On being too sick to show up

If you’ve ever had the flu, you know there’s a bittersweet relief in being too sick to show up.

“Bitter” because you need to find a babysitter, miss class, cancel meetings. It translates into more work later. Not to mention: You feel sick. The flu sucks, always a little more than you expect.

“Sweet” because - well - everything else. You get to lay in bed, cancel everything, watch TV, and feel sorry for yourself. Personally, I’ve scheduled vacations with that same agenda.

The best part of being sick has to do with expectations. There are none. Personally, I’m allergic to expectations, even imaginary ones, and it’s a relief to break free from those imaginary hives.

It’s been 12 days since I began to actively, intentionally recover from my eating disorder, and 11 days since I realized I had been using my eating disorder much like the flu. It was a safe alternative to showing up.

Here’s an example:

About one month into intermittent fasting - which, for anyone blissfully unaware, just means you go a long time without eating - my boyfriend surprised me with breakfast. He bought my favorite thing, bagel and lox, and surprised me at my house before work. It was sweet. It was meant to be romantic.

Where my heart should have leapt at his kindness, it instead sank at the sight of food. Shit, I don’t eat breakfast. How am I going to get out of this?

I couldn’t get out of it. Instead, I ate the bagel, tempered the resentment, and felt the guilt in full force. All. Damn. Day. I don't like bagels and lox anymore.

That same evening, a friend and I went out to play pool. I had restricted so adamantly in the wake of the bagel that, after one game, the brain fog set in. I played horribly, and all I could think about was whether we'd order food after. When we finally did, my normally entertaining friend was less interesting than the chicken strips. She was at Level 3 on Maslow’s hierarchy - love and belonging - and I was stuck meeting basic physiological needs at Level 1.

That's what I mean. That’s how it looks to be too sick to show up. No, I didn’t have a temperature and no, I wasn’t contagious. But while my body was present, my mind was lying in bed.

Have you ever heard of that excessively creepy mental illness, Munchausen syndrome by proxy? That’s when a caretaker creates or fabricates symptoms in their kid, often to gain attention or pity from others. It isn't the kid who's sick - at least, not at first; the caretaker has the illness.

I have a vision of my own eating disorder, hovering sadly above my bed, insisting that yes, it’s unfortunately necessary to eat all my meals within a 6-8 hour window. And yes, unfortunately, if you break that rule, the day must be spent feeling guilty. And no, I’m sorry, there are no alternatives to skipping dinner after having eaten breakfast. And oh honey, you ordered food? Better cram it in now, because there won't be any tomorrow.

Pretty creepy, right? So why “bittersweet?” Why not, you know, just bitter? Here’s why.

In Munchausen’s by proxy, the caregiver’s manipulations are often experienced by the child as love. Bedrest feels necessary. Isolation feels like safety. Mother knows best.

Plus, those symptoms aren’t always fake. Basic psychology warns us of the nocebo effect, in which imagining or expecting a symptom often causes it to show up. Not to mention, in this illness, the caretaker often incites the symptoms herself.

Paradoxically, surrendering to the "care" of an eating disorder can feel like love. When what you crave is rest - when you're burnt out on expectations, real or imagined - succumbing to an eating disorder is like crawling back into bed. Suddenly, you really are sick; you really are too cold, tired, lonely, and hungry to show up. And because you've never before given yourself permission to slow down, doing so can feel like love.

The trick, I think, is this. In 12 days of recovery - that means eating to physical and psychological satiety every day, even at breakfast - I've noticed that my need to rest hasn't gone away. I'm still inclined to live my life at a sloth's pace. Even when I make every effort to nourish myself, I need permission to slow down. To resist expectations for a while.

But here's the thing: I never needed permission to live life at my own pace. I never had to do it on an empty stomach. And neither do you.