The anatomy of eating disorder recovery

In a nutshell, 

You’re going to fall down. A lot. You’ll probably hit an extreme rock bottom, maybe one that’s lower than the rock bottom you thought you reached when you were sick, and you’ll wonder what the hell at the point of all of this stupid, shitty-ass work is all about. You’re tired of falling. You equate falling with failing. Aren’t they the same thing? You’ll cry to a God if you believe in one, and if you don’t, you’ll still cry and probably wish you believed in one.

There will be low points. And they will hurt like hell. 

You’ll think you are the exception. You are the one who won’t heal, the one who cannot recover, the lost cause who is doomed to a lifetime of misery. 

People are going to tell you this part of the process. What, this falling down, slamming yourself into the ground, time and time again? This utter inability to actually take care of yourself constructively? The continuation of the very habits you want to break the most? Oh, yes! They’ll tell you with their knowing nods, condescending smiles, and confident attitudes. This is part of the journey. 

You’re going to slip. Professionals like to use that term. Slip. Maybe you’ll slip right back to where you started. Maybe you’ll slip even harder and fall into a new realm of hell. At least you’re gaining insight. This is part of the process. You’ll keep hearing those words. Be kind to yourself. You will also hear that, even though that’s the most fucking counterintuitive advice you’ve ever heard. Be kind to yourself? REALLY? Who could be kind to such a monster? Who could be kind to someone who continuously beats, torments, and wrecks me? This just seems nonsensical. In fact, you may even hate yourself now more than you ever thought you did in the past. You will not be kind to yourself for a very long time because unfettered kindness equates with immense self-love, which in turn, KILLS the eating disorder, literally diminishing it from existence. You just can’t get rid of it that fast. It just doesn’t work that way.

You will doubt recovery. You will doubt you even had an eating disorder. You will doubt the validity of positive affirmations, doubt your treatment team (if you have one), and doubt that anything is actually going to stick. You will still lie, because lying has been the basic bane of your existence. In fact, don’t be too surprised if you even get better at it. You will become talented at cheating the system and cheating yourself. You will hang on to your eating disorder for dear life, while, at the same time, doing everything you can to throw it away. You will constantly feel tormented, conflicted, and vulnerable. 

If you are fortunate, you may quickly stop the behaviors. But the negative, distorted thoughts long preceded those behaviors, so they will linger far after. You will become just as obsessed with recovery as you were with sickness, wanting to be perfect yet again. Seeing the world in black-and-white yet again. This is your habit. This is how your eating disorder trained you. If you can’t be the most perfect sick person, you have to be the most perfect recovered person. The obsession stays for a long time, and that is one of the hardest parts. Food dominates your mind. Every meal, every unplanned snack, every new item of clothing, every change in your body…this will be scrutinizes and analyzed. This will be your new compulsion.

After awhile, with some smooth sailing, you may get cocky. This happens, too. During those high points. You will get confident that you will never use that behavior again. You will never be back to the way you were. You will never choose to hurt yourself again. These statements, you will realize, are just as detrimental as the negative, all-or-nothing statements that maintained your disorder. People will try and warn you about potential triggers and the risk of relapse. You will shrug them off. Couldn’t happen to me. I GOT THIS. 

It’s only a matter time before you are triggered. You will spiral out in a tailspin. You will realize they were probably right. You will curse them…and then, you will realize you are a fucking human being who is recovering from one of the most beastly, complex, chronic mental disorders in the DSM, and therefore, YOU WILL FALTER. You didn’t move into hell overnight. You won’t be able to move out overnight either. Even though you desperately want to. But, with recovery, you get to start seeing other places to live. You get to check out the other real estate. You get to see if it’s worth moving. You are shopping; you are learning what else is out there.

And if you start liking what you see, you will start to push yourself. More than you’ve ever pushed yourself. You will start accepting, HONEST-TO-GOD accepting the fact that you can’t “WIN” recovery any more than you can “WIN” an eating disorder. You just plug at it. You may have epiphanies and you will probably feel random bursts of inspiration and motivation, but sadly there is no magic formula or voodoo secret. You will have to trial-and-error. And, in a clinical sense, trial-and-error essentially means TRY, TRY, TRY until something works. And that’s what recovery is. TRY, TRY, TRYING until something works. 

