Rest, Unraveling, and the Nonlinear Road to Recovery
By Lindsay Grippo
Trigger Warning: eating disorder, body dysmorphia
I recently had a bout of mono so intense, tiresome, and all-encompassing that I am still feeling its residual effects as I write this piece.
I was told what all of my extended symptoms would be, as well as the potential side effects of the steroids I was prescribed.
I strictly adhered to all the doctors' advice; I took it easy, ate soft foods, gargled salt water. I started a bunch of new shows and caught up on a handful of others. I killed so much time staring at blue light that a few of my brain and eye cells followed suit.
Yet no licensed professional warned me of the side effect that has hit me hardest, the one I was largely unprepared to face and markedly unequipped to deal with. Since my diagnosis, I’ve experienced a flare-up of an eating disorder I've been battling my entire adolescent and young adult life.
It’s the general consensus that mono makes you lose a significant amount of weight. Your body is too tired to get out of bed long enough to even open the refrigerator door or keep you awake long enough to realize you’re hungry. Your throat consistently burns with an unbearable pang which resists the input of anything that isn't warm liquid or soft mush.
Mono isn’t three or four days of rest and a speedy recovery; there are no antibiotics to get rid of the fatigue (I was put on four before they realized what I was suffering from wasn't strep) and no home remedies for the soot in your mind that you only realize is an opaque black until it begins to lift. You just have to endure these unideal circumstances while your body slowly but surely regains its usual strength.
“At least you’ll get a head start on a bikini body," my one friend harmlessly joked.
As someone whose mind is always, even subconsciously, aware of my relationship to food – what I just ate or am about to eat, how I will feel afterward or how it will make me look tomorrow – being sick is not a break from the ongoing war against the fuel my body needs to survive.
In fact, there is heightened anxiety in having to stew alone with your thoughts, as well as a rising fever, in an inescapable haze of musty frustration. I was just as bound to my creeping neuroses as I was to the mattress I lay atop of for days on end, and these intrusive thoughts clung to me as tightly as my clothes when I’d fall asleep in a sweatshirt and wake up in a freezing pool of sweat.
It appears in hindsight to have been a lapse in judgment that I did not already expect this flare-up to occur. With almost every illness I suffer comes the extra burden of navigating the mental shithole of being physically forced to lay in the same spot for days, to alter my specific eating habits, and to accept that I am unable to do anything about either.
But there is an element of ignorance I divulge a bit too often, one that pretends I have my obsessive thoughts under control and that I no longer suffer from a negative body image that can be so crippling I avoid plans with friends or mentally schedule my next few meals.
However, the reality is that these thoughts never leave me; they morph over time, and I've gotten good at pretending not to see them, but the harmful ones have always dictated how I go through life.
Operating under a long term exercise routine and a somewhat restrictive eating regimen comes second nature to me in a way that I’m only really forced to confront when others around me act without this same precision. What used to manifest as running for upwards of two hours each day and using a measuring cup/scale to prepare all my meals has turned into a more manageable balance of daily yoga and vegetarianism.
There is an underlying compulsivity that drives almost all of the habits I adopt; while some might appear less domineering than others, they each contain its silent potential for disaster. So to say I am only forced to “confront” these habits at certain moments in my life is to really say that I am not always forced to see them for what they truly are: components of an unhealthy mode of existing.
It is only when I am unable to mask these patterns under the makeshift guise of daily ritual (or the tedious but required onuses of life) that I see them more accurately for what they are – which means my inner peace and daily survival often depend entirely on such delusions remaining intact.
I can find genuine joy in many of the routines I create for myself, which makes it easier to pretend they aren’t driven by problematic impulses. But during times of stress – when I drift into autopilot and no longer act from a place of contentment but rather unsubstantiated necessity – it becomes apparent that I structure my life around something that hinders me more than it serves me.
So in short, what my recent bout of mono has done is given me a glimpse of the extremes I had gotten comfortable forgetting I had the capacity to reach.
Particularly for those with my same approach to recovery – a hopefulness that can occasionally border on denial – signs of an impending relapse can sound somewhat of a muted alarm. You want to trust your progress, to know you have grown and learned to handle the worst of it; this is why the alarm is not blaring with abandon. But you also know the power that nagging voice in your head can muster, how convincing she is when she wants to be and how easy it is to feel small when she talks; this is why the alarm is going off in the first place.
