Topic Tuesday: Recovery

“When the Blindfold is Lifted” (By: Emily Grinstead)

Have you ever been blindfolded before? Bandana around your eyes, everything dark, heart racing with excitement for the game or surprise at hand. Didn’t it feel great when you finally got to take that bandana off?! You could SEE again! And usually what you find behind the covering is something pretty great.

Now, pretend that the bandana is still covering your eyes. And you can’t take it off. Someone has played a cruel trick on you, and you have to spend several years temporarily blinded, unable to take the bandana off. Fortunately, over time, the bandana begins to feel normal, and you notice it less often. But you start feeling out of touch with reality; you’re lacking knowledge about the world; and you forget what exists beyond your darkened existence. More than blurred vision, you now have an irritable spirit and a cynical heart. You can’t experience the world for what it truly is, so you decline–physically, psychologically, spiritually.

While this blindfold example is unrealistic, it provides a pretty accurate analogy for what happens to a brain hijacked by a restrictive eating disorder. When we intentionally restrict our caloric intake below what our bodies need, the brain freaks out and goes into starvation mode. Repeated insufficient intake combined with excess movement causes the body to enter into a negative energy balance. And when the body is in a negative energy balance, it’s forced to make critical decisions in order to conserve energy: eliminate the processes that aren’t of extreme importance (i.e., menstruation), and divert energy to those that are essential for life (i.e., heart and brain function). This is one overly simplified reason why many eating disordered women lose their periods due to malnutrition… because why spend energy on having a period when we need to keep our heart beating?!

As the body is further malnourished, even the essential bodily functions can begin to decline–heart rate decreases, orthostatic hypotension develops, peripheral circulation is poor, bone density is lost due to lack of circulating estrogen and low calcium intake, electrolyte levels get out of whack, hair loss ensues, et cetera. The body is crying out for more energy, but its needs aren’t being met, so it has to pick and choose how to use the minimal energy stores it has left. And cognitive function inevitably declines along with these dangerous physiological changes.

Having been in that medically compromised state for years (and not even knowing it at the time), I can attest to the fact that a chronic negative energy balance changes your brain’s ability to function appropriately in the craziest of ways. With prolonged restriction, it makes perfect sense that your thoughts would be completely preoccupied with food and body–the brain is starving and needs fuel ASAP. But the truly remarkable (horrifying?) part is how a malnourished brain so clearly lines up with that blindfold analogy mentioned earlier: starvation = negative energy balance = reduced cognitive function = the way we see the world literally changes. And that, my friends, is utterly terrifying.

I don’t remember much from my years in active anorexia (helllooo brain starvation), but I do know that nearly all of my mental energy was focused on food, exercise, dance, and school. And that was it. My hobby was micromanaging and manipulating my body size. Fun times, right?!

All of this is to say that the brain is pretty incredible in its ability to survive and heal after the trauma of malnutrition. Lost sensory and cognitive functions can be regained with appropriate and consistent nutrition. And I think this topic has been on my mind lately because I’m beginning to notice how stark of a difference exists between my malnourished brain and my nourished brain. I can’t really put into words what it feels like to be able to see again; my mind used to be so fogged and hazy and obsessive. I couldn’t engage in simple conversations, much less dedicate time and energy to meaningful relationships. All of my brain power was devoted to my illness. There was no room for anything else.

I used to think the phrase “numbing out from life” was kind of weird at first, but the descriptor couldn’t be further from the truth: eating disorders numb you out from life. And they do a really good job, too. They distract you from your reality–the good, the bad, and the ugly. Because eating disorders are life-stealers; they will stop at nothing until they destroy you.

But thank the Lord, that is changing. The very way I see the world has transformed. Without the mental fog of malnutrition, the grass is (quite literally) greener, a simple conversation more meaningful. My senses are heightened. I can feel things. I can experience gut-wrenching terror and wondrous joy and everything in between. And I notice SO MUCH. I can overhear conversations from far away, enjoy the intricate beauty of God’s creation, and be truly present in relationships without having my thoughts completely dominated by food and body. I appreciate the little things that were always there but sidelined by the eating disorder: a beautiful blue sky, starry nights in the country, the taste of hot coffee in the morning, the bustle of city life, music that energizes and brings joy, peaceful moments and crazy ones and all of the in-between.

Who knew that so much beauty could come out of years trapped in a prison of numbers, restriction, and self-deprecation?! I can confidently say that my mind is progressively less occupied by intrusive thoughts about food and body. And although I’m not fully free from the prison just yet, that’s almost more exciting to me because my senses and experiences and ability to see the world for what it is can only grow stronger and more vibrant.

Who knows what else is out there to see, when the blindfold is fully lifted? I can’t wait to find out.

About the Author

Emily is a junior at Vanderbilt University majoring in Medicine, Health and Society. She loves Jesus, journaling, brunch foods, and all things Christmas and Disney. Houston, TX is her proud home, but she is slowly becoming a converted Nashvillian. She hopes to become both a Nurse Practitioner and a Registered Dietitian so that she can use her own experiences with anorexia and orthorexia to treat patients with eating disorders.