I am at the station in London, waiting for my train at 7pm. I have been here since Tuesday on a leadership course. I become really anxious at leaving L, while I know she needs to take responsibility to eat, I also know how hard that is.
Strangely enough though, the course was as useful to me as L’s mum, as it will be in leading my team of staff. We spent most of the time talking about how people learn and how that learning is embedded as knowledge in their brain. The practice of performing specific tasks and even vivid imagery about doing those tasks well creates neural pathways in the brain which become stronger the more the tasks are carried out. As I listened to the facilitator, my own brain spluttered into life, reminding me that this was exactly what L was experiencing. Her years of counting calories, of restricting food, of hating herself and then starving herself have created well worn negative pathways in her brain – and these cannot be removed. However, new pathways can be created by behaving in healthy ways, by eating, by thinking about times when eating was good, by imagining what eating when recovered will be like and when these new pathways outweighs the old ones, L will be healthier.
In the same way as someone learning a new language different to their native language will take time to become fluent, to think in their new language or for the new language neural pathways to be as strong as the existing ones, so it will take such a long time for L to learn to eat again – in a way that is eating for hunger, for pleasure, without thinking and with joy, or even indifference. It isn’t just eating though, the well trodden pathways of being ‘fat’, of not being good enough, of not deserving food, of not being as beautiful as everyone else will all need to go. It is a monumental task. But just as the Forth Bridge is painted by countless single brush strokes, so each act of eating, each instance of self-belief and each example of confidence will make a difference. As well as leading my colleagues, I can also lead L to recovery.