There is no timeline. There is no right or wrong. There is no prize for you at the end, except, of course, your health, vitality, sanity, and freedom. But, here’s the catch. You don’t actually receive those just at the end of your journey. Those gifts are with you from the start, from the first moment you decide you’ve extended your stay in Hell and want a new place to live. Those gifts are what keep your path, and all its ups and downs, worthwhile. Whatever sense of health, vitality, sanity, and freedom you thought you had in sickness can ONLY improve in recovery. You will notice that. You will start to see, taste, hear, and feel it. The sensations may be overwhelming. Stick with them. 

Healing hurts. Unleashing the pain hurts. The rawness of exposed wounds hurts. That is part of recovery. There is no way to avoid all the suppressed feelings, the stuffed-down anguish, the starving fears. But remember this. With an eating disorder, pain progressively increases. With recovery, pain progressively decreases. 

And on the other side, of pain, you will see, lies a pleasure you may have never known existed. 

 

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the anatomy of the eating disorder

Dear Bee,

The hardest part of recovery, and I mean the fucking tough feet-in-quick-sand-trudging-through-mud-everything-hurts-because-it-all-is-weighing-you-down type of challenging, is learning how to cope with the fact that basically, NOTHING in the world changes just because you ate X many calories, weigh Y many pounds, or did Z minutes of exercise.

That’s right. Nothing changes.

You think it will; oh yes, your eating disorder will promise you limitless gifts. It promises you “control,” in the sense that controlling your food somehow controls your destiny. It promises you escape, in the sense that, instead of actually facing life head-on, you get to face life through the eating-disordered lenses, which means you see life in terms of calorie counts and body shapes, in measures of your self-depreciation and nonexistent self-esteem. And that’s a lot more manageable than seeing life for the unpredictable, occasionally hellacious, out-of-control reality that it really is. Oh and it promises you happiness, because obviously, your body determines your happiness. Eating disorders make the universe YOU-CENTRIC, because yes, the state of existence depends entirely on what you eat and what you look like.

We buy into this shit. Oh my God, we buy into it more than anything. But not right away. It’s like a cult. Eating disorders start out so damn slowly, taking years to culminate, sneaking up on us so subtly we don’t even realize we’ve shifted from being a “little weird” about our diets to having a full-blown mental illness that’s affecting our everyday functioning. That’s why they WORK. That’s how cults work. Nobody would have an eating disorder if he or she just started AT ROCK BOTTOM. Can you imagine? Nobody starts by analyzing every single meal or throwing up every single morsel or jumping on the scale every other hour. Nope. The journey starts out progressively; the eating disorder has enough time to build our trust, to wrap its claws around our suspecting necks, and literally take control the second we think, we can stop this at any time. 

And then, we forget how to cope without the eating disorder. And we’re terrified at the thought of doing so. It’s our crutch. We can pigeonhole it for everything. Essentially, there is nothing food cannot fix. We binge because we need to stuff the feelings and numb the pain. We restrict because we’re fat and miserable and deserve to punish ourselves. Over and over again. The cycle becomes automatic; we are trapped in a lifestyle we actually once believed was a conscious choice. We are slaves to our own cruel and unusual forms of punishment. And the suffering only gets worse. It starts out with just a few skipped meals, maybe, or the casual vomiting or the continued overeating. It’s easy. It’s just a supplement to our busy lives. Just a “healthy” choice, right? And then, it’s bloated stomachs and bloodshot eyes and being unable to breathe and sneaking and lying to ourselves to others; it’s heart palpitations and constipation; it’s dizziness and headaches and losing hair; it’s brittle nails and broken bones and rotting skin; it’s insomnia and shivering skin and unbelievable self-hatred. It’s carrying more mental weight than you could have ever physically weighed. It’s feelings of helplessness, sheer terror, and a persistent pain that eats away our every flesh and bone. 

It’s hell. Day in and day out. A hell of our own minds; a hell of our own bodies. And here’s the worst part. No human has successfully been able to escape his or her own mind or body. So, when you feel stuck in that, when you are trapped in your own mind and body and don’t want to be there whatsoever, you’re stuck in the absolute shittiest hell there possibly is. 

