Not Your Average Recovery Story

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I did not necessarily seek out to get better from my eating disorder.

At age 21, after almost a decade of relapse, denial, and dangerous behaviors, I was in a bad place. I spent more time in the bathroom nauseous or in my bed hoping my heart wouldn’t stop than I did having fun with my friends. My belief was that I needed to hit rock bottom to find the motivation to change. Maybe I didn’t want recovery enough yet. 

I was ambivalent about entering treatment again. A month before I was admitted to treatment, I saw a dietitian for the first time in months and cried about how scared I was. I confided in her I wasn’t sure if I could get out of this downward spiral. She was alarmed and made a follow up appointment with me. I skipped that appointment and never called her again. On the one hand, I was scared about myself, but on the other, I didn’t feel motivated to change.

“Your whole life is ahead of you. Don’t waste it being sick!” I heard variants of this message around this time. I was a 21-year-old intelligent, grad-school bound, almost college graduate. The world was my oyster, or so others said. However, in the midst of this “exciting” time, I was miserable. I felt undesirable, unlovable, and worthless. I lived under a cloud of shame. I was told to recover for my family, friends, or education, but that wasn’t enough for me. I was 21 and hopeless about my future, no matter what GRE scores or grad school admissions would indicate.

I entered treatment when I did because I was medically withdrawn from school (involuntarily). As much as I hated my school administration for it, I was relieved in some way, and now I realize that decision might have saved my life. Even though the timing wasn’t my choice, when I entered treatment, I made the decision to listen to the treatment professionals. If everyone was eating breakfast, I would eat breakfast. I went through the motions of recovery because doing things my way made me miserable and sick. Yet, doing the “right thing” wasn’t a result of my motivation for recovery.

In treatment, I really opened up for the first time. One day I told my therapist that I had a loop in my mind that went like this: You are a worthless piece of shit. My therapist was alarmed both at the content of my automatic thoughts and also at my nonchalant attitude about their existence. I never paid much attention to these thoughts, so to me it seemed normal. Didn’t other people call themselves worthless pieces of shit hundreds of times a day? No? Okay. She had me address these thoughts, reframe them, and explore why I was filled with such shame.

I also challenged my behaviors in treatment. When Thanksgiving came around, I ate pie, and when we went out to get ice cream, I would eat ice cream. I wanted to disrupt the narrow food rules that had taken over my life. Gaining weight was uncomfortable but needed, and it also brought up the more difficult questions:

What does it mean to take up space? What does it mean to live in my body? 

Treatment was sentimental for me because it was the first time I truly felt loved and accepted for who I was. When I left, I felt a void of that validation and love, but I discovered a greater eating disorder recovery community that existed outpatient. For a few years, I collected Tumblr images of phrases such as, You are enough. I told people they were beautiful. I was also compliant with my meal plan (with a few expected setbacks). I was going through the motions of what someone in recovery might do. I was challenging my eating disorder behaviors, and I was challenging myself to feel loved when I still didn’t.

After years of exploration in therapy about some of the deeper issues that caused or maintained my eating disorder, I began a slow process of disengaging from the eating disorder recovery community that had once given me life. Images saying, You are beautiful, that were once life-giving, now seemed simplistic and lacking depth. I wanted to respond to the image, “Thanks, I guess. I don’t feel beautiful or hopeful, but I can still recover anyway.”

When I tried to get involved in the recovery community and share my story, I felt the expectation that I would convey my story similar to the following, “I spent years in my eating disorder. Recovery has its ups and downs, but it’s worth it. The worst day in eating disorder recovery is better than my best day in my eating disorder.” I felt the need to be vague, hopeful, and subsequently trite.

Those things are completely true of my experience of recovery, but they are a fraction of the truth. The truth is:

  • Recovery is deeper and scarier than I ever could have imagined, but it is also more enriching and life-giving. When I went through the motions years ago in treatment, I thought if I could have enough “challenge foods” and repeat enough affirmations, then maybe I would get better. This was so far from the case. I ended up learning there was NOTHING in my life that was out of the realm of eating disorder recovery. My family, OCD, upbringing, personality, and sensitivity were all relevant and critical to recovery. I am still exploring these issues, and some of the results of this exploration have felt as painful as a death. 

  • Recovery is worth it long term, but the process can feel like going through open heart surgery. I don’t think people are open enough about this part of it. Recovery is not smiling while I eat french fries because I feel so free. Recovery is more often ugly-crying on my way home because I heard a song that reminds me of how lonely I am. To be fair to ugly-crying while listening to music, it is a privilege, really, if you think about it. Eating disorders numb feelings. The fact I can even feel emotion now is a sign of recovery even though it feels like hell at the time.
  • Recovery DID NOT and WILL NOT FIX ME. It is not a panacea for every problem in my life. Recovery has been a necessary precursor to understanding myself better, but it didn’t fix what was lying beneath me. Recovery did not magically cure my OCD, sadness, hopelessness, or trauma. It actually uncovered those things more fully, and then I have had to deal with them.
  • You do not have to be motivated to recover. That is one thing I didn’t grasp for years. I didn’t feel motivated to recover, and I kept searching for elusive motivation that never came. Behavior trumps motivation every time. Behaving in a way that mimics recovery becomes recovery.

  • Recovery is no longer a choice for me. A number of years ago, I came to a place of realizing I cannot relapse. My body cannot do it physically. After too many years of abuse, my body malfunctions when I slip into eating disorder behaviors. I am not willing to live against my body in this way, and so I have to get better. This does not mean I am free from setbacks, but I don’t consider relapsing is an option.

For years, I felt like my story was “not good enough.” I believed I didn’t love my body enough, didn’t love myself enough, and didn’t love the eating disorder recovery messages enough. Yet, I share because I am sure there are others whose eating disorder recovery stories don’t fit into the expected mold. Years after my last treatment stay, I still felt self-conscious when I looked at my wedding pictures. I felt ashamed when I realized how self-conscious I was about my wedding pictures. I hate trite motivational quotes. My anxiety is a major hindrance to every part of my life, including my eating, so thank God for psych meds. Am I the “typical” eating disorder recovery success story? Probably not. Part of my recovery is sharing my voice with my unique perspective, and if that means I don’t fit in anywhere, oh well.