My story is the story of Ana. Ana was my closest companion for almost 16 years. The name “Anna,” as it is usually spelled, means “gracious,” but Ana certainly did not seem very gracious at times. Ana is a shortened form of Anorexia, the name I gave my eating disorder. In that one word lies the summation of the last 16 years of my life.
Some years were worse than others, the earlier ones being the most severe. But Ana was always there, sometimes acting as a lifeline, sometimes as an archenemy. She challenged the Self for my very soul.
Ana was always there, but despite her loyalty I eventually came to a point where I no longer wanted Ana around anymore. I wanted her to go away. It was then that I began my Internal Family Systems work.
It wasn’t until well over a year into therapy that I really even dared to expose Ana. Until that point, I don’t know that I truly understood how much she was behind all of the other “stuff” I was working on. She wasn’t causing that much trouble anymore, and she still served a purpose. Why get rid of her?
But as I learned more about myself and more about Ana and the power she wielded over me, I realized she had taken more than she had given. And what she gave came at too great a cost. Spurred on by the desire for self-leadership and a growing confidence that I could achieve it, I finally dared to look this former matriarch of my internal family in the eye. So this is the story of Ana, how I got to know her, and how I negotiated with her until the final confrontation wherein she agreed to relinquish her leadership over to the Self.
Declaration of Independence
When I finally reached the point in my therapeutic work where I wanted to break free from Ana’s tyranny once and for all, I knew I had to make a concrete gesture to “declare my independence”—a statement of my intention to be Self-led rather than Ana-led.” In that spirit, I decided to write an “Inaugural Speech” for my Self. It had not yet reclaimed its leadership over the family system, but I intended for it to in the near future. I needed to make that clear both to my Self and Ana. What follows is that speech, word-for-word, as it was delivered by the Self to the internal family members:
No more. No more bondage. No more shadows. No more caves. No more shame. No more darkness. Step out into the light. The light doesn’t bring shame, but brings clarity, vision, and warmth. You have intrinsic value and worth. Your weight does not determine your worth. I won’t let you evaluate yourself in this way any longer. No more. You are okay. You don’t deserve to hang your head in shame. You never did. You did what you had to do at the time in order to survive. You did the absolute best you could with what resources you had. You will not be forgotten. Fear will no longer prevent you from “taking up space” in this world. Your voice deserves to be heard by others, and it can make a difference in others’ lives. You no longer have to hide the “wounded” parts. They aren’t a source of shame: They are battle scars, hard-won, and reminders that, although broken and wounded, you were never defeated. You are a warrior—courageous and brave, despite the fear and pain. So raise your hands to the sky, Warrior. Peace lies beyond the next horizon.
This began the official negotiation process with Ana, one I knew would not be easy. Having lived with Ana for nearly 15 years, I knew she would prove to be a formidable “opponent,” and she did.
Ana did not rule single-handedly. She had a number of “helpers.” They were subordinate parts who assisted her, primarily, in taking care of a little five-year-old part named Belle. Belle was always dressed as a ballerina; the burden she carried was that after pouring her heart and soul into dancing for someone dear to her, rather than hearing the praise and encouragement she expected, she was told she was fat. Thus she became caught in a deluge of rejection and shame.
Ana first introduced herself to the family system at this point. Rather than sit back and watch Belle’s fragile sense of self be entirely obliterated, she exiled Belle’s pain and created an elaborate framework of manager and firefighter family members to stand guard over her. There were too many to mention here, but all were extremely loyal and vigilant in protecting Belle from any emotional pain.
This is how Ana took care of and protected little Belle. For many years, this “security system” operated flawlessly; and like most people, Ana did not see the need to “fix something if it ain’t broken.”
When the Self’s “Inaugural Speech,” and the declaration of independence it contained, reached Ana’s ears, she was not happy. She took immediate action and began a series of attempts to stop the negotiations that threatened to take away her power.
When the “negotiations” began, I considered myself to have been in recovery for a number of years. But Ana had been with me the entire time. She had always been “keeping watch” over Belle, just in case she was needed. Once formally confronted by the Self, however, she decided to intervene. What follows is a compilation of several journal entries wherein Ana pleaded her case for why she should stay in power. They are accompanied by the Self’s responses.