Eating disorders are about the most putrid, disgusting, and humiliating sicknesses there are.

Nothing glamorous exists in the lies this disease carries. The glamour only exists in the beginning stages, in the disillusions of the perfect bodies we will “somehow” achieve and the perfect lifestyles we will then subsequently lead. That glamour is a facade that turns into a three-ring circus of deceit, compulsion, and distortion. 

Then, after time, hopefully sooner than later, but everyone’s timelines are different, you realize perfection doesn’t exist. And that, whether or not you gain or lose five pounds, you will get hurt and rejected and scared. You will lose people who matter. You will make choices that invoke intense anxiety. You will question your life and you will fear for your life. You will make mistakes, some that are forgivable, others which will change you indefinitely. You will encounter difficult feelings: sadness, anger, and fear. 

This hurts. This hurts so much. This is raw and bloody and terrifying. And, sometimes, there’s nothing you can do about it. 

And your eating disorder can’t save you. And losing that savior is similar to watching a great hero fall. Because your eating disorder is supposed to be your guardian and is supposed to protect you from the scary demons in life. Right? That’s why it promised you from the start. But, it didn’t do shit for you. It wanted you to sink. It never wanted to save you. That’s right. The eating disorder had one mission. Drown you. 

And when that message really resonates, you turn your back on that evil bastard. You enter those complex throes of recovery, with half your mind reaching for the light that barely shines, while your body is simultaneously being pulled back into the dark abyss that was your home for so long. And you’re just supposed to fucking deal with life. Sit with emotions. You’re supposed to develop coping skills. You’re supposed to live a full life without being obsessed with food and numbers and exercise and weight. Those are the criteria for recovery, right? Because if you don’t, you’ll never heal. You just can’t. You can’t half-ass it either. Can’t do half of recovery. Can’t give up half the behaviors. Can’t do it half the time. It just doesn’t work that way, although we will all try. We all think we can cheat the system. We all think we are somehow different. This time, after all, we know better. And then, naturally, the eating disorder will gnaw back at you, hold out its lovely hand, entice you with its convincing speech, lure you right back into the tempting swirl, promising that this time, it will be safe, and you will have control, and you will be able to handle it. 

And you will jump in, head-first, excited at the prospect that, yes, this time, it will be different.

And we all know exactly where that goes.

You are not a special snowflake. You cannot flirt with danger and expect love and kindness in return. You cannot tempt the devil and expect to taste heaven. Your eating disorder is not your friend, and the sooner you realize just how much it is actively trying to destroy every element of your life, the easier it will be to let that asshole go. 

Remember when?

Dear Bee,

Remember when you weren’t even a thing? When you didn’t exist, didn’t protrude through my thoughts, emotions, and behaviors? Remember, in the beginning? when I thought we really could just be friends?

Oh, and do you remember that first time you took me on a diet? I had my spiral notebook and a wealth of nutritious knowledge. I calculated every morsel that passed my lips, often condemning myself for being too indulgent or lax. Remember how, at age twelve, I thought I could stand to lose a few pounds? And how, at age thirteen, I was convinced I was huge and disgusting and would be instantly rejected in the unfamiliar territory that is high school.

Remember all those sweaty runs and skipped snacks? Remember eating entire rolls of cookies and never ending bowls of cereal? Remember the obsession with calories, those tiny evil monsters that only seemed to enlarge my body?

Remember how long you kept me in denial? To that, I praise you. Good work. For years, I could happily believe I was on a perpetual diet working towards the pinnacle of perfection: the ultimate body. Remember when I feared anything that came from a package? And when I swore off sugar? And when I exercised every morning before work with only a quick scrub down afterwards, instead of a real shower, because I had fourteen-hour long days? Give up my workouts? Never.

Remember bingeing on frosting and peanut butter and boxes of candy? Remember eating until I thought I would explode? Remember how many times you convinced me to just screw the rules and listen to your sweet words? Remember how many times I listened, only to absolutely hate myself afterwards?

Remember feeling happy after taking a large bowel movement? Or after waking up on an extremely empty stomach? Or after a really long and excruciating run? The brief euphoria I would feel stepping on the scale, the bliss that told me to keep going. Remember when you made me drink tons and tons of water? Just to pee it all out? Just to lose an ounce or two.

