‘Twas a long walk my march to recovery. I try to think of when it is that I passed the destination, but then I question whether I’ve even reached it yet?
At first, it’s all about the finish line. While the idea of recovered life couldn’t be more vague at this stage, it’s also crystal clear. Evidently, recovered meant I’d no longer feel the way I do now. But then, how is it that I envisioned being, that I foresaw feeling, once recovered?
Having lost all memory of what a life un-ruled by anorexia used to be like, the concept remained vague.
If you’ve had the flu for many years, naturally, you forget how it is to breathe normally, how it is not to be stuck in bed, feeling weak and drained. In that sense, whilst trapped in an eating disorder a healthy life may be hard to imagine. But it’s out there for you, and I hope that the promise of a different future can keep you marching to recovery.
Having come the other side, perhaps I can help shed some light on what it’s like outside the grips of an eating disorder.
#1 You stay the same person
While compelled to change on endless aspects to accommodate for the rules and rituals that come with this life-restricting illness, your core self stays. The illness impairs your mind, and thus actions, but you, you’re still there. Whether trapped in the depth of illness, fighting to reach surface, or swimming towards shore, you are still the same Lisa, Laura, or Liam.
Your eating disorder may command your mind, but your core self doesn’t leave your body. Put in other words, the part of you that is controlled and lead by the illness does things that once recovered you will no longer think of, let alone do. The examples are endless: lying to friends and family, loosing your temper after a meal, forgoing pleasurable experiences in the name of dodging uncertainty, not being able to spend money on food, studying nutrition labels and restaurant menus, not allowing yourself rest, hoarding food and utensils, and many other things I luckily can no longer remember.
While ill, you believe all such choices to be yours. But from a recovery seat, those same decisions, you see them for what they really are: actions you take because you are suffering from an eating disorder.
In the grips of anorexia, you forego ever eating out. When recovered, you no longer miss on experiences because they involve food. In fact, food no longer matters.
In the grips of anorexia, your day is consumed by what you ate, are eating, or will eat. When recovered, you no longer realize, remember, or pay attention to the act.
In the grips of anorexia, you cannot, for shit, make a decision. When recovered, you no longer face paralysis when asked trivial questions like “when would you like to have lunch?”
When recovered, you no longer care about what others are eating, you no longer find your mind taking you to places of comparison, compensation, or remorse, you no longer get annoyed for eating something that doesn’t taste the way you expected, you no longer find yourself anxious in the absence of food, you no longer carry around snacks, you no longer give a fuck about which restaurant you are going to, you no longer bloat with every meal, you are no longer drained of energy after supper, you no longer have an insatiable appetite, you no longer experience mega cravings.
When recovered, you eat what you fancy and you get on with your life.
#2 You grow to become very aware.
I found this to be a recovery curse.
I’m a sucker for examples, so here’s what comes to mind.
On the one hand, trapped in the illness, you escape your thoughts and the capitulation to food by keeping yourself busy, at all times. In recovery, you start questioning these actions.
Consider the decision to go someplace. Is it because you think you should? Is it because someone is making you? Is it because your eating disorder justifies it? Or is it because you want to? (It’s rarely the latter).
On the other hand, haunted by some very new and overwhelming feelings, you often ask yourself where did they steam from. And so, you are forced to retrace all steps that may be involved in simply experiencing an emotion. Up to this date you never considered feelings. Now it’s all about the feelings.
You see, having to track your every meal, your every thought, your every move, in order to then challenge those parts driven by compulsions, you end up paying a high level of attention to your mind’s patterns and cognitive processes. And so, recovery becomes a game of closely monitoring thoughts and feelings, followed by the very uncomfortable practice of honoring those you tend to dismiss, while challenging those you tend to feed but which in reality don’t serve you.
#3 You must figure out who you are
The idea that anorexia becomes your identity is a hard concept to explain, and so, the question of who you are outside the eating disorder cannot be more confusing.
Stripped of the rules and habits that currently dictate your life, the options of which direction to go are endless. Not only do you have plenty more mind space to think of the things you enjoy, you also have a lot more time on hand to do so. This is when an eating disorder can continue to serve a purpose; or, during blurry times, creep back in - perhaps in a different form.
I never cared to trace the root cause of my eating disorder. I knew that in getting better it was quite irrelevant. Comprehending that my genetics, coupled with a diet gone awry, in an environment that made feeding incredibly easy to miss was good enough of an explanation. I never really bought into the psychoanalysis of the illness. That said, with time, analyzing how food and weight occupied me, I forged the belief that the initial and ongoing focus filled the lack of purpose and meaning my life presented.
I didn’t really think about the void of my existence when I was busy hopping from one party to the next, from one group of friends to the next, from one destination to another, working fourteen hours a day, day in an day out. I was very occupied, but that doesn’t mean I felt challenged or fulfilled.
I believed I was happy. And I was. But coming to the realization of how empty a life it was, led me to reject all those things that purposelessly used to fill my days. Coming eye to eye with the futility of mindless hangouts, or the lack of interest my daily work brought, I not only started spending less time “out and about, socializing”, but I also resigned my job.
Good luck filling all this newly cleared up space!
#4 You gain perspective and explore new values
In today’s culture, we are fed messages that make us believe that achieving a certain body, or an idealized thinness are goals for success. But it is only in the absence of a rich life that such promises find space for focus. Lacking real purpose, we look for distraction, occupying our minds with menial targets like abiding by rules of what to eat, which exercise routines to follow, how to plan an early sleep, and all sorts of other “healthy” habits.
Absent a meaning that leads one’s existence, the objectives and rigor that come with following an acclaimed regime can serve as the direction to follow.
Even after getting better, to truly leave my eating disorder I had to look for new ways to fill up my “mind space” and time. And in order for it to work, these endeavors needed to come from the heart. For this full life, I had to realize my values, so that the way I proceeded living could bring me meaning, rather than simply present a means to occupy my day to day.
For some, carrying for a family can do it. Others, they find purpose advocating for causes that are close to their hearts. Numerous will consecrate themselves to a job they love. Some, dive into disciplines of true interest. A few plunge back into previously neglected passions. And most discover spirituality, whatever this means for the individual person.
The punch line is to shape a life that keeps feeding the soul.
I found that it is only with purpose and meaning that the empty successes of abiding by cultural trends can take on an appropriate role - one that has no influence on how we live our lives.