Exactly ten months yesterday I admitted to Eating Recovery Center in Denver, Colorado. It has been ten months of fighting (with staff, with doctors, with therapists, with just about everybody, including myself) to allow myself to recover from this eating disorder. Ten months of living out of a suitcase and being mostly away from my husband. It started with a medical hospitalization here in Athens, then fifteen weeks of inpatient treatment at ERC, several months of Partial Hospitalization (PHP) and then Intensive Outpatient (IOP) at Renfrew, then back to PHP, back to Inpatient at ERC, and again back to Renfrew for PHP. I’ve lost count of where I’ve been when. Now it’s near the end of June and I’ve just stepped down once more to IOP at Renfrew in Atlanta. When I was admitted to the hospital last August, I told school I’d be back in three weeks. Never in a million years did I see this coming, that the majority of the 33rd year of my life would be so strange and so scary. I did not, and honestly still don’t, understand how sick I had actually gotten– It’s hard to conceptualize when you think you feel okay (I’ve been told I actually didn’t feel well, but I didn’t know it). I am overwhelmingly grateful for the people that I’ve met along the way. I realize this is (hopefully) a once-in-a-lifetime chance to dig deep and have a chance at lasting recovery. I can’t say enough good things about my treatment teams at both the facilities where I’ve been and my amazing “dream team” of professionals here at home. I care deeply about all of these people, and, though I do not understand why they believe so adamantly in me, I am so overwhelmingly thankful that they do.
I did not know what I was getting into, what this would really be like. I think part of the problem is that nobody ever tells you what the middle is like. The people who talk about their recovery, at one point, were sick, dying, numb. They’ve been where I am, their lives crumbling, the pain intolerable. The hurt swallowing them as they refused another bite, sip, or slip away to purge, praying this one time, this time it will make everything ok again. But they recover! They get better. They do the work and then they are alive again, living their lives fully, enjoying little moments in every day, truly appreciating themselves despite their flaws. They realize that they are worthy just because they exist. A peace descends, and slowly but surely, they relax into their new vibrations. They want to share their story, their newfound hope and joy. And they do, oh, they do, and it is wonderful. I’ve read their books. I’ve heard them on podcasts. They’ve even come to speak to me and my fellow patients while we are in the throes of treatment, tubes up our noses and scars on our hearts. Their stories come to us when we are lying on the ground, bruised and beaten, too tired to lift our heads just one more time.
And I believe them. I believe what they tell me. Recovery is worth it. There is life on the other side of this, even if I don’t know what that looks like yet. I can see the glow about them, the light in their eyes, the exuberance they radiate as they assure us that, yes, this life is for us as well. They don’t pretend everything is perfect. They’re real, genuine. They tell us that life still happens, hurt still comes, yet throughout the good and bad, there is a mutual trust between them and their bodies. They know emotions will end, that they will not be swallowed, that they are safe. They have learned to weather the waves that everyone rides during their lifetime. But now, you see, their response is different. A bad day does not illicit the same self-hatred and sting of unworthiness that it used to. They are not either all good or all bad. They are simply having a human experience, and their worthiness no longer lies in achievements or outcomes. They have worked hard, very hard, and they have learned these things. Still, though, they don’t always remember in the heat of the moment. Nobody is perfect, nobody handles life beautifully every time. But the truths they have uncovered are there, and they can return to them. At the end of the day, they are ok. Maybe hurt or disappointed or embarrassed or grieving, but they are ok. Their foundation is stronger, and they trust it will hold when they struggle. There is nothing more to prove.
