When I decided to start this blog I had a few things that I knew I absolutely wanted to write about. One of them being recovery. What is it? What does it look like? What does it feel like? Primarily because I am so thankful this is the stage I am at but also because it’s not easy and it’s ok if you are struggling with it.
One of the many things I have learned the past few years is that recovery is not linear. To quote Forrest Gump, it’s kind of like a box of chocolates. You can pull out an absolute gem or you get a shocker of a Turkish delight (I mean who actually likes Turkish delight?!). Basically, you need to take the good days and the bad. When the decision is made that you want to get better it is not a smooth journey, sometimes it feels like you take 3 steps forward to take 10 back. Other times you take 20 steps forward and progress makes you feel invisible. Yet regardless of every obstacle, challenge and set back, making the conscious decision every day to get better and fighting against what have become your natural behaviours is worth it, even if at times it doesn’t feel like that.
As with everything I find it easiest to unpack themes by using my own story and experience, but I understand how unique recovery is and it will be different for everyone, but again hopefully my own experience can shed some light and understanding if you are experiencing it right now or you are supporting someone through it.
My own ‘recovery’ began just over 3 years ago. I had been living with my then boyfriend for just over 3 months. I was still bulimic and he had no idea. We worked different patterns, and by this point I had been hiding it for 7 years. I was pretty skilled at hiding it. However, something in me broke about New Year. I had been internally drowning in shame about the fact I was keeping this secret from him, I felt so guilty, embarrassed and ashamed yet I still couldn’t tell him. It was like I thought he would think less of me, that I wasn’t really the person I had made him believe I was. That my strength was a lie. Only now do I see that in fact dealing with this for so long on my own is a testament to my strength.
I still couldn’t admit it to anyone. So, my first steps in recovery I took completely alone. I question now if this period in my life was truly recovery because I still kept it a closely guarded secret, because ultimately I was ashamed. Yet in that January I began to fight tooth and nail against my behaviours and thoughts and I was bulimia free for a year and a half. I did this completely on my own. But I wasn’t embarking upon this because I valued myself and my health. If I did I would have told him, my friends and my family. I should have told them.
I wasn’t doing it because I loved myself. I was doing it because I loved him and I couldn’t live with the shame and guilt of leading that double life anymore. I had someone I wanted to get better for, but that someone should have been me. So, when the relationship ended, I may have loved him but I didn’t know how to love myself, because I didn’t. At that point I became unanchored and I began to drown in my self-doubt. It was undoubtedly one of the most challenging times in my life, yet it was also in many ways the catalyst that truly led to me taking control of my recovery because when I became unanchored every one of my carefully crafted defences came down. I told everyone everything, and I finally had nothing left to hide.
If you’ve ever been cheated on, particularly in a long term, seemingly committed relationship, you can no doubt empathise with the inevitable ‘what is wrong with me? why wasn’t I good enough?’. It takes something from you. Friends can tell you until blue in the face ‘it wasn’t you, it’s them’ but as much as I’d say ‘I know’. I believed it was me. To me this just proved everything I had always thought about myself, I wasn’t pretty enough, I wasn’t skinny enough, I wasn’t funny enough, I wasn’t smart enough, not interesting enough. If I was he wouldn’t have hurt me. As someone who had always compared myself to others and felt I came up short, it was a blow I was ill equipped to handle when he compared me to someone else. My insecurity hit me hundredfold.
In the months leading up to finding out I became a person I didn’t like, I was paranoid, insecure, needy, cried at the drop of a hat because I knew something was wrong but I was made to feel like it was all in my head. On countless occasions when he could have been truthful, he preserved himself by letting me break.
I’d lost a little bit of weight through stress the month of so before and more so after through your classic anxiety ridden, appetite suppressing ‘heartbreak’ diet; but I wanted to keep the weight off. When dealt with a difficult situation I realised my disordered thoughts were very much still with me.
This is when my recovery got messy but also when I truly began to pro-actively tackle it head on. There was no passive approach.
I told those close to me everything, over the coming months I gradually and fully admitted to the extent of my bulimia. That guilt, embarrassment and shame became less heavy. I was an adult at 29 and this was my reality. I was too tired to feel ashamed anymore.
Had this event in my life not happened to me would I have ever told anyone? I can’t answer that. It did, life happened and so I dealt with it.
By opening up to people, particularly my close group of friends, I began to unravel but in the best way possible. They loved and supported me despite this. They love me for me and want the best for me. My friends have been amazing, I couldn’t have asked for a better support system, despite how difficult I can be sometimes. This is one of the single greatest things being honest in my recovery has brought me. They know. Everything; and I’m not ashamed anymore.
I’ve said before that being honest, and open is extremely important, but it’s not the curer, you still need to be willing to do the work yourself, your support system can’t do that for you but they can listen to you, talk to you, comfort you and that is invaluable. You need to want this for yourself but you also need people to know your story. You can’t be supported if people don’t know. One of the reasons I think my eating disorder spanned over ten years is because I was ashamed, about so many different aspects of it, and that shame made me keep it secret. You should not be ashamed. We all carry stories. There is no shame in that. That is life.
I have had three relapses in my recovery, the longest lasting a week, that might make it seem like I’m not ‘better’, yet when I look at where I am now to what my disorder was like five years ago. The progress I have made is undeniable. Three times in two years, compared to a daily occurrence for seven years. I’m bloody proud of that.
I’m also beginning to view my body as something amazing despite what I’ve put it through. Each day it keeps turning up for me. Exercise has become a hugely positive factor in my life, not as a punishment to burn food or achieve an aesthetic goal but because I love it, I run fast, I lift heavy weights because it not only empowers me but it genuinely makes me happy.
I go to counselling because my mental health is just as important as my physical. You’d go to the doctors if you had a physical ailment for a couple of weeks. You should too if your thought processes and behaviours feel ‘off’.
Recovery means dealing with the root causes, triggers and thought processes that you’ve developed but it also means dealing with physiological issues. Digestive issues, metabolic issues, food intolerances etc. This requires patience and a degree of listening and learning from your body as you adapt. This is difficult and I’ve needed to seek medical help for this, as well as a degree of self-education, but again it is so worth it as you will eventually learn to work with your body. When you’ve punished and hurt your body for so long you have to be patient with the healing process.
I further found honesty in my recovery difficult because I am a functioning individual. I am not weakened, or less capable in my professional life because this is an issue I have dealt with, and I’m still dealing with. The idea that those who suffer from any mental illness are not capable is another stigma that needs tackled. The fact that we feel we can’t talk about these things and hold our hands up and say, yeah I feel like that too, isn’t ok and it is a barrier to people getting better.
Recovering from an eating disorder sometimes feels a bit like a rollercoaster, up one minute, down the next but I wouldn’t trade what I have now for what I was once like. Learning that you are enough just as you are is necessary.
Yet, above all, if anyone is reading this that can relate, or wants to get better, or is trying but feels like they are failing; or you are trying to support someone through this. Patience, honesty and hard work in that process will be the best decision you can make. Recovery is possible, it’s not easy, and it’s ok if some days it feels harder, but making the decision every day to try to treat yourself with kindness means that one day you will.