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"A single day is enough to make us a little larger or, another time, a little smaller." (Paul Klee)
What does recovery from an eating disorder look like? What does it feel like? Taste like? It's not always the pretty picture that you (or your family and friends) might have hoped for. I wish it was sunshine and rainbows and kittens and ice-cream-sundaes-whenever-you-feel-like-it, but that would be a terrible misrepresentation and would not expose the real depth and struggle that "recovery" is. I decided to write this piece to help dispel some of the thoughts about recovery, and to acknowledge the equally challenging struggle that families, friends, spouses, partners, neighbors, and coworkers face when someone they love is walking this journey of recovery. Mostly, though, I wrote this to give a voice to my own roundabout journey of recovery from anorexia and ED NOS, which I'm still very much coming to terms with.
Recovery is both personal and political. Every person will experience a slightly different version of highs and lows, triumphs and defeats, loves and losses. It's a statement you are making to the world -- and to yourself -- that you (yes, you!) are worthy and valuable and lovable at a normal, healthy weight. That your life can mean something beautiful absent restriction, scales, measuring cups, and constant guilt. It's a f*ck you to the advertising world, fashion magazines, and all of the negative media images of what a body should look like. It is also a testament to your own personal strength and power, of which you clearly needed to be reminded you have.
Remaining in recovery, post-treatment, is very difficult. Don't get me wrong -- when you're in a treatment facility, it's pretty damn hard to physically eat all of the food, snacks, and supplements you're prescribed when you're used to eating and tolerating far, far less than what's served to you. It's sad to have to hear your own voice cry out in group discussions that you cannot stand yourself at the amount of weight you're supposed to gain. I would later learn that gaining weight was the easy part.
When you are home and back in the "real" world (e.g., going to work, feeding the cat, doing your laundry, etc.) there is no one "watching you" like you've been watched while receiving inpatient treatment. Sure, you have your therapist, physician, nutritionist, family, and friends, who all keep a close eye on you, but at the end of the day, you have to make the choice to eat what you are supposed to eat to maintain your goal weight.
And, you have to actually deal with rush of feelings that come back when you begin to eat fairly normally again. Eating disorders are, in a sense, crazy. But, they also make quite a bit of sense for those who live with them. At one point they were a helpful crutch, a way to make it through a difficult period of time, a means of making sense of a painful situation, a way to deal with life. Now what? What are you supposed to do without it? Even years later, you may find yourself asking this same question. You may miss the old crutch.
For me, the eating disorder was the way to cope with a chaotic childhood, and feelings of violation, anger, inadequacy, and suffocating guilt. I felt really awful when I had to deal with all of that stuff while not in a full-blown bout of anorexia. Some days, I would feel pretty good -- heck, some days I felt incredible! Other times, I loathed looking in the mirror because the reflection made me want to jump out of my own skin. While in recovery, I have gained weight and lost weight, relapsed and gained weight, relapsed, gained weight, thought about losing weight, etc.
I'll be honest with you, I don't like the way I feel sometimes. I wish I could be smaller. However, I notice my thinking has shifted -- feel and look are no longer interchangeable. Feelings are crucial to living a full life, which I seem to deserve. Every day, I weigh (no pun) the benefits of doing the best I can to grown and learn, roll with the punches (e.g., not starve) vs. leaving this all behind and going back down the black hole of an eating disorder. I think the former choice is the better one for me. The accomplishments I've made over the past few years are worth far more than losing 10 pounds. So, I continue forward.
Be mindful: People will comment, "Ooh, you look so good!" which is physically painful to hear because you'd really rather they did not comment at all on your body. Many people will assume that because you look "better" you are better. When, in fact, this is terribly incorrect. The worst part of an eating disorder is, by far, the aftermath. You are just beginning to deal with the underpinnings of the disorder and the havoc it's wrecked on your life. You have to make the choice every day to find meaning in your life sans eating disorder.
You also have to accept that recovery is going to be a roller coaster of ups and downs and twists and turns you probably didn't plan for. You will slip up and you may even relapse. Families may not understand. You'll feel guilty. You'll make new friends and lose old friends. The competency of your therapist and nutritionist may be criticized. At the sign of struggle will come the predictable, "Why don't you just see a different therapist?" Well, thank you for that helpful suggestion, but a therapeutic relationship is like any relationship -- both parties own a share of responsibility -- so perhaps you should keep your opinion to yourself and let me do the work I need to do.
Be careful in whom you confide. It's sad -- but true -- some folks just don't have the capacity to deal with topics like this one, and they will have no idea what to say. You'll be left holding the heavy weight of silence. Others will suddenly become psychological experts and dispense helpful advice and tips you that really did not ask for. Bear in mind, many of these comments, tips, and recipes-for-life come from a place of fierce love and care. So, accept the love. But don't take it personally. Slowly, you'll learn to use your voice. And find your roar.
Finding humor in recovery helps. Holding onto your true friends and people closest to you also helps. Learning to help you help yourself is the best thing of all, though.
I hope that, for those of you in recovery, you are finding some meaning in this crazy journey, and that you know you are not alone. Recovery is one of the most amazing gifts you can offer yourself, despite its unpredictable nature. It's okay to fall down because (surprise!) no one is perfect. But that's the point. Learning to embrace the imperfect pieces of me -- both physical and emotional -- has been the most challenging piece of all this.
For those readers who know someone in recovery from an eating disorder, just love them like you would love anyone else. It may not always look like it, but I promise you, that person is doing the best she or he can.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.
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