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Feeling Pulled Apart: Stress and Eating Disorder Recovery

It is 11:22 p.m. and I’m still staring at the blank computer screen. My head hurts. My stomach feels queasy. I’m tired.

The worst part? I struggled to eat today. Not because the eating disorder voice hammered at me. Not because I felt compelled to lose weight.

But because I simply did not feel hungry.

Stress kills my appetite. Now I have to make sure it doesn’t kill my recovery from anorexia.
I went to visit my family this weekend. And I left with a raging migraine.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my family. They really stepped up after I basically self-destructed this past winter, relapsing back into restrictive eating and descending into alcoholism and prescription drug abuse.

But all families have quirks and issues and drama. My family just seems to have more of these traits. Add that to aging parents with health issues, and it is bound to feel stressful for anyone.

Particularly for someone recovering from an eating disorder.

Then there is my upcoming thesis defense. Tomorrow (or today for those of you who read this after midnight.)

I have been working on my master’s degree in English Composition and Communication for three years. I started in 2009 when I thought I was recovered from anorexia and my marriage was still stable. I did not know I would have a serious relapse and that my marriage would fall apart the next year, or I might have not given up a secure job to start graduate school while struggling with these problems.

However, I had no choice but to continue my studies. Quitting was not an option.

I wrote my thesis on anorexia (I’m sure everyone saw that coming.) For those not familiar with graduate school, a thesis defense is basically where a student talks and answer questions about his or her work. Some departments make the defense an exam; however, the English department at the university I attend views it more like a discussion.

Anyway, the migraine started Sunday morning and has been impervious to over-the-counter pain killers.

I started struggling with eating yesterday, and I first wondered if this was a symptom of ongoing body image issues and a sneaky urge to lose weight. It is rather complicated, because while I don’t believe eating disorders are about vanity and weight per se, stress and lack of coping skills can manifest into the compulsion to control one’s weight. (If I could fully explain the cause(s) of eating disorders, I could write a book and forget about graduate school!)

Then today all I ate was a granola bar until almost five o’clock in the afternoon. This wasn’t done in a conscious, “I think I’ll restrict my food and hop back onto the anorexic band wagon” way. It was more about feeling nervous about my defense and my family and all the subsequent drama going on, and the end result was, ipso facto, I did not eat.

The good thing, the healthy thing, is that I am now fully aware that for some reason, restricting food is an adaptive function for me. And that means making myself eat even when I don’t want to.

This irritates me on one level. I mean, other people can skip a meal or two because of stress or grief or illness. Not me. I always have to eat. If I can’t eat, then I have to suck down some Ensures to keep from losing weight.

Why? Because the eating disorder voice tends to get louder when I start restricting and losing weight. Then as some point, I lose sight of recovery and begin focusing all my attention on the minutiae of calories and weight and clothing size until it becomes my whole life.

The good part of all this? The fact that I am cognizant of the fact that I have to be mindful about my recovery and the impact that stress can have on it.

Do I believe that some day I won’t automatically turn to restricting when under stress? Yes.

Find Angela E. Gambrel on Facebook and Google+, and @angelaegambrel on Twitter.

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