Remember when I bought fast food just before midnight to finish that day off since I’d already screwed up? When I’d promise to start again tomorrow on the alleged right track? Because you painted the world in black and white.

Remember when you called me broken and unlovable? Told me that nobody would take me seriously, including a therapist, psychiatrist, and support group? Remember when you told me it was better to minimize my present symptoms but exaggerate my past ones to indicate my progress (or lack thereof). Remember when you told me I would never get better? Remember when I wholeheartedly believed you?

Remember when you tried to make me throw up? We were curled up in my bathroom, clutching the bowl, wishing I could just be empty. Remember when I would pray to a god I wasn’t even sure I believed in? For clarity and answers? Remember when you told me I was a worthless failure?

Remember that time I decided to stand up to you and all your lies? Yep. One of the best choices I’ve ever made.

Ride & Die

Often, when we feel the most lost, we find the best path. It’s when we are sure we know we are headed, we tend to get sidetracked.

Dear Bee,

This is my quote, and I came up with it this afternoon after a slight revelation about our disillusion to control the most uncontrollable element of our life: time that is not ours. Aka: the future. It’s amazing how disillusioned we are when it comes to following some kind of “plan.” We set cookie-cutter timelines and deadlines and promise ourselves that in X amount of time, we will achieve Y, and then, we will do X.

When, in real life, does this actually happen? When I was ten, I was so sure I was going to meet the love of my life in junior high. That didn’t happen. When I was sixteen, I knew that I was going to be best friends with my former best friend ever. That didn’t happen. When I was twenty, I was sure I could marry the person I was dating. That didn’t happen.  

Being lost is a good thing. You remain curious. You take risks that you wouldn’t ordinarily take. There is a sense of chaotic spontaneity, a beautiful calamity in the unpredictable ebb and flow that is your life. 

Not all who wander are lost.

I spent my past year completely lost. I felt lost with recovery. It was new, and it was petrifying. I dove into whatever I could. I tried many things and fell many times. I have been in that place where NOTHING worked and EVERYTHING seemed hopeless. In fact, know that place very well. I visited there frequently. And now, not so much. I am now more aware of the path I am on. 

Being lost taught me how to trust myself and how to lean on people who had walked on similar paths before me. Being lost showed me to revitalize my intuition and faith. Being lost terrified me, but it offered a sense of bravery and resilience I never knew lied within me. Being lost meant believing that I could, somehow, through trial and error, find a direction that worked for me.

Being lost was worth it. In it, I found myself.

I found the girl I had suppressed: a joyous and exuberant girl eager to indulge in every morsel of this delicious life. I found freedom and relief. I found answers that had remained unanswerable for so long. I found love in places I never knew existed, most notably the love towards myself.

Do not worry about where you are headed. Trust the process. Trust recovery. Trust yourself. Life unfolds in magical ways, and I truly believe that. Every obstacle has had its reward; every demon has met its angel. I never want to know exactly where I am headed; life would be too monotonous and dull if I did. The unknown keeps it exciting and evolving. We always say road trips are about the journey and not the destination. Well, life is our journey and there is NO destination. So ride…until you die.

❤ 

Recovery comes first.

Dear Bee,

There is only one real question that one has to ask- about everything: does this threaten my sobriety? If it does, we addicts cannot do it. It is as simple as that.

I am reading this therapy book and skimming through most of it (because I find the author arrogant and somewhat misinformed), but I stopped at the addiction and codependency chapter, and this quote jumped out.

 In the Twelve Steps philosophy, sobriety holds precedence above everything else. Above family, above friends, above work…because if one is not sober, one is not in the correct capacity to be the person he or she needs to be. I use the words sobriety, abstinence, and recovery synonymously. I prefer recovery, so, in my case, I have to put my recovery first. But what does that mean?

Putting recovery first means acting in ways that I once considered selfish. This includes putting my own needs first, recognizing uncomfortable situations, practicing assertiveness, and doing my best to eliminate negative energy. It also means putting in hard work: going to therapy, reaching out for support, writing as often as I can, talking about my issues, identifying triggers, doing reality testing/thought records/pros and cons lists with myself, and eating in a way that is healthy for my mind, body, and soul.