Come back. Come back home to me. I’m your true friend. I’m the one you can trust, who can take care of you. I’ll sing you lullabies, tranquilize you, and quiet your busy mind. I’ll soothe your restlessness. Give you your foundation back. Remember how it used to be. You were focused. Determined. Efficient. Streamlined. Life was simple. It was just you and I. Nothing came between us. No one interfered. I gave you self-esteem. You could measure your worth every day just by looking at that magic number. Down it crept and the closer the two of us became.
You can trust me. You can count on me. You know I will always be there for you. What else in the universe can provide that for you? Nothing and no one. Humans fail. They let people down. But not I. I am always fair, straightforward, predictable, constant. No games here. I am straight as an arrow. I never change the rules. I never try to catch you off guard. I am always there for you.
Need a dose of self-esteem? Bam! Instantly that number is on the scale for you—instant reinforcement. Need to be reminded that you can accomplish something, that you still have strength and willpower? Bam! I am there for you. Hop up on the scale. I got your back, baby. You will never find a better deal than me. You know it. You can’t deny it. You know it’s true. You know you want this. You know that sometimes you miss me so bad. You can play your little therapy games and say that you don’t need me anymore, but we both know you won’t make it on the other side. You’re too fragile. You’re not sturdy enough. You need me because I’m the only chance you’ve got to make it in this world. You don’t have the stomach to deal with the world without me. You invited me in. You asked me for help, and I gave it to you. No catch. No fine print. Just help when you needed it the most. I know you better than you know yourself.
When you finally come to your senses and stop playing games, I’ll still be here for you. I’ll wait however long it takes because I’m loyal. So, go ahead, play the brave soldier, put up your best fight, little girl. Every child rebels against their caretaker at some point. Have your day. You have my blessing. But remember your place. When I speak, you still tremble at the sound of my voice. I dare you to find a voice that speaks louder than mine.
Ana was convincing and powerful, and Belle and I struggled to listen to the growing volume of the voice of the Self rather than to Ana’s voice. And although the Self’s voice ultimately did drown out Ana’s, we couldn’t help but to reminisce about the good old days and court Ana a bit during the negotiation process. At one point, we became panicked about what life might be like without her leadership.
Ana, where are you? I need my corset. You have always been my corset, holding me together. Holding me tight. I used to be able to feel you in the tightness of my stomach. I used to see your corset when my rib bones poked through my skin Cinched up tight around me. Strings pulled taut. Waist sucked in. A little hard to breathe, a bit constricted, but it felt safe. It gave me support. It didn’t let me fall. You hugged me with your tightness. I miss you. You held me together so all my emotional guts didn’t come spilling out.
Now your corset is no longer there, and I’m afraid that if you no longer hold me together, I am going to fall apart. The strings have come undone and so will I. I no longer have my corset to hold me together, and my emotional guts are falling out onto the floor and making a terrible mess. I wrap my arms tight around myself and try to hold myself together, but I don’t know how yet. It doesn’t work, and my guts just keep falling out onto the floor and making a terrible mess. What if I allow myself to fall apart and no one knows how to put the pieces back together?
What if I’m Humpty Dumpty?
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the King’s Horses and all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
It’s not about being attractive. It’s about trying not to fall apart.
The Self continued to grow stronger, however, and its influence grew. Belle began to trust its wisdom, and she started to grow and mature into a young woman. She also started to believe that maybe life under Ana didn’t fit her anymore—that perhaps she had outgrown Ana.. The following is a conversation between the Self and Belle.
“Belle, you have been trying on Ana’s clothes again, haven’t you?”
“Her clothing is too small for you now. It’s too tight. It’s constricting you.”
“But you miss how she used to fit you—perfectly.”
“You’re trying to shrink yourself back into her clothing.”
“Yes, but just for a little while. I’ve only lost a little weight. I wanted to wear her clothes one last time before saying goodbye. For old times sake.”
“I think you are playing with fire. I think you need to be careful. If you shrink yourself back completely into Ana’s clothes, you may not want to take them off again. That could be dangerous.”
