Before I developed anorexia, I had a habit of saying ‘yes’ to everything and everyone. It wasn’t kindness or self-sacrifice – it was an attempt to get people to approve of me. But it went beyond other people. More than wanting to be as good as others, I wanted to be better. I wanted to prove that I was worthwhile and special and that life wasn’t as confusing and random as it felt.
To take control, I invented a system of mental tallies; like a chart of personal betterness. I devised tasks that would upgrade me: and said ‘yes’ to them all. If I was going to be a student I’d be the best; if I was going to be a Christian I’d be the most fervent; if I was going to cook a meal it’d be the most mouth-watering; if I was going to be a friend I’d never let anyone down (and never let anyone in). If I wanted the world to work and I wanted to have a place in it, I had to excel. But however many times I said ‘yes’ – to working harder or being nicer or running faster or whatever it was I set myself to do – I never felt I’d passed. And to stave off despair, each time I had to do better than before.
If your head’s a checklist and you rely on tasks and people to give you identity, you can’t afford to rest. Other people become competitors or assessors instead of allies. Their requests start to look like demands. You get tired. And bitter. And angry. You can’t keep up – but you absolutely must.
It’s amazing how long you can sustain this. Years, even. But there comes a day when you can’t. You’re so angry and exhausted that you hate your life and you hate the lists and you want to stop, but you don’t know how to. So you pull your own plug. You get something that turns off the noise. An addiction. A sickness that means you don’t have to do life. And instead of saying ‘yes’: you start saying ‘no’. ‘No’ to people and no to requests and no to anything that asks anything of you. Instead of depending on what others think, you flip them the birdie. Instead of trying to gain their approval, you say ‘stuff the lot of you’.
I guess, in some ways, that’s what anorexia did for me. Not consciously or deliberately or suddenly – and there were other factors at play. But it stopped the lists. It gave me an arena where I could excel and a boundary that no-one could cross.
Since then, I’ve learned a little more about boundaries and about need. I’ve had to find better ways of relating to myself and to others. It’s not yesyesyes (likemelikemelikeme) but neither is it NO (don’tcomeclose) either.
This week for example, I’ve been asked to give a very short talk, a very long way away. My first instinct is to say ‘yes’ – of course I’ll do it. But even as my finger hovers over the ‘send’ button, I’m questioning the wisdom of this decision. And I’m wondering if saying ‘yes’ will make me resentful and overtired.
So I jump to the other extreme. I think about the last few weeks and the sadness and pain of failed IVF. I start feeling sorry for myself and cast myself as a victim. How dare the world expect me to get out of bed? I’m sad and tired and I shouldn’t have to play by the same rules as other people. I’m special and I have special needs.
Neither of these responses are right. One is motivated by proving myself and pleasing others; and the other by protecting myself and rejecting relationship. The truth is that people don’t give me life – but they don’t threaten me either. I don’t need to look out for myself; whether that’s making myself bigger or hiding away. The right response (and it can be either ‘yes’ or ‘no’) comes from the knowledge that I’m already justified and protected. There is nothing to prove. And nothing to lose either. That’s the freedom of the gospel.