Hi friends! First, happy Monday. When it’s Monday you need to remember one thing and one thing only:
I said my last post was long. Well…. if that was long, this one is a novel. Ugh what’s up with the deep posts as of late? Well, for starters I find them extremely therapeutic to write, and secondly… they’re important. When I was beginning my journey to recovery I found a lot of hope and inspiration through blogs, articles, and stories of other who had “made it to the other side”, those who found a place where there life wasn’t consumed by their eating disorder. This post isn’t necessarily a “life after an ED” post, it’s more of a summation of my thoughts around treatment, recovery, and struggling from my current perspective after finishing an IOP program four years ago. Time flies.
*Disclaimer: if you’re currently struggling or have struggled with an eating disorder or disordered eating, please read at your discretion and with caution. This is a motivational, positive outlook ending post BUT there are many triggering words and topics embedded within my writing of this post.*
I have mentioned time and time again on this blog that I’ve struggled, and I’ve even delved into the nitty gritty to some degree. One thing I haven’t really done is discuss the present. I mean, sure I am solid in my recovery and my overall mental and physical health is in a good place, but WHERE ARE MY THOUGHTS. When you’re 23 and dealt with an ED for over a decade, things don’t just disappear. Some days I wish they would, other days I’m appreciative for my experience because it grounds me and makes me more aware of my surroundings, feelings, and the world. Catch 22. Four years later and I’m here to talk about it on a very deep, personal, and raw level.
Recovery: the action or process of regaining possession or control of something stolen or lost.
That’s the best definition I could find that meshes with my personal opinion. The action = the process. Regaining = learning and acceptance. Control of something lost = discovering your individual purpose, needs, goals, feelings, desires, and intentions
“Grow through what you go through.”
It’s weird because the journey has been long and challenging, full of road blocks. It’s a journey I wouldn’t wish upon anyone but yet it’s one I’m grateful for. While I have days I only wish I could say I never struggled the truth of the matter is that I did and sometimes I still do. The thing about ED’s and many many other mental illnesses is once you experience the darkness, the darkness is always there to some degree. When recovered it’s much less, feelings fade, things seem better, but the darkness lingers deep down. Most days I am good, solid, SARAH is in control. A few here and there I find myself reliving the past, experiencing deja-vu over the feelings I had when my being was under control of my ED, being provoked by old triggers, or thinking that it wasn’t ever really that bad. It happens. It’s normal. This is a prime example of why I refer to recovery as a process, an effort which takes time, and never will I refer to it as an “end-point”. It’s continual.
“Every experience, no matter how bad it seems, holds within it a blessing of some kind. The goal is to find it.”
The process… I remember the process either vividly or vaguely and there isn’t much of an in-between. It’s black and white yet the entire thing seems like a shade of grey. I’ll explain… Example: I remember about two weeks into IOP treatment, we were having a group dinner (you brought your own dinner, so that always felt semi-safe), but one of the requirements that day was to have whatever dessert they wanted you to have. That night it was ice cream and I remember feeling so completely out of control. Out of control over freaking ICE CREAM. I remember getting up and leaving the group table. I went to the bathroom (which you needed a key for in case you were going to throw up) and just crying because I didn’t know how I got from the place of an innocent ten year old to a nineteen year old who couldn’t down ice cream to prove she was “fine”… That’s the insanity of an ED. You feel out of control in one situation and suddenly you feel out of control in every situation. However, on the other side, the ED voice keeps telling you that you’re in control. What happens though when you’re in a treatment setting which tells you that the ED voice is lying and that you’re not in control when still half of your mind thinks that you’re fine, not in need of help.
Other examples of vivid memory, I remember the first time I skipped lunch in seventh grade, the countless nights of running in place in my bedroom for hours, weighing spinach and taking some out if it wasn’t the “right amount of grams”, having my dad drive me to the gym before work so that I could burn off the breakfast I never ate, taking too many laxatives and staying awake all night in a house to myself both sickeningly proud and also terrified that I was going to experience some medical complication, and so many memories of instances where I was capable of flawlessly pulling off lying to those I love and respect about the reality of my struggles. I was living in my own personal hell, which was created by my mind.