“You have grown. You aren’t supposed to fit into Ana’s clothes anymore. Ana’s clothes are for a child, and you are no longer a child. You are shaped differently now. You have curves and complexities and depth. You are no longer shaped like a little girl. You are shaped like a woman. You don’t have to be naked and unprotected, you just need new clothes. Clothes that will fit you and will allow you to continue to grow. Ana has no more clothes to offer you. You have outgrown all of them. It’s time to stop trying to fit into clothes that constrict and bind you. It’s time to sew your own new clothes: clothes that will highlight and flatter who you are becoming, because who you are becoming is who you are truly meant to be.
By this time, Ana realized that her leadership was about to end, and she made one last desperate attempt to hold on to it. My weight made one more dramatic plunge, and Belle agreed to have one last meeting with Ana to hear her plead her case. Ana prepared well and was very convincing, reminding Belle of all they had accomplished before, how simple life would be again under her rule, and how scary life would be without her.
Ana was convincing, and after the meeting, Belle was torn. She knew that self-leadership would ultimately be the wiser decision, but she panicked over the prospect of no longer being taken care of by Ana.
This played out as one very torturous and sleepless night filled with internal debate over whether or not I should just “check out” of the whole “therapy crap” and welcome Ana back with open arms. Therapy is hard and scary at times. And learning to take care of myself and be taken care of by my Self seemed a lot harder and scarier than just letting Ana take care of me again. I decided to just give in. I had already lost some weight; it wouldn’t be hard to just keep going. In my mind, I planned to sign a new contract with Ana, and we would be back in business
The next day, I arrived at work feeling something was “off.” Closing the door to my office, I began trembling uncontrollably. My teeth began chattering. The trembling and chattering kept getting worse despite my best efforts to make it stop. I eventually called my therapist, who arranged to meet with me later in the day. The following is what took place during the therapy session later that day.
A conference room. A large table. Seated at the table are Belle and Ana (her subordinate parts in the background). Ana looks weary, but determined. She holds the contract in her hand and places it in front of Belle for her to sign, explaining it’s all for her own good—it’s for the best.
Belle resists. “No. I will not sign! I will not have her in charge again! I won’t! I don’t deserve this. This is not for the best! This is not for my own good! She doesn’t know what is best for me! I will not be bullied by her any more!”
I watch the scene take place through the eyes of the Self. Belle looks directly at me and urges the Self to take action. This is the first time Belle has ever bothered to speak up and to ask the Self to intervene. Up until this point, Belle instinctively knew that the Self was not strong enough to hold leadership in the face of Ana’s power. But now Belle prompts the Self to take action, confident that it is now capable of assuming the leadership it rightly owns.
No longer overpowered, the Self negotiates with Ana, acknowledging her efforts to protect Belle for so many years. The Self explains that Ana’s services are no longer needed, that rather than helping Belle, they were actually harming her. Instead, Ana is given permission to take a rest, a rest that is well deserved after so many years of such hard work.
This scene was obviously not the end of the work that was done in this internal family system—the work continues even to this day. But this was the moment when the Self first assumed its leadership, and it was a turning point in my internal family.
When I first began to work with Ana, I thought that the only way I could succeed in breaking free from her grip was to see her simply as the enemy. But when I got to know her better, I realized that she, like me, was a much more complex entity. I realized that it wasn’t in hating her that I would gain my freedom, it was in befriending her and understanding her.
Ana wasn’t simply the enemy, she was also my primary caretaker for many years and deserves credit for that. She allowed me to survive during circumstances that would have otherwise been unbearable. She is part of me, and to hate her would be to hate myself. She was not a demon that needed to be exorcised. Her work was simply done.
She took care of me for many years, and now I will return the favor by taking care of her and allowing her to rest. In doing so, I will give her a new job as my teacher and guide. And I will call on her from time to time to ask her to share the wisdom she holds about life and about me. In the end, Ana, whose name means gracious, but was not thought to be so, displayed the ultimate act of grace in agreeing to hand over her leadership to the Self for the good of the entire internal family system.
Once, seemingly an enemy, Ana showed me the depths of despair, brought me to the edge of insanity, and allowed me to flirt with death. Now, as an ally, Ana helps show me how to live.
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