Before I even get into the depth of this post I’m adding two disclaimers… one for myself and one for many of you whom may be reading this.
- This is one of the more vulnerable yet freeing blog posts I’ve written. It’s also likely the longest.
- If you currently are struggling with, are in recovery from, or feel at risk for an eating disorder please read this post at your own discretion.
No introductory paragraph needed, this post is a long one as is. Let’s go…
A few weeks ago a close friend asked me something I’ve not yet been asked – “what does recovery feel like?”
An on the spot question that I didn’t feel prepared to answer. Crap. I wasn’t taught this in therapy or treatment. I was given tools to work with myself rather than against myself in my journey to become “whole again”, whatever the heck that means. I wasn’t told how to respond to what this all feels like…
My response: well, uhm… challenging, freeing, comfort-zone breaking, and well, really really terrifying.
Recovery is messy. But, on the other hand so is actively living with a raging eating disorder. And, for those of you reading this despite the disclaimer who may think “but my ED is under control, not raging”, this applies to you too.
Before I can even begin to discuss what recovery feels like, which will take up the bulk of this post, I must briefly discuss what living with an ED feels like. Rather, what did this feel like to me, because everyone’s experience is unique. I’ve written about this before, even posting a journal entry which I’m going to take an excerpt from…
The manifestations inside of my brain are a complete madness. The voice which leads me to follow down the path of habitual maladaptive and self-destructive behaviors. It’s a complete psychosis. All I’m trying to do is prove myself to the voice inside of my head. It’s pathetic.
Living with an ED is hell. It’s having two voices inside of your head, one which is you and wants to see you follow your path, your soul, and fulfill your dreams. This voice is who YOU are, it’s the one which you will hopefully become friends with in recovery. The other voice is “ED”, it’s the devil. It’s the voice which tells you the despite your hardest effort you will never be good enough. No matter how “sick” you get it’s not enough (but, remember, it’s your loved ones that are saying you’re sick… ED says you’re stronger than the rest, that you’re better, that they’re all wrong). Sickness can be felt as strength in an ED. Sickness being following the commands of the voice inside of your head that is trying to kill you but also the voice that is followed because it makes you feel put together although in reality you’re crumbling apart by the second.
In the same post, from the same journal entry (just go read the post, it’ll make much more sense), I get into some of what recovery feels like… especially the being triggered part.
Recovery is messy, but relapse is deadly. In recovery the voice partly subsides. It’s weaker. Your now not completely starving. Memories begin to feel more like imaginations, almost as if the eating disorder doesn’t actually exist and you haven’t played around on the fine line of life and death for the past however many years. But you have to remember that’s a lie and you did. Then you question yourself. Was I really in that deep. Did I actually do that to my body, my soul, my life. I know it happened but it feels so surreal. Almost as if it’s someone else’s story that I heard before. My mind doesn’t want to remember the past. The pain. The struggle. It wants to make it better.
Then you remember. What’s worse than remembering the truth is that your mind begins to feel the same way as when your head was in the toilet or as when you could count with your fingers what you consumed last week. It’s sick. But it wasn’t that bad, right?
My recovery has been going since 2012. It’s had some pot holes and some speed bumps. I would be lying if I said recovery is easy, simple, free of hiccups. I think the bumps are what have made it, at least for me, “work”. I think the plethora of hiccups have made me stronger, one by one, in fighting the ED voice in my head.
I wrote a few months ago about having had a stress fracture earlier this year. This was my first major injury (the type that kind of makes you press the pause button) since treatment. I was nervous. I felt like part of my identity was being taken from me. I told myself to just go with it. Day by day. Hour by hour. Minute by minute. Cliche but it helped. I won’t say I felt entirely in control throughout the whole healing process, that’d be a full-on lie… BUT, I trusted my ability. I trusted all that I’ve been through in the process of recovery and that I could get past a slightly larger speed-bump. I was honest with loved ones about what I was feeling. I jumped on the fu*king do this bandwagon and went with it.
Arguably the most useful skill I’m cultivating is to ebb and flow.
Writing about recovery is equally as hard as writing about what living with an ED is like. In one way I think it’s more challenging because everyone experiences recovery differently, and that’s what makes it last, it’s individualized. That said, ED’s come in all forms and affect people differently. I don’t want anyone to take my journey as an instruction manual. That can go both ways, I don’t want me writing about my darkest moments to become a goal to get sicker or deeper into the illness. Conversely, I don’t want anyone to follow my recovery path step by step because it worked (is working) for me. Moreover, out of all of my friends with similar struggles, all of our ED’s and all of our recovery processes are quite different.