The scary part is how vague it is as a whole. I remember certain things with great detail but as a whole (even with discussing some of the memories) I find myself telling myself that it wasn’t that bad, I had some rough points here and there but I never was really harming myself. I don’t remember any of my relapses that well beyond what initially triggered them. However when given the context I can pinpoint an exact feeling. I was actually going through pictures on my phone last week and found a food picture which I remember to be my “first” breakfast “meal” of my most recent and final relapse back in friggen 2012. FIVE YEARS LATER I see a picture of what I called a meal and can without a second thought say that was the first thing I ate during that period of relapse. That is sick. Really any picture from that time I can tell you what was going through my mind in the utmost detail. The context puts everything back into place like it was yesterday. Without that image or deja-vu style feelings though it’s like my brain is trying to remove itself as far as possible from the countless memories of self-destruction.
I remember before I entered my most recent round of treatment feeling so hopeless. I had always thought the struggle would eventually just go away despite never having put my one-hundred percent effort into moving through the struggle and out of the darkness which I felt like I was drowning in. I had convinced myself that if I saw a therapist and nutritionist that things would inevitably over time get better. I had periods in which I was taking better care of myself, and to 16-18 year old Sarah, this felt like progress. BUT, mentally I was beyond numb. After going through another relapse and subsequently the IOP treatment I choose so that I could still go to school and work (not really recommended, btw), I can firmly say it changed my life. It wasn’t the program itself, it was the mindset going into it. I WANTED to get better. I WANTED to heal. I WANTED to feel things, and work through my problems, and stop needing the numbness to get through life. It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows and I was beyond terrified to start but it was worth it, for me. I remember telling myself during the hour drive before my first day to just suck it up and go because it would either a. be worth it, or b. I could just continue my own destruction. I cannot tell you how many black and white decisions I made throughout this process, and that has been part of the healing process too.
Most of my recovery happened after I finished treatment, however I think that being in an intensive program gave me the skill set I needed to be resilient. It helped me realized everything I needed to “figure out” was already inside and that I “just needed to listen and be extremely honest to myself”. Sounds cliche but it’s true. And I’ll be honest, this is still a work in progress and likely always will be. I accept that.
“Honor the space between no longer and not yet. This space allows you to integrate all that has happened for you, everything you’ve experienced, and what you desire to create. This is the place where resilience, possibility and opportunity are born.”– Nancy Levin
No matter how much I look back, try to relive the intensity of this experience I always find myself feeling removed from the experience to some degree. The times when I find myself closest to feeling the way I felt within this struggle are either 1. re-reading journal entries or looking at my binder from IOP, 2. looking at pictures, or 3. doing things which used to be “behaviors” yet are no longer maladaptive in nature (running, discussing triggering topics such as weight, ect.). Occasionally I’ll find myself apprehensive about experiencing things which used to be triggering. This especially holds true for me when my overall stress level is heightened. I think that increased stress, anxiety, and feelings of being overwhelmed –> me wanting to avoid potentially triggering situations out of fear that I won’t be able to handle it (even knowing I can now) and sometimes out of fear that I’ll want my ED “back”. It has been five years since I relapsed and four since I finished my last session of treatment and I still on occasion experience this apprehension, mainly as a protective mechanism, but still. I’m trying to convey how it’s NORMAL to still have strong feelings and that this process is a long journey which may never seem to go away… that also doesn’t mean you’re a failure. Working on yourself is never something to be considered a failure.
I’ve always been a perfectionist. I want to check things off my list and not look back. I like to multi-task, be effective and productive, and keep growing. Recovery is not quick. Re-finding and defining yourself and your purpose is not an easy or simple task… it takes time to heal and a lot of hard work along with self-acceptance and openness to understand why the ED was part of your journey and what your needs are to get past this obstacle. For the first few weeks of treatment I felt like a failure, both to my recovery but also to my ED. I wasn’t at the elusive place of recovery yet (and I mean… it had been at least two or three weeks… what gives? (all the sarcasm)), yet my ED was screaming loud and clear that I was out of control when in reality I was actually gaining control. If I were to pinpoint the hardest parts of the journey to healing the would be 1. The initial choice that YOU want to get better for YOU and the newness of taking care of yourself/shutting down the voice in your head, and 2. Continuting the journey once your “healthy” by the standards of society. My mental health took a BIG hit and downfall about two years after finishing treatment and just recently I feel like I’m making some good solid headway on digging myself out of that. It’s taken me so long to come to a place where I understand my emotions and feelings. Conveying them to others isn’t always an easy task but it’s nice to understand the root of them myself. For the longest time I couldn’t explain the pain, I didn’t know why I hurt the way I did or how to rationalize it. When this happens it’s about keeping going… you have to just keep going. As a good friend once told me, “don’t quit can’t fail”. I love, love, love this. If you never quit on the pursuit dedicated to yourself, you will never fail. Hello positive psychology.
