Let’s talk about guilt

Submitted by Eliza

I’ve been in recovery from anorexia for about seven years, which has given me a lot of time to think back on where I’ve been. Sometimes that can be positive. Like when I can compare it to where I am now. When I’m munching on some chips after a night out with my friends, I can think: “Look at me go! Who’d have thought it? Friends! Chips!”

Sometimes, though, it isn’t positive. Like when my mind dusts off some bad memories to play like a show reel while I try to fall asleep.

I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling guilty for the way I behaved as I was getting worse – and even as I was getting better – with anorexia. It’s a kind of nauseous, panicky, angry feeling, with nowhere to go but inwards. I get it when I think about the ways I’ve affected – and the ways I’ve treated – the people around me. I pushed people away. I said horrible things to those who tried to help me. I broke things. I’m ashamed to admit that I hit my dad once; it wasn’t very hard, but I still hit him. He was trying to remove me from the kitchen, where I was anxiously watching and objecting to the ingredients my mum was putting into the meal I had to eat.

When I mentioned this, during one of my first nights at university, when the vodka and diet cokes I’d swallowed so that I’d be able to talk to them had started working a bit too well, people laughed. To be fair to them, I think I wanted them to. I phrased it as something like “I punched my dad over a lasagne”, which was an exaggeration, and sounds like a really lame version of those horror stories they put on the front of tabloid magazines. It’s funny because it’s so completely absurd, but it’s the absurdity of anorexia that makes it such a unique kind of nightmare, too.

“Trying to understand my reasons for behaving as furiously and as desperately as I did has been really important in dealing with guilt, although it has been difficult too.”

I’m not sure how true this is for other people with anorexia, or other eating disorders, but for me, food became existentially terrifying. To be forced to eat was to have my arms wrenched from a cliff edge that I was clinging on to every day of my life. The best way I can understand it is that being thin, being anorexic, was my life. It was a way of carving out an existence for myself, one that promised to make the world manageable, and me acceptable. I didn’t want to eat as if my life depended on it, because it did.

I’m certain these reasons will not apply to everyone who has suffered with or is suffering with an eating disorder, which is why I advocate for therapy. My therapist has helped me disentangle some of my thought processes, including knots that I hardly knew were there, in order to live a bit more freely.

There is, I think, unfortunately, a limit to how understandable eating disorder behaviours can be. In my experience, at least, anorexia becomes a closed system of logic that diverges completely from the logic of the rest of the world. I didn’t want to ruin my health, I didn’t even want to be extremely thin, I just didn’t want to eat. It makes no sense, and yet I allowed it to make a pretty big dent in my life and the lives of my family.

The most obvious and sensible response to guilt, in this case and in most, is to apologise. It is difficult, though, to feel that an apology is satisfactory when any explanation of why is so difficult to articulate or even to comprehend. My parents have understood my anorexia, in the past, as if I was taken over by a monster, which I believe is only half true. I have found it helpful in dealing with my guilt to acknowledge that my actions and decisions were my own. I remember too, though, that I made them within a very strange and unforgiving set of logic, one that became increasingly stringent. I was also, to use a precise medical term, very, very hangry.

In all seriousness, having anorexia is basically hell. The merciful thing is that this, and any situation, doesn’t last forever. I believe my parents when they say that they don’t hold my behaviour during my eating disorder against me, that it was worth it to be at the stage of recovery I am at now.

In the end, we all have the potential to do sh*tty, inexplicable things, eating disorder or no eating disorder. At the risk of sounding a bit lofty, I think that’s what makes love both miraculous and possible. I’ve managed to internalise, over the course of my recovery, that I don’t have to be perfect to be acceptable to the world. My experience with anorexia hasn’t made me stronger, to be honest, but it has made me more forgiving, both of others and of myself. That’s why I quite like the phrase: what doesn’t kill you makes you kinder.

I know that, ultimately, the best way I can make up for the pain I have caused is to keep trying to get better. It may feel like I’m going in circles most of the time, like there is no way I can do it, but I remember that at least if I’m going in circles, I can keep going around. And every now and then, after I’ve been watching my feet go around in circles for a while, I will look up, and see that the landscape looks a little bit different.


My tips for dealing with feelings of guilt

Try to understand why you may have done something
It isn’t because you’re a terrible person, but as a response to a certain situation, even if that response doesn’t seem particularly rational. If you can, and haven’t already, consider looking into therapy, or booking a 1:1 support call with Talk ED.

However incomplete your apology may feel, there is a very good chance it will be warmly accepted.

Accept that your responsibility was likely diminished
Taking ownership of your actions is necessary for a good apology, and for doing better in the future, but it is also worth remembering that an eating disorder will do a lot to impair your judgement.

Have empathy for yourself
Dealing with an eating disorder is often the hardest thing many people ever have to do. Everyone says and does things they regret when they’re under pressure, and being too harsh on yourself is possibly a contributing factor.

Focus on your recovery
The best, most important thing you can do is continue trying to get better. Be proud of the progress you have made, and keep going!

If you are experiencing feelings of guilt, no matter what stage of recovery you are at support is available.  We are here to listen to any worries that you may have about eating disorders or disordered eating and to provide practical support and guidance towards recovery.

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