Recovery is a minefield of the unknown; it is unpredictable, frightening and very very rocky. Recovery is also a different route for each individual and no one follows the same path. Likewise, there are no road signs to show the right way. If only recovery was plain sailing and there were step by step rules to follow, but there isn’t so you’re just going to have to take the plunge and take each step at a time encountering all sorts of crossroads. No matter how far in recovery you are there are always going to be moments when things don’t seem to be going to plan. There is no manual to recovery so the expectation that things must improve the longer you are in treatment is irrelevant. Sure, things improve slowly over time but there are certain days or weeks where you feel as though you are going backwards and these are very unpredictable and totally normal, I promise.
Expectation vs reality
Recovery from eating disorders (and any other psychological illness) is a process that is far from smooth. People assume that once the visible signs (i.e weight and food) appear healthy and normal then they are cured from their eating disorder when in actual fact they will most likely be struggling far more. The real issues lie far deeper than what is on the plate, so to speak. When someone displays such control over their food and exercise then I can imagine they are sailing by because they are using eating disorder (ED) behaviours to mask the difficult issues rather than dealing with them. The most difficult part is when the underlying issues are brought to the surface and the usual ‘coping mechanisms’ can no longer be used – this usually happens during the middle of recovery.
This is currently the phase I stand in and it is absolutely S**T! Gaining your physical health is the first priority when beginning your recovery so a meal plan and goals around eating are put in place. Now that I have more or less overcome the concerns over food and exercise I am faced with the underlying issues that were the real problem all along. I now have to face these without restricting food, taking laxatives or going for long runs. I would honestly say that I am struggling more now than when I was severely underweight as I can now feel emotions as opposed to numbing them with severe hunger. In fairness, I don’t want to return to my old habits because I enjoy having energy and eating with friends and dare I say it…I love food. I am aware that using my ED behaviours, which was my default, is detrimental to my health yet, it is very unnerving knowing that I am faced with difficult emotions and unpredictable moments of despair at any second. My issues are still the same as they were a year ago but the difference is I am physically well and not using my old ways to cope. Being physically healthy is no indication that I am fully recovered because in my opinion the hard work starts here. It was these difficult thoughts and emotions that led to a diagnosis of anorexia in the first place so they aren’t going to magically disappear without me working on them with the absence of ED behaviours. It isn’t nice but who said recovery was easy? Working through the hard times and feeling those difficult emotions are the only way to recovery.
Behind the mask
Psychological illness such as anxiety and depression are often masked by behaviours such as heavy drinking, drug abuse, fixation on phobias and obsessions. This is where we enter the sub contexts of anxiety and depressive disorders such as addictions and eating disorders where specific treatment can be applied to the individual ensuring a more effective recovery. Anxiety and depression create feelings of instability regarding a person’s emotions, causing them to seek control through certain unhelpful and damaging behaviours. For example, food is a part of life that we have full control over. Eating disorders develop because the person will channel their feelings they can’t control through what they eat as a way to manage emotions. Therefore, once a person has tackled the ‘visible’ behaviour such as food restriction or drug abuse, they will be faced with the underlying difficulties that made them unwell in the first place. This particular phase of vulnerability is where you feel lost and out of control.
Beneath the sea level
Think of recovery like an iceberg: The tip of the iceberg is what is visible to everyone, for example, being very underweight or drinking to oblivion. Under the sea level lies a mammoth area of the iceberg that people can’t see and this represents all the underlying issues and thoughts behind the illness.
We shouldn’t in anyway assume we know everything about a person from the way they look. As a society we associate mental illness as being an invisible disease, which is true regarding you don’t judge from the person’s actions or the ‘tip of the iceberg’ as it were. On the other hand, there are physical illnesses that are also invisible regarding what you see on the outside – a CT scan might say differently. Belittling someone’s struggles because you can’t physically see them is unacceptable and the degree of difficulties can’t be understood unless you are going through it. When my friends with eating disorders describe to me their issues, I can only relate drawing on my own experiences. However, I will never have a true understanding as to what level it affects them as each illness is unique to the individual, even though it is the same diagnosis possessing the same label. Invalidating a person’s struggles can encourage them to do more harm, such as, telling someone with anorexia that they don’t ‘look’ like they have anorexia (not skinny enough) – this may cause them to spiral into an episode of starvation as they want their suffering to feel validated and losing weight is the only way to communicate that.
Just keep going
Slowly but surely things will get better, so I’m told. It’s a rocky road but we shouldn’t be put off by the uncertainty and gruelling stages that test us in the middle of recovery. It is by far the worst part as you aren’t drawing on your worst behaviours that numb the feelings that felt unmanageable before. It takes patience and resilience but they are manageable. Instead you are learning helpful techniques that aren’t damaging to your health and can be used again and again in the future. Establishing the correct coping mechanisms now means you will be prepared for anything that comes your way and not at the cost of your health. With time and practice and plenty of self compassion the road will become smoother and you will become stronger.
My favourite book as a child was ‘We’re Going On A Bear Hunt’ by Michael Rosen,
“We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.
We’ve got to go through it!”
…And this is recovery!