It’s not sunshine and rainbows. I think most know it’s not. While sometimes the image of being recovered may seem like this magical place where the demons are gone and you’re no longer sick… I’ve yet to come across someone where this holds true. I won’t say it doesn’t exist, I’m just saying the process is much more raw and you have to get your hands dirty. It’s a process. Recovery, or as I prefer to call it, remission, is a continual journey of triumphs, road bumps, setbacks, painstaking realizations, a whole lot of crying and accepting. It’s wanting to throw in the towel, and maybe that does happen. Maybe somewhere in the process it’s too much for that moment and a slip up happens or a relapse happens. That doesn’t make it any less real. It doesn’t make it a failed attempt. It doesn’t make you weak.
“If you get tired, learn to rest, not to quit.” – Banksy
Getting past the darkest moments is what made me stronger. They are what made me believe in my ability to keep going, even when I don’t want to, don’t feel like it, or feel like my remission is an inconvenience to my life (and yes, that’s present tense… because it’s often a lifelong journey). Trust me when I say I can count the number of times I’ve been pissed off that I’m in recovery, mainly in the beginning stages. I used to feel guilty for having to put my mental health first. I felt ashamed to need to make sure that I was having my personal needs met because that meant I would (hopefully) take care of myself. Still from time to time I feel this way, like when I say no to helping out at work because I have a plan for a hike that day and I know that hiking is the most amazing thing I’ve found for my mental health. I’m better at knowing my needs now, understanding what is within my capacity and what is absolutely going to lead to a meltdown. Just because I “know myself more” doesn’t mean I don’t still feel guilty about it no matter how much I’m told I shouldn’t.
I wanted (and tried) to throw in the towel at-least a half dozen times but something kept me going. I had the slips, the near falls, the desire to just be like “I’m over it” or “I’m better at managing an ED than dealing with the insanities of remission”. I literally felt like I was losing my mind, that everything I worked for was slipping away. In reality it was the opposite. Everything I worked for was everything my ED wanted me to work for. It needed to slip away. I needed to let it go for the sake of healing. I needed to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. NO. I needed to get comfortable with being really uncomfortable. NO. I needed (and have) accept being uncomfortable with being really uncomfortable.
Undoubtedly the most uncomfortable I’ve been in this process is dealing with the mental discomfort associated with the physical discomfort. Let me clarify in a rather abrupt manner… Gaining weight because I medically needed to → ED telling me I’m a pathetic piece of shit; dealing with the 5-6 month pregnant look of bloat because my body didn’t understand how to properly digest food for about the first YEAR of recovery AFTER regaining weight → everyday wanting to crawl out of my skin and feeling like I was; having a tooth break because you “floss too much” → well maybe something caught up to me; having blood work come back abnormal → equally terrifying (healthy voice) and amazing (ED voice…. the “you’re finally sick”); being 24 with osteopenia that you’ve had since 17 → still processing this one; being 24 and spending upwards of 2-3 hours a day in the bathroom because my GI is still not fully comprehending what eating to fuel my body means → I sometimes study in the restroom because #aintnobodygottimeforthat.
Coping with the physical aspects which arise is challenging especially considering I’m working my way through a mental illness and my coping mechanisms are kind are what got me into this lovely mess (sarcasm). I think that sarcasm and sass helped me cope. They were two of the things I was good at that weren’t necessarily maladaptive. Sure, lessening or making jokes of my tendency to annihilate myself isn’t super positive, but it sure beats crying for an hour, in my mind that is. It worked for me and that’s what I care about. It helped me ignore a lot of the noise going on between my ears which would otherwise destroy me.
When I entered my last treatment (IOP) I was well into weight restoration. I was working out, not excessively but I was working out. I had previously taken months off during my relapse, I’m the person who hates working out when I’m in the throws of a relapse… will discuss hold tight… I was told to stop going to the gym, running, ect. To let myself heal – mentally and physically. After some solid counterarguments I did what I was being
asked told. I hated every second of it. I wanted the release, the passion, the excitement. I wanted something I felt good at because I felt pretty bad at the whole “getting better” thing. This was a major turning point for me because up until this point, if I was at a stable weight and food intake (and no I don’t mean “healthy”), I would exercise. In my mind I felt like it was safe and totally okay for me to continue working out in the program I was in. NOPE. Taking time off to really separate things and work on my health without the addition of external stressors was key. In hindsight, I agree completely.
