Saturday, August 24, 2013

Social Withdrawal & Eating Disorders

I went back down to my old treatment center as a guest speaker earlier this week and like every other time I have done so in the past, left on a complete high. There are very few things I love more than speaking about my past with an eating disorder because it helps other, which in turn, helps me.

During the evening group where a panel of four of us former patients spoke with parents, there was one question that really got me thinking: Did all of us (on the panel of recovered/recovering patients) suffer from social withdrawal and/or isolation during our eating disorder? Before the man asking the question even finished his sentence, all four of us were unanimously nodding a definite YES to answer his question. 

For me, in order to keep my eating disorder alive, I needed that alone time. It was almost as if I had created this secret life of rigid routines and the deeper I fell into my disorder, the more uncomfortable I became in social situations. The primary focus in my life had become my eating disorder, which didn't leave any room for outside relationships. Year after year I continued to push more and more people out of my life because the eating disorder became more important.

To make matters worse, most social gatherings revolve around food. It didn't matter if it was a family gathering, a lunch date with a friend, or a quick cup of coffee to catch up, they all became overwhelming because additional calories were involved. If I, heaven forbid, ate a cookie or something, I often felt the need to burn off any excess calories consumed and forced myself to compulsively exercise in secrecy (hello culinary school years).

During this discussion, a light bulb went on in my head. My first two years of college were incredibly difficult for me and as a result, I failed out of school. Ever since then I have had a false belief that I am just not fit for college; I'm simply not smart enough. But I think I can finally see my inability to succeed academically in the past had nothing to do with my level of intelligence - it was all about social withdrawal due to my eating disorder.

At the time, I was heavy into the bulimia stage of my eating disorder and I often became so anxious that nothing else mattered except escaping my daily triggers at school. My escape method of choice was, of course, the binging and purging. Our college years are meant to be spent making life long friends, drinking on the weekends, and learning how to live with roommates, all of which are highly social. All I wanted during that time was to isolate and be alone with my eating disorder; so that's I did, regardless of the consequences.

 One of the other girls on the panel of recovered/recovering patients said while she was in her eating disorder, it was as if she was living in a blurry, black and white world. Throughout her recovery journey, however, she began to see world in a crystal clear, vibrantly colorful way. Recovery has opened my eyes to an entire universe of new positive life experiences thanks to my new found social interactions. The relationships we build with others, without the eating disorder getting in the way, have the ability to change every aspect of life.

Unfortunately, in the past I did allow my eating disorder dictate and completely ruin my social life. During the past year of recovery, however, I have slowly begun rebuilding meaningful relationships. I have even proven to myself over the past two semesters that I can succeed in school. Those eating disorder thoughts can no longer convince me I am not smart enough to succeed.

Slowly, day by day, thanks to my new freedom to engage in life, I am beginning to see the world in beautiful, vivid color, too.



  1. Funny... I started vigorously nodding my head just reading the title of this post! As I recover, everything in my life is called into question, and it can be so exhausting. It is amazingly hard work when every decision needs to be balanced between the question of whether this is me listening to my body and soul needs, vs. is this the eating disorder in disguise, keeping me isolated and trapped?

    I am glad to hear your hopeful words. I too am readying to step into the world of colour and yet I'm not quite there yet. You give me hope.

    1. I can't think of a better word than exhausting to describe the recovery process. You are so right, we are constantly questioning whether or not we are making the right decisions. But I think I'm learning to just do what feels good. Isolating may have "fixed" my problems in the moment, but it certainly didn't feel good in the long run. Keep up the good work!

  2. Replies
    1. But what if I'm trying to let go of perfectionistic tendencies? :-/ If I don't get a 4.00 then the "not good enough" voices are relentless. What if learning to be happy with my best work, whether the outcome is an A or a C, helps me find balance?

  3. Yes, yes, yes! That's what recovery means to me. Start to participate in life. We lock ourselves into our rules that we create, and separate ourselves from the rest of the world. Starting to eat in the way what the rest of the world offers us (not according to our own rules) is a beginning of the journey. Our obsessions are ways for us to bury ourselves into the darkness for we are unable to trust ourselves, life, and the rest of the world in the time being. It does not have to be that way. You are very intelligent and smart, and I think by now you have figure it out :) I will write you email very soon! <3

    1. Isn't it weird how that works? We know we are burying ourselves in that darkness, but we still crave it? We know it's holding us back, but continue to stay stuck. Looking back on it now, it doesn't make much sense, does it? No hurry on the email, whenever you have time is perfect. :)

  4. I love that you were able to go back and speak as a guest speaker. I bet you were a huge inspiration to those girls. this I can relate to more than ever and something about recovery that is very tough to relearn and rejoin if that makes sense. I learned to be alone so well, for six years at best, so getting back in there was the hardest thing I still struggle with. being alone gave me that time with my ed in my past that made me feel safe and almost right in my actions. back then when I actually engaged in life it was a hard balance of pleasing my ed and pleasing those around me - almost contradictory in nature. I know that is why I retreated more than stepped out. what a great post, I know everyone that ever struggled can relate to this in some way

    1. Thanks Alex. Yes, what you said about relearning to be social makes perfect sense to me. In fact, that has been one of my biggest struggles but I don't really like to talk about it or admit it. I'm glad you can relate. As people pleasers, it is impossible to please the ed and those around us. Through recovery I'm learning the only person I can please is myself and if I'm not in a healthy mindset, nothing else matters.

  5. Great progress! I liked the illustration of seeing things in black and white and gray....and then getting to see splashes of color again.

    When I first started restricting calories and obsessing about weight in high school, I had two very close friends and a small circle of not-as-close friends. Part of my insecurity at that time was how I felt a bit isolated to begin with--so maybe the social isolation added to the beginnings of disordered eating, and then the disordered eating added to the social isolation!

    In college, I felt like I didn't really fit in anywhere for the first year and a half. It was no big surprise that I was easily able to spend hours studying in the library and start purging with no one having any idea.

    After being a stellar student in lower grades, I struggled with not being the best in late high school and college. I even got a D in freshman chemistry, which crushed me! I did a lot of self-questioning about my life path and where I belonged. My lowest emotional point was during my sophomore year, and I definitely spent a lot of time alone, working out, studying, running, eating my strange little meals, and purging. NO ONE KNEW. I was so lonely and joyless!

    As I found a really super group of friends the second half of sophomore year, I was able to come out of my shell. I started to live "in color" again. Normal, free eating habits returned.

    Being a stay at home mom can actually be a bit isolating because everything revolves around a baby or child's schedule. Sitting down and chatting with a friend is pretty rare these days. That isolation, combined with life stresses, have been the things that have made the "old thoughts" whisper louder lately. I haven't purged since college, but in the past month I've had the thought enter my mind when I least expected it.

    I've rambled. I will apologize and then end by saying how important and life-giving it is to "do life" in the presence of others. They keep us on good paths, help us when we are weak, and fuel us and heal us with love.

    Blessings as you study and reach for the sky! --Alison

    1. Please don't apologize for rambling. Hearing your experiences always brings me comfort because it seriously feels like you are pulling those words out of my past. I also had a small group of friends prior to the isolation which only made things worse. Fitting in in college was never my thing either... It's kind of crazy to look back now and finally see all of the small things that contributed to the development of the ed. It is such a lonely place. Thanks for sharing that it is possible to come out of it once the right people come into our lives. Thoughts to purge do enter my mind occasionally, too, but I think we just learn healthier ways to cope. Thanks again for sharing! :)