Triggers for eating disorders aren't always obvious, even to the person suffering from one. Regressive thoughts can sneak up and eat away at your sanity before you even realize that hunger for obsession is the only appetite you’re feeding.
My body hasn’t only been battling mono these past few months, but it's been fighting itself, my mind and its frameworks, and a society that can seem to say I'm never enough even as I desperately attempt to shave myself down to less.
For a long time, our culture has targeted the female body as one that must look a certain way in order to be deemed acceptable. Woman’s ideal figure has been sculpted into unattainable proportions and presented as the end-all be-all source of self-worth. So for a long time, women have not only internalized, but also subconsciously reinforced, extremely narrow and unsustainable ideas of what it means to be beautiful, desired, and enough.
It has only been in recent history that a diversity of body shapes and sizes has been celebrated in a widespread fashion. Though undeniably marks of progress, these messages have merely scratched the surface of the collective consciousness – and for not nearly long enough to have seeped in as deeply as the toxic ones they’re seeking to displace.
Similarly, this obsession with body image has increasingly begun to affect men as well, which is not a feat of equalization so much as a vicious spread of the virus.
I've stepped on the scale more times this month than I have in the last six combined. I could tell you precisely how much I weighed a few days ago and estimate, probably very accurately, what I weigh today (which is why I'm avoiding the scale's confirmation). I've made a point to consume smaller portions and only certain foods that don't feel like they sit in my stomach for too long after I eat them. When I accidentally stray too far from ingredients I've deemed "safe," I spend the entire next day half angry at myself for messing up and half anxious for the next when I can get "back on track" again.
These thoughts are so frighteningly reminiscent of a different and difficult time in my life that it greatly unsettles me to have them. I feel ashamed that years of growth seem so easily unraveled by a simple virus and scared at how comfortable it is to fall back into harmful habits.
I am sharing these thoughts now in part to create some accountability to myself, to make it as impossible as I can to brush them under the rug; but I am also sharing them to make the monumental argument that they don’t have to mean all is lost.
The road to recovery from an eating disorder is much like that of mono – it is long, it is nonlinear, it is frustrating, and it can feel never-ending. Progress advances and fluctuates. Unhealthy patterns morph and hide.
I was frustrated at my mono for proving a hindrance on my summer activities, for making me miss a few days of work and lose several hours off my paycheck.
I am downright angry with my eating disorder for a multitude of reasons: for preventing me from bonding with friends during formative years of my life; for continuing to get in the way of my internal peace; mainly for just never fucking going away.
But setbacks in recovery are opportunities to form newer and stronger stitchings; they are not complete undoings of yesterday’s progress. I am choosing to view this unexpected visit from my hostile but fiercely loyal companion as a chance to look it in the face, to stare it down and scare it with an allegiance to my continued wellbeing so strong that there is no chance of us losing this battle.
The fight for female health includes the complete and unapologetic abandonment of the idea that as women, we should look more like this, less like that, tighter here, and slimmer there. It is only until we embrace the interconnectedness of our own wellbeing that we can create a future in which women and people of all kinds can live freely and fully.
I am endlessly learning to recover, in more ways than one, and we must collectively learn to recover from the messages that have been ingrained in us by a society that is still only learning to recover itself, from itself.
Mono never really goes away. After you’ve suffered through the initial fury of Epstein-Barr, the virus settles down to a quiet dormancy in your war-torn (now relieved) immune system. However, you are eternally stronger for it; because the virus remains behind, your body can never experience its symptoms in the same way and with the same intensity as it did before.
I look forward to the day all my illnesses become dormant. In the meantime, I will continue to take the proper steps to ensure they arrive at this destination, eventually. That day could be tomorrow; it could also not be. All I am sure of is that I refuse to unravel. I refuse to fear the journey I’ve already begun and the one I am confident will lead all my viruses to quietude.
I am stronger for what I’ve been through; so is everyone else who has suffered from an eating disorder and everyone who continues to fight one each day. But I am by no means content with its control over my life or that of the collective conscious – and that fight is one I am willing to do more than just take a few Advils to win.