On why I wouldn’t work out when I relapsed in 2011 – exercise and sports were a part of my life prior to the development of my ED, and I like to keep them as separate as possible. While yes throughout the years they have become intertwined, but as I like to make a counterpoint of, everything in my life has become intertwined because my ED started at 11, my last relapse was at 18, and I’m now 24. For me, fitness is a positive thing. I LOVE IT. I, as in me, as in Sarah. The ED voice tries to rear it’s head in and overdo it but it’s me that enjoys it. It’s taken years to disentangle this mess. I’ve learned, rather felt, that when it’s the ED voice in control of over 50% I workout because I feel like I need to, not because I necessarily want to. If life gets in the way I lose it, crumble, I can’t manage NOT working out because at this point it’s a compensatory behavior. When I’m in a good place, I want to be there, I take more days off and accept the “shit happens” better. The mindset difference still blows my mind, night and day.
Throughout the past few years I’ve worked tirelessly to reach a point where I cherish off days, and instead of making off days into active recovery days, I now just take OFF days. I’ve embraced changing my workout plan up when it’s needed, deciding on a whim to head out for a ride on the bike versus lifting if it’s what my brain needs for positive mental health. As much as I despise the saying about balance being key, balance is key when it comes to my lifting, biking, running, hiking, yoga-ing. There’s a line, I respect the line. Not saying I don’t ever cross it, I am human, but I acknowledge it’s existence.
During my time in IOP I was working, taking a full class load, and then going to my group 4 nights and 1 weekend day. It was a lot. I find myself sometimes thinking that I don’t know how I did it but then I think that’s why it worked for me. I didn’t try to solely focus on getting better, my life didn’t revolve around just that. It was the major focal point, but I was also a student and employee. I learned how to work getting better into my daily life versus being given skills and then thrown back into my life. I’m grateful that I was at a point in my illness where this was an option. IT WAS NOT fully supported but I did it. I’m not being like wahoo yay me, but we’re all different. Some people need the recovery process to be a bit less hectic, and some, like me, find the hecticness is almost healing. However, now, I choose to live a slightly less hectic but very supportive of my needs lifestyle because it’s good for me.
This taught me a large lesson in choosing what to add and subtract from my plate. One of the most valuable life lessons I’ve taken away is that while I might be entirely capable of doing something, that doesn’t mean I always have to do it. Just because we as humans have this interesting ability to shove things down and keep pressing forward to get everything done, doesn’t mean we need to do this. What if something needs to be removed from the daily routine? It doesn’t make you any less worthy. It doesn’t mean you can’t handle it. Maybe it just means it’s not best for your well-being. Routines ebb and flow, busyness comes and goes. Just because we had a hectic routine for a few months or years doesn’t mean it need be maintained for life. Breaks are allowed. Your worth is not defined by your capacity to drive yourself into the ground.
You have innate value because you’re alive.
I think that while when I was in treatment and the beginning stages of recovery, the time when I absolutely feared the bumps, the hard-times, the triggers – that these are actually the things which made me resilient. I’m not perfect, nor do I wish to be. Trying to be perfect almost killed me, so I’m actually rather against that notion. This entire process is learning to understand yourself. As simple and as complex as that is. We are all built on a foundation of sunshine and thunderstorms, positives and negatives. We all have our own personal shit sandwich. WORK WITH IT. Don’t work against yourself by fighting with the summation of things which comprise your foundation, your story, as a human.
A lot of the work is done by yourself. Sure there may be loved ones in your life, or a therapist, who can help you by supporting you on your path. Ultimately though, it’s you for you. It was me for me. I am the one still making sure that my mental health needs are met because I know what happens when they aren’t. I’m still watching out for that. Nobody else knows how you’re feeling, even if you tell them. Our understanding of the world is entirely up to us. Our ability to flow with life is entirely up to us. It’s hard. The continuum from sick to well is a long one and it’s different for everyone. Some of the times when I felt the sickest were when I looked the “healthiest”. Mental health doesn’t always show up in a physical capacity. We are the only ones who realize the depth of the demons inside of our heads and are the only ones who can choose and keep choosing to fight the fight.
The ED voice, it’s almost as if it’d hardwired into my mind at this point. It’s still there, it’s less frequent and has much less power, but it’s there deep down in some form or another more than I’d like to admit. A major focus area for me has been working to stop the habitual pathway of thoughts in my mind. Right now I’m going with the flow, I’m doing what feels right to the voice in my head which supports me and helps me grow as a human being instead of the one which wants to send me back down the rabbit hole. Not all days are of the positive type where I end the day thinking “I can do this, I’ve got this”. There are plenty of times still, 4 years later, where I want to just be over it. I accept that while I’m past the major hurdles, my remission is still the most important thing in my life because it’s the closest thing I have to feeling like I’m being the “best” version of myself. It’s what makes me, well, me. I’m enjoying not being in control over everything and you can sure as hell bet I’m going to continue winging it.
“You must want to spend the rest of your life with yourself first.” – Rupi Kaur