Full recovery entails the transformation of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. When I was only eating “normally” in the first few months, I felt miserable. My thoughts were still rigid, my emotions were still rampant, and all I could think about was food, exercise, food, therapy, and food. I was running too fast on a treadmill that was taking me nowhere. Or so I thought. But I kept going.

Putting recovery first is shitty in the beginning. I won’t lie. It’s messy. It’s painful. The days drag, and the alleged light at the end of the tunnel is dim to nonexistent. The lapses hit you, and they hit you hard. You wonder, is this even worth it? You wonder, how do people actually do this? You wonder, will it ever get better? Or am I just a lost cause? Am I doomed to live like this forever?

I think about my recovery every single day. But, I don’t live perfect recovery every single day. That would be impossible. Such unrealistic expectations increase the likelihood of failure, quitting, and self-loathing. I have to be easy on myself, but, at the same time, I need to be aware of the cunning and destructive nature of eating disorders. They don’t just disappear, and relapse rates remain stubbornly high. I’ve only been in real recovery for a year. Before that, my attempts were well-intentioned, but unsuccessful because they still focused on vanity (ex: I need recovery, because it will help me lose weight) and not vitality and overall well-being. 

When you recover from an eating disorder, you recover from the idea that chaos is comfort. You learn to accept that you aren’t special or entitled just because you meet criteria for a diagnosis. You realize that nothing else in life changes just because you lost or gained ten pounds except, of course, your own attitude and perspective. You realize that food is JUST food, and the only thing that is negative or positive about it are your thoughts regarding what it does to your body and mindset. You distinguish eating disordered logic from reality and realize that, at one time, most of your thinking about yourself was irrational, distorted, and destructive.

Recovery is a long process and miracles do not happen overnight. But progress does. Chip at it, day by day, moment by moment, meal by meal. If you slip, you slip. You learn and you grow and you toughen up from it. If you cry, you’re releasing the inner pain and torment. That’s normal. If you feel lost and alone, welcome to the club. I am blessed to have some recovery under my belt; I am fortunate enough to get a second chance at life and all of its virtues; I am grateful- ever so grateful.

Today, if the eating disorder comes out to play, I will ask myself, what do I have to do to put my recovery first?

F.E.A.R: False Evidence Appearing Real

What is fear

But just a fallacy?

A wrath of distortion

Perceived as reality

 

Fear- the thread

Of choke-hold lust

Captures our energy

And depletes our trust.

 

Fear- the barrier

That only builds a wall

Separating two souls

Until no closeness exists at all

 

Fear- the force

So true in a fickle mind

Turn your back upon it,

Or it is never far behind.

Sometimes, I write poetry. Usually on yellow legal pads during slow days at work. I write essays. I write song lyrics. I write fiction. I once wrote a full book, but it still sits just roughly edited somewhere on a computer file. I have a bundle of scribbled notes on unused receipt paper rolls (from when I used to work retail). I have draft upon draft of starts of stories saved on my laptop.

I was this close to majoring in creative writing in college, but I feared the instability of existing on an erratic salary and bleak job opportunities.

Fortunately, I fell in love with psychology. And then, I fell in love with therapy. Still, creative writing has always been my primary love, and so long as I have the ability to put the pen to the paper and string letters together, I will forever be creating stories and sensing my logic together in fluid motion.

So, fear. This is a big one. Fear is what keeps us stuck. Fear is what keeps us in a chronic state of anxiety and distress. Fear is this blanket of irrationality that suffocates us in the calmest weathers.

It holds us back, whether we realize it or not. In the face of fear, we play games with people, we avoid taking chances, we settle for less than we deserve, we accept misery and discontent.

If you are living with an eating disorder, you are living in fear. You are afraid of something. I thought I was afraid of gaining weight. And, indeed, I was. But, what did this fear of gaining weight actually stem from? It is unnatural to fear a fluctuation or increase of body mass unless we attach some kind of potent emotion to it. So, for me, I associated gaining weight as an indication of gluttony, laziness, and being unlovable. Thus, losing weight indicated the opposite: pureness, discipline, and love. I was afraid of the former, so I desperately sought for the latter.

