Letting go of the idealized recovery
If you hear some in the eating disorder community talk about recovery, you could be forgiven for thinking that they were trying to get you to buy a timeshare at a resort. Recovery, they say, is where you love yourself. You love your body. You accept your imperfections. Your life is good, so good. You’ve gotten to the root of your disorder. And you are never, ever, NEVER going to relapse. You are IN RECOVERY and you are here to stay.
Like I said, it sounds kind of like a travel brochure. Or a secret society with an even more secret handshake.
Of course, plenty of people acknowledge that recovery isn’t perfect. But if you look at the way the eating disorder community tries to construct recovery, it tends to be built as this idealized form of what Life is Going to be Like from Now On, Forever and Ever, Amen. This isn’t what recovery is like. Getting hit in the face with the rude reality of the day in, day out, utter slog of recovery (didn’t I just eat yesterday?) was enough to make me seriously consider quitting.
While in treatment, I planned out my recovery life. It was going to be perfect. I would love food, love eating, love my body. Mornings consisted of waking up and looking in the mirror at the sexy beast staring back at me. I would never have a bad hair day. I would no longer be dependent on pots of coffee to function, or toothpicks to prop open my sagging eyelids in the wee hours of the morning. I was going to be independent and self-assured and happy.
At discharge, staff tried to temper my expectations. But they did so in an interesting manner. They didn’t say “This is probably not what your recovery is going to look like.” Instead, they said, “Don’t expect it to be like this YET.” As time went on and I remained as depressed, anxious, and messed up about food as before, I started to give up. This wasn’t the timeshare I had signed up for. Even now, when most objective measures would indicate that I was doing well in recovery (no, not fully recovered, but doing well), my life and my recovery doesn’t look like that travel brochure.
In reading many of the media accounts of recovery and the stories that are shared online, there tends to be one of two narratives. It’s either “I think food will be an issue for the rest of my life,” or the travel brochure-esque description above. The problem is that I think both of these set people up for failure. Either we don’t expect any sort of recovery or improvement, or we have this idealized notion of recovery that can never possibly come true.
People often send me emails about what made me decide to recover or what my turning point was or what convinced me to want to get better. I always feel bad writing back and saying that’s not how recovery worked for me. I fought recovery long and hard until I slowly stopped fighting so much. I didn’t want to get better until I was most of the way there. I didn’t make some epic, life-changing decision to devote myself to recovery. Some people do, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s not the only way you get better.
Nor is recovery a cakewalk. There’s a saying floating around in the world of Pinterest or Tumblr that “The worst day in recovery is still better than the best day in relapse.” To be really honest (am I even allowed to say this?), sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes, when life is really painful, the ED is numb and that feels a whole hell of a lot better than recovery. I know it’s not in my best long-term interests to return to the ED, but there you have it. I didn’t fall into the trap of an ED because I wanted to be thin. I fell in the trap because I finally found something that would make the anxiety and depression just a little bit better.
This doesn’t stop once you start working on recovery. I still get anxious and depressed, sometimes overwhelmingly so. Lately, it’s been rough. Really rough. Like sometimes hard to get out of bed in the morning rough. And yes, ED behaviors kicked back in. You resist for a while, but the anxiety sapped me of my appetite and the depression robbed me of my ability to care. I am burned out and exhausted. But I am looking for a new psychiatrist and revisiting some old skills and regaining the few pounds I lost.
There are no rainbows or unicorns here. This is not the recovery I signed up for. But it’s the one I’ve got, the one I’m busting my ass to protect. Yes, I slip. Yes, I have extensive co-morbids that aren’t going to go away. Yes, I will probably remain vulnerable to relapse for my entire life. Seriously? I’m okay with that. Ignoring the facts doesn’t make them less true.
Here’s the thing: I am grateful every day for my recovery, even when it’s not perfect and I find myself restricting again or laying in bed with the covers over my head, so terrified of the world I literally can’t get out of bed. Shit still happens, life can still suck. Despite all of this, all the craziness, all the messiness, I am still coping better and functioning better than I ever have before. I am still mostly free of ED thoughts, even when you factor in this latest slip.
It was only when I let go of the idealized, over-sanitized, travel brochure version of recovery that I started to embrace everything I had worked for.