Throughout my time in the program, I found myself becoming more and more aware of what things were triggering to me and what actually supported me. One of those supportive things is fitness… Sports have always been a part of my life… okay not always… but since age four. I never had a bad relationship with my body due to my involvement in athletic endeavors until I had a bad relationship with my body and with food which grew to be involved with my athletic life. Whoever said ED’s affect each and every part of your life – I’ve found this to be true. Mine effected everything and nothing will ever be the same as before. That doesnt mean to drop everything and avoid all things you used to (and still do!) enjoy out of fear. My love for sports was morphed into an exercise “addiction” intertwined with ED for a period of years. Throughout the last few years I’ve come to a place where I can say firmly that my deep passion for all things fitness is more positive than negative, and honestly, I’ll take that and run with it – pun intended. Anything positive > anything negative. It’s an unreal, intense, occasionally magical level of passion.
DO WHAT YOU NEED TO DO FOR YOUR OWN PERSONAL RECOVERY JOURNEY. EVERY SINGLE PERSON IS DIFFERENT. WHAT WORKED AND WORKS FOR ME MAY OR MAY NOT WORK FOR OTHERS. WHAT WORKED FOR OTHERS MAY OR MAY NOT WORK FOR ME. SERIOUSLY.
Another major takeaway from the program is the friendships I gained from treatment. These amazing human beings witness you in your most vulnerable state and continue to accept you for who you are not who you are with your ED. They understand the complexity, the reasons you’re absolutely terrified to get better. They can comprehend and relate with you when you tell them about why your afraid to eat, the need for meticulous behaviors, fear of social situations, or why you avoid the things which trigger you to use behaviors. Speaking of behaviors, the people you meet and the treatment team themselves don’t judge the behaviors. They don’t support them, but they don’t call them “ridiculous” or “irrational”… while in reality the behaviors intertwined within an ED are ridiculous and irrational, that DOESN’T NEED TO BE POINTED OUT. Trust me… well aware.
I am so grateful for the people that were involved in this period of my life when I entered treatment and stuck with me throughout and after because no matter what I was experiencing they were able to look at me as a person and not me plus my ED. When I started IOP I did it because I had reached a point where I accepted not being able to do things on my own. I had many prior attempts, some which “failed” miserably and others which seemed to work… things were better… but them BAM out of nowhere I had crazy urges to go back and lacked the coping skills, deep understanding, and mainly I lacked the support crew that I needed to get past this pathological mindset which had been in partial control for half of my life. I did it because I knew something better was out there. Now I know that I’m worth the something better that is out there and I’m finding those better things pop up quite regularly.
Ultimately, it’s gradual, recovery. It’s slow and you may find yourself in this shade of grey between what is true for the present, what hopes you have for the future, and what used to be. I experienced this ‘shade of grey’ on and off for a while. I no longer hated myself, nor was I completely mad and going off the deep end, but I also wasn’t “better”. I would still hear all the internal chitter chatter daily, but I wasn’t nearly as inclined to listen or rather follow through. I don’t think you ever fully come back, not all the way at least. It’s your history, which in the end makes up a portion of who you are.
Circling back to the definition that I added in at the start of this post, the term recovery is technically used to define “regaining of something lost”. It’s so much more than that. It’s learning what makes you tick, what your needs are, what is important to you. It’s accepting your weaknesses, knowing WE ALL have them. It’s developing the capacity to take negative energy and reform it into something that while it may not always serve you… it doesn’t completely destroy you either.
“We are all broken. That’s how the light gets in.” — Earnest Hemingway