I’ve recently come to a deeper understanding of what recovery means to me. I have generally avoided that term because I felt stigmatized somewhat or at least labelled by it in a way I can’t really explain. I’ve worked hard to put my own words to terms that have become so clinical to me over the years: recovery, trigger, symptoms, quality of life, relapse, etc. Now, I feel more confident in my definition of recovery and am more comfortable applying it to myself.
For the longest time, recovery to me meant quite simply being eating disorder symptom free and functioning in a “normal” capacity – whatever that is. I thought that if I maintained a healthy weight, ate a varied diet, didn’t make myself sick, maintained relationships, held down a job, and didn’t cry myself to sleep every night…that was recovered. I thought that life would always be sepia toned for me, so to speak, and never in HD. For a while, I wanted that because that’s the best I thought I would ever have and I did want to get better. Through my earlier attempts at treatment as an adult that’s what I strove for and felt supported to attain but it wasn’t enough to hold me for longer than a few months and eventually not longer than a few weeks. In retrospect, I realize that that coping was all I had to look back on as a possibility for the future. Hearing over and over that I could “get my life back” was so empty. I didn’t want that life. I wanted and needed something different. I had “all that”. I had had a great job that could have turned into a successful career; I had lots of friends; I travelled; I dated; I had a great apartment. But tell me that when I recovered, I could have all that back? No thanks. I was burnt out from nursing; I was lonely; I was used and hurt by men; I was lonely All. The. Time. But, I had my eating disorder. When everything else in my life was painful and chaotic, I had that one steady. Prior to my adult manifestation of my eating disorder in the severity that it became, I had other “quirks”. Diagnostically: OCD, severe anxiety, and depression. However one looks at it, the fact remains that I was not living. I was coping for the most part but life isn’t about merely coping. Somehow I’ve known that all along.
The thing is, in trying to convince a person with an eating disorder that life is worth it, one takes on the insurmountable in my opinion. I didn’t believe anyone who told me life could be beautiful for me. There was a constant double standard. I couldn’t see myself being able to tolerate the day to day of life and being okay. All I felt that I knew was darkness and difficulty and with absolutely no reference point, how could I even begin to believe what others said? An important message I received early in the program I’m in, is not only is this life of wellness possible and attainable for me, they were going to show me it. I understood from them from the start that they could not begin to describe the world I might experience as a well person so they had to get me there to see with my own eyes. It’s kind of like trying to describe the mountains to a prairie girl who has never even seen a picture. Or the sky to a child who’s never left a deep cave.
I find it interesting to think of how afraid of the word recovery I was and the concept I had of recovery. In my mind, to recover was to fail at my eating disorder which had become my one successful thing. Recovery wasn’t healing from what fed my behaviours and thoughts it was just applying yet another guise to cover what was happening inside. I’d long given up on acting the part of a well-adjusted 20 something.
Honestly, recovery is not about managing and coping. It’s not about hiding feeling miserable behind a normal body weight and shape. It’s not being “strong” enough to keep it together with all sorts of superficial tape and glue. And what’s so difficult for me also, is that recovery is not measurable.
I often had scales for my progress (or perhaps a metaphorical ruler stick if we want to avoid the weight reference). If I was doing x and not z than I wasn’t sick anymore. Or if I had increased my calories to x/day then I was just about recovered. If I managed x more weeks out of hospital than last time, then I must be recovering. As I see it now, these measures often just reflected how in need of guidance I was because I was constantly coming up with new rules that might explain me to me and my teams one way or another. The emotional nurturing and growth that needs to happen in order to feel safe enough to move away from these false structures is not at all measurable.
So, what does recovery mean to me now? My goodness…Most importantly it means life without fear. I lived with a lot of fear that was moderately numbed by my symptom usage. “Feel the fear and do it anyway” ruled my life from getting out of bed, to checking my email, to getting dressed, to measuring my daily milk allowance for my coffee. I did all those things despite the anxiety and dread but there was an underlying fear to nearly everything. I’m not scared anymore.
It means actually not needing the symptoms. It’s not a constant fight mentally or emotionally. It’s not always painful without an escape.
It’s being safe with me; being comfortable with me; liking me – and thus never being lonely because I have Me!
It’s finding and accepting comfort from others and from myself. Being able to break down if I need to and feel overwhelmed, share that and get through it with the help of others and not feeling worthless and dependant for needing people and not being able to conquer everything on my own.
It’s making a life that is as often as possible full of what matters most to me and finding ways to work towards a career, living situation, and relationships that are reflective of my core values.
I also thought that recovery would mean someone taking away what I felt defined me. It felt so real that by giving up the eating disorder, I would become an empty shell of a person and then what? Another very meaningful but confusing in the beginning idea that was told to me was that my team “would bring me to myself”. And it’s happening. I’m not there yet. I’m still discovering who I am more and more every day. This person I’m meeting and getting to know that is me is certainly not “normal” (or even typical) like I had feared (fear of losing the feeling of being special to put it simply) but definitely not diagnosable by any means! Regardless, I’m a growing and developing person. With this understanding in mind, the whole concept of recovery seems to lose such significance and much of its definition. Recovery is about coming into myself and that’s going to be a lifelong process. I suppose that’s why people say that suffers of eating disorders are “in recovery” for life but to me that idea poses a risk of relapse. That’s not my experience. Once being fully brought into myself and knowing that I am okay and understanding me a little better “in recovery” boils down to just living like everyone else. It puts my eating disorder as part of my past and something that I can draw on for insight but it is not the looming threat that I need to guard against at all time because with the real me around, I don’t need that definition at all.
I had to heighten my standard for recovery in order to want it. I made it all or nothing: no behaviours, no thoughts, no urges, no shame, no fear, no relapse…or no recovery. I’m a bit of an extremist at times and in this case, if I couldn’t have it all, I didn’t want to live a half-assed life anymore. I was either well or sick and either way, the world was going to know it. I wanted to be able to live life, not manage or cope. I have all the skills in the book for ‘coping’ with life but I wanted to really live in all aspects. I still hold that standard for recovery because I finally know that it’s possible.