Posted inHealth and Wellbeing

Boxed In: Eating Disorders in Lockdown

CW: This article discusses issues related to eating disorders and domestic abuse. 

Stay at Home, Save Lives. This catchphrase has defined our communal lexicon over the last couple of months. Presumably, Dominic Cummings came up with it himself when doodling on a Post-It note. And there is no doubt that these words are important – no, essential – in the fight against COVID-19 and the efforts to slow the spread of this dangerous disease.

Nevertheless, these words, and the lockdown they refer to, come at great cost. What if staying at home works to escalate pre-existing problems in our lives? I’ve been reminded a lot over the last few weeks of the many domestic abuse victims whose homes are far from a safe space. Without excuses to leave the house (like work, shopping, or socialising) many sufferers of abuse are trapped in an environment layered with trauma – both ongoing, and past. 

This sense that home is an unsafe or insecure place is palpable for those of us with a history of disordered eating. But in this case, the conflict and destruction are intensely internal. Without the crux of routine, dependable distractions, or casual socialising, it is too easy for us to sink back into the grasp of harmful thinking and behaviour – like the sensual embrace of an old, but bitterly destructive, friend. I don’t want you to envision my disorder as some kind of glamorous but psychopathic Villanelle – in part because as far as I’m aware Phoebe Waller-Bridge isn’t narrativizing my life. But also, popular culture has a damaging tendency to romanticise eating disorders and it’s important to communicate that the day to day reality of them is so, so ugly. 

I’ve seen numerous memes about how, in this new state of lockdown, mealtimes have become the big events of the day. This makes a lot of sense – food is where we can get creative and bring some variation to an otherwise samey series of days. But this also embodies the constant thoughts had by those suffering with eating disorders, both in and out of lockdown. The unrelenting demarcation of the day by its meals was a defining feature of my eating disorder at its worst points, but it’s also a frame of mind that feels practically impossible to let go of completely even after significant recovery. As such, this communal shift of focus onto mealtimes projects features of my disorder onto the outside world, thus making it even harder to escape. 

A sinister feature of disordered eating is just how powerful these thought patterns are – how much they can seemingly revert into the shadows, just to come back out during periods of pressure, pain, or change. As someone who has danced with cycles of bingeing and subsequent shame off and on since I was very young, I know that periods of stress, depression or loneliness are more likely to push me into harmful behaviour surrounding food. During lockdown, the relentless stasis for those staying at home, as well as a powerful sense of collective anxiety, mean that self-critical feelings can gain rapid momentum. 

Many people who suffer with disordered eating first developed these behaviours during childhood or adolescence. And many have also returned to their family homes for lockdown, whether by choice or not. This produces more complications for someone with a history of disordered eating because they are forced to return to sites of initial self-loathing. Such feelings are strongest for me when looking through cupboards of clothes that used to fit when I was restricting myself, or when coming across old notebooks with painful diary entries ripped out.

Sometimes these feelings aren’t even that tangible – it can simply be about the inevitable regression that occurs when we return to the family home. A lot of eating disorders are wrapped up in our family relationships. Even if we love our families very much, the role we take in our family unit plays a huge part in our sense of self. For me, as the youngest of four children and the only girl, my eating disorder was wrapped up in my gender and my feeling out of place in a family of boys. Relocated to my childhood home, these feelings come rushing right back. 

More than anything, the relationship between the lockdown and eating disorders is about control. The whole population of the UK have all been instructed to lead a regimented lifestyle for the good of public health, but this can leave a person feeling very out of control indeed. It is without any sense of control that people with a history of disordered eating begin exercising control over food – then the problems start. 

I’m afraid to say there isn’t a quick solution for these problems – they are complex, nuanced and, in my experience, often fiercely contradictory. But all I can do is remind you that at this time, a little kindness – to yourself and others – can go a very long way indeed. 

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