Living in the shadow of an eating disorder is a very foreign place. The laws that govern that world, the ways decisions are made and the natural flow of events and relationships are all very different from the world everyone else populates.
But this fact is not clear to people with eating disorders, often for a long time in recovery and for a very specific reason. The combination of self-awareness and our limitations of empathy make humans preternaturally self-absorbed beings. Thus, we humans have a natural tendency to see our own perspective as reflective of everyone's view of life. Although this is clearly false, it's hard to remember that in day-to-day life.
After living with an eating disorder for some time, it similarly becomes hard to remember that most people don't live by the rules of this illness. Freedom to choose their food is a basic fact of life for everyone else.
The realization that life without an eating disorder means entering an entirely new world is often shocking for people in recovery. It takes time to understand that entering this new world comes with a host of new rules, most of which do not revolve around food. An eating disorder creates a very rigid system of decision making in life that limits many aspects of what everyone else sees as relatively free: food, friendships, relationships, emotions, self-care and self-determination. Eating disorders restrict not just food but life.
That restriction is terribly limiting but also provides security from the overwhelmingly unpredictable and seemingly dangerous world. People typically find that they don't have the personal skills to function in the world without the eating disorder clearly directing the way. After the shock of this discovery, there is a moment of panic followed by a steep learning curve about life.
Although many people use this sensibility to describe an eating disorder as a lifestyle choice, this seems largely misguided. It appears to be better described as a crutch. The eating disorder may make navigating life a bit easier on the surface, but it severely curtails possibility and opportunity to grow, connect and love, essential qualities that makes life full and whole.
What sparks the opening of a window into the world without an eating disorder is almost invariably a strong, personal connection. The eating disorder blinds the person from seeing and believing that real connection can provide solace from life's challenges and meaning to daily life. The inherent isolation leads people to present the world a shell of who they are. The jolt of a connection typically allows people to remember past experiences of connection and trigger the universal yearning to be understood and heard.
But here lies the paradox. It's so hard to be truly heard while living in a foreign land. It feels almost impossible to explain what it's like to live dominated by the eating disorder to someone who's never visited this strange place. Once that person in recovery begins to understand the world without an eating disorder, it becomes easier to explain the hell of the world of the eating disorder. The opportunities to connect with others are revealed, and a path to freedom opens.