These thoughts manifested from a deep pit of fear. They are untrue, no matter how much society wants me to believe that a certain size of body or certain intake of food will stimulate genuine emotions. Body size does not correlate with love, confidence, self-acceptance, or happiness. Whatever feelings I have towards my body or towards the food I ate create are artificial: they indicate deeper issues elsewhere. They are laced with fear; fear of being unacceptable, fear of the unknown, fear of being incompetent and unworthy. After all, a body cannot make me sad. But the idea of someone rejecting me or feeling insecure can.

And what happens when someone rejected me or I feel insecure when I’m skinny? Because, my body has always been on the slim-to-average size. Well, then I just have one less excuse to blame (my body)…and again, I have to face my fear of being unlovable, unworthy, or incompetent. Those fears do not disappear as weight disappears.

Recovery means accepting and then releasing this fear. I recognize that every single step and breakthrough made in recovery requires accepting, facing, and eventually conquering specific fears. For instance, I have experienced sheer terror in asking for help when I needed it, adopting coping strategies besides than eating or exercising, accepting my body the way it is, seeking outside support, incorporating new foods into my regular diet, letting go of my tight grip of control, decreasing my exercise, equalizing all foods, speaking up about my issues, sitting with feelings and letting them pass, and embracing the unknown identity that has started to emerge as a result of my transformation.

The human mind is incredibly resilient. We do not develop fear without a good reason, but it is important to recognize that those reasons may be ineffective and untrue. More importantly, despite our resilience, we are eager to “maintain homeostasis” and stay as is. That is why personalities are so hard to change and decisions can be so tricky to make. We fear taking risks because it may alter our homeostasis…and we tend to be pessimistic in the outcome.

Fear penetrates us and attacks our character. Stand up to something you are scared of today. Laugh at it. Challenge it. Talk to it if you must. But don’t give it another ounce of power to overcome you. You are greater than the sum of your fears.

Embrace the Delicious Energy of Life

Seize the day; just don’t let the day seize you.

Dear Bee,

I was blessed to share this gorgeous afternoon with a close friend studying over lunch and coffee and then stumbling upon a random outdoor festival. And over dessert (yes, because in recovery, I can eat dessert without deprivation, overdoing, or remorse), we were talking about total acceptance and the willingness to truly believe that what’s meant to be will happen. I admire this girl. We met in school and became fast friends. We share the same free-spirited energy and positive spirit. 

 She’s currently in a limbo state regarding an old boyfriend who keeps reappearing into her life, and this is hard for her. Of course, it is. She doesn’t know what she wants to do. But, one thing that she said that struck me as beautiful was: I’m keeping my heart open. I’m always keeping my heart open. 

And this just made me realize, why do we close ourselves to opportunity? Why do we stunt our growth or sabotage our strength? We fear the change, of course. We fear the potential consequences. We want to protect ourselves? But, from what? Pain? Suffering? When it comes down to it, Eleanor Roosevelt said it best when she famously quoted, nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent. We dread this ambiguous unknown, because we grossly believe it will be much worse than whatever state of existence we are living in now. And so we put up walls; we play games with ourselves and others; we resort to deceit and lying; we use excuses; we try our best to stay “safe.” I can sum it up in a way that makes the sense to me: we fear losing control.

My friend cannot control whether she and her ex will rekindle. She cannot control the feelings he may or may not have for her. She cannot control if and when she either decides to either hold on or move on. She’s never had this control. Why do we believe it’s ours? We think we can outsmart life? Why do we exert so much exhaustive energy trying to manipulate, contort, and shape life into this predictable storyline with a clear-cut beginning, middle, and end?

I embrace the delicious energy of life. Life is indulgence. Life is nurturance. Life is a fabulous  ride if we are willing to let go of what comes up ahead. If we are willing to embrace the soul. If we are ready to accept whatever comes our way, knowing that breath can restore us to calmness, faith can bring us to lightness, and peace can bring us to happiness. 

Of all the changes I have made over the year, mindfulness has been the most important one. Mindfulness, for what it does to my energy. Mindfulness, for what it does to my emotions. Mindfulness, for what it does to the interactions I share. Mindfulness drives the naturalistic personality of a child. As the ego takes over with its dictating logic and alleged common sense, we lose the ability to relish the present. It is a conscious choice to take that moment back. It is a habit that must be practiced. It is a desire that must be wanted.