I believe in recovery, I genuinely do. But… how did they get there? How did you get there? I know the feeling of the pain and the struggle so tightly bound to your soul, and I can clearly see that the shadow of this illness no longer looks out through your eyes. Even so, I do not understand how you get from one to the other, from the ground back to your feet. I am trying so hard. I work every single day to apply what I’m learning, to change how my brain works. I understand now that it is literal re-wiring that has to happen. My eating disorder thoughts and behaviors are well-worn super-highways through my brain, and healing means hacking my way through a thicket of unknown places, attempting to create even the smallest of new pathways. And then I have to walk them over and over again, as uneven and foreign and unnatural as they are, hoping that they become bigger and stronger and that the super-highway becomes even the tiniest bit less appealing. I choose to hope that every time I challenge a thought, eat when I don’t want to, pack away another pair of size 0 shorts, that this will be worth it in the “end.” It’s exhausting, and I hate it. I want to stop doing it and to just get back on the damn familiar highway where I can shift into cruise control and move easily through my life. Just for a little while, just so I can have a rest from this work, from this constant back-and-forth in my head, to not fight so ferociously about every little thing…
How did you do this? How did you wade through this part? How did you finally pick a side for which to fight? How long did it take? What did a normal day look like for you? How did you move this understanding from your head to your heart? I could write you a well-written and fully cited dissertation on eating disorders with all the research I’ve done. But how do you actually, you know, do recovery? How did you deal with looking in the mirror and despising the figure looking back at you, the one with the round face, curves in places where there used to be edges? Did you believe people when they said that what you see isn’t real? Are you academic, relatively intelligent, like me, and wonder how the brain that has brought you this far could be lying to you now, so well and so often? Lying so convincingly that you literally see something that’s not real when you look in the mirror? When were you able to trust those around you instead of what you see with your own eyes? Were you as confused as I am? Did you struggle this much? Did you cry yourself to sleep because you can’t stand being trapped in this body but you also couldn’t fathom surviving another day of being so thirsty you literally saw stars when you stood up?
This is the part I want to hear about, but I can’t seem to find it. I have lived (am living?) the beginning, and I believe in the goal, but there’s a big, gaping hole where that messy middle happens. There are many parts of this for me to work through—my totally distorted body image, my raging perfectionism, my inability to see myself as worthwhile without a report card or chair placement. As Brene Brown would say, I have somehow bought into the ideas of “exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth.”
I am working my way through unwinding all these maddening (and yet seemingly safe) places and trying to replace them with better ways to live and experience my own life. I’m trying to change how I think, how I eat, how I think about eating. This challenge is really only getting started for me. I didn’t know how hard it would be, how long it would take, how much would need to change. But it does, and I’m doing it, albeit slowly and in a very non-linear progression. And if I’m going to do it, I’m going to make this about something bigger than me. I’m going to write about the hurt and struggle, and hopefully the joys and excitement as I see little changes begin to take hold. It’s not going to be pretty, that I can assure you. I’m probably going to continue to be angry and manipulative and fighting everyone who is trying to help me and hating my body and changing my mind about whether or not I actually want recovery in the first place about a thousand times a day. I’m probably going to continue hiding crackers in my sleeves sometimes and cover uneaten things on my plate with orange peels. And I’ll be pissed at you when you call me out. Just so you know. That’s still where I’m safe.
But you know what? In the midst of all this crap, I’m determined to be “that person” for someone else out there that is struggling. I want to say that I used to be there, and now I’m here, it’s not fun, it’s not pretty, but I believe in where I’m going. I’m not going to get there today, but I choose to hope I will someday. Come with me. You don’t have to do it alone, either. I will not let my story and my journey, this deep digging and soul-searching and generally shitty time, be for nothing. I want someday to be able to say I am worth all of this fight. Even now, though, I know that this is not for me alone. This is for something much bigger than me. I’m going to share my truth, despite my fear of your judgment, in hopes that it really does make a difference to someone, somewhere.
Please be understanding with me, friends. I am not used to being so vulnerable, even with a computer screen to protect me. I can guarantee I’ll try to hide behind some pretty snarky sarcasm and humor. I’m really good at it. You all are my friends, my professors, my elementary, middle, and high school teachers, the people I’ve looked up to, parents of the students I’ve taught, students from my classes at UGA… I like hiding behind my “I’m easily good at everything and I get good grades and play bassoon well and keep a perfect house” façade. But I’m not perfect, I’m scared a lot, I work really freaking hard to do well in school, I judge myself harshly, and I actually hate cleaning up the kitchen. I also detest brushing my teeth (but don’t worry, I do it anyway). It’s scary to put this stuff out in the universe. But it needs to be out there.
This will be the story of my messy middle. It’s time this part of the journey is shared.