dinner was served and I felt myself observing everything she ate, which was a lot. She was “incredibly lean,” as another member of the family commented. She presented herself as a highly-successful lawyer who worked in the city, and, on paper, she was. Immaculately turned out, she could have been the envy of many women, who in today’s culture idolize such aesthetics. As she detailed her morning routine - a 5am 12k run, followed by a 6k swim every day without fail - I was taken back to the days when I would do a similarly punishing regime. When questioned if she would ever take a day off, her response was an immediate, anxious “no.” I felt the horror expressed on her face at the thought of not doing what her eating disorder had demanded. I had been there.
Was I triggered? No, but I did remove myself for ten minutes between courses. I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t feel the guilt which would have no doubt encompassed me several years ago. My eating disorder would have been raging, telling me that I had to do the same, and that I was lazy. What I did feel was a combination of sadness and gratitude. Sadness that this lady felt the need to do this to herself, and gratitude that I no longer wish to do the same. She wore the angst on her face. As someone once said to me, “you look angry.” I am not a volatile person by nature, but in my eating disorder I was sad and angry. Who wouldn’t be if they were being held hostage by a dictator? As the evening went on, some of those feelings dissipated and I was left feeling compassion towards her. I wanted to talk to her more, but, one, it wasn’t my place to step in, and two, I sensed that she wasn’t ready to engage in a conversation.
The next morning, the person whose friend she was asked me what I thought of the guests. I shared very little at first, but it later emerged that she had tried to take her life on several occasions, and that they, too had noticed this woman’s strange eating habits. I tried to explain that, for me, it was like facing my past head on, without warning. Like a recovered alcoholic or drug user being in the company of someone still active in their addiction, I was both drawn and repelled by her.
Our paths may never cross again, but that one evening has stuck with me since I returned from Germany a few weeks ago. I questioned my own recovery and my work with others. I had not been in the presence of someone who could have triggered me for quite some time, and it reminded me of the kind of person I became when I was in the depths of anorexia. I was self-obsessed, anxious, angry, sad, lonely, lost and frightened all at the same time. I was never present, never able to enjoy a meal in company and never able to laugh at myself.
I wonder if she has thought of me. I felt sure we had an unspoken understanding; a mutual connection of sorts, but without actually connecting, if that makes any sense? It was a welcomed reminder that we will all potentially encounter people in the most unexpected circumstances - people who will push our buttons. They may impart memories of days, months and years gone by, which we would care to forget. I don’t believe our meeting was a coincidence, and although it was uncomfortable, I am glad we met. Perhaps some of the unease I felt was because I saw myself in her; a reflection of who I once was, and it scared me. I have asked myself many times if I could ever let myself go back there. I don’t believe I would, but at times the ‘terrorist’ surfaces, if not in myself, then seemingly in others. Two weeks later, as I write this, all I know is that I am confident in the knowledge that I have no desire to return to the days of anguish, and self-inflicted wounds that I never fully allowed to heal. For that, I am truly grateful.