The Ocean Metaphor
When you have an eating disorder you might want to get sicker to prove to those around you, and medical professionals providing treatment, that something is wrong, and that you deserve help. You convince yourself that by reaching “this magical point of sick enough” you will then be able to get better because you’ve reached the endpoint and now you can turn around. This is the ocean metaphor, where the desire and action of getting sicker are you swimming to the bottom of the ocean. You are convinced that you can see the bottom of the ocean, which reflects that magical point of being “sick enough”, where you will reach the bottom, push off, and rise to the surface to embrace recovery.
But the thing with water, especially deep water, is that you can’t often gauge its depth. You can’t often see where the bottom is, and every time you think you’re almost there, it gets further away. This is the same for recovery and finding that magical point of “sick enough”. You can swim as much as you physically can, causing untold damage to your body and mind. Constantly trying to reach the bottom which you’re convinced you to need to reach before you can swim up to the surface. But the reality is, you will never reach the bottom, you will never find it.
And no one ever reaches it, not because we are failures, but because the bottom of the ocean is always that tiny bit further away than we can reach. Our bodies are not designed to survive at those depths, in that darkness, where light from the surface struggles to penetrate that deep. You think the depth is reassuring and comforting as the pressure hugs you and water surrounds you, but then that pressure starts to get claustrophobic and suddenly you can’t breathe as you frantically keep swimming down, desperate to find the bottom to push off.
Realistically, finding the bottom would be great. Sometimes it can feel like a “well I’ve come so far, I can’t turn back now. This is my one opportunity to reach the bottom and see what’s there”. We all know that pushing off of it would make it easier to swim up to the top. But the bottom just never seems to come close. And the funny thing is, we have no idea what’s there. We imagine that it’s beautiful, freeing, and an escape from the world above. But it’s dark, lonely, and more isolating the deeper you go. Who knows what lies at the bottom because no one ever makes it?
You might think I need to swim harder, faster, deeper; I will be the one that finds it. But think of the millions of people that have tried to find it before you. They put their hearts and souls into finding it, they sacrificed everything, believing they would be immune to the effects of the deep water and now lie dead at the bottom of the ocean. They found the bottom, yes, but they couldn’t push back to the surface because it was too late.
However deep you go, it’s never enough. However, starved of oxygen you become, it’s never enough. You might think I just need to get down to 10m or 20m at least then I can come back up. I won’t get any negative effects from that. Surely? But that’s not true. Simply dipping your face into the water from the surface is enough. People have drowned in an inch of water; in this metaphor, it isn’t any different. You aren’t supposed to hold your breath that long or put your body under that much pressure. Your body is strong, but it can only do so much.
Your friends and family might be sitting at the surface pleading with you to just swim up. But you say they don’t understand, you just need to reach the bottom, and then you will be content. They say it’s so easy to just swim towards them, they’re reaching out their hands trying to pull you up, but you still fight away, determined that finding the bottom will save you and then you can swim up into their arms.
The key here is to realise there is no bottom where there is life. Right now, the only choice you have is to turn around underwater. Change your direction, and swim as much as you can towards the light at the surface. Eventually, you will break through and feel the sun on your skin, the deep breaths full of oxygen, and the joy of your friends and family who feel they are finally seeing the real you.
You look around and look down into the water. Wow, the bottom doesn’t look that far, it feels so tempting to just swim down and touch it. Waves of varying sizes come and go, and sometimes you get knocked over, spiralling into the water, making it ever more tempting to attempt going back to the depths of the ocean, especially as you’ve gotten so close before. But this is the water playing tricks on you, and this time you know it’s not worth the struggle. This time you know you have a life on the surface better than the loneliness deep in the water. You remember the pain from your lungs and limbs as you fight the depths, trying to reach out and touch the bottom. It’s lying to you, and you’ve fought too hard to let yourself fall into it again.