When Recovery Is Unconventional

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Trigger warning: Discusses specific eating disorders; please read with care.

May 17th was the day I graduated college, and three years later would also become the day I would admit to struggling with multiple eating disorders.

I’ve lived an unconventional life, realizing over the last year that recovery is no exception. It is not by choice, but rather trying to make the best of my financial situation and the resources that I could afford. There’s a common misconception that everyone who suffers at the hands of this monster automatically goes to treatment, does what they need to do, and then comes out one hundred percent behavior free. That kind of work and healing is nothing close to linear, and to expect that (if not demand it) is completely off-the-wall.

I had no idea how to process it at first; this was another layer of stigma on top of recently prescribed medication for depression and anxiety, along with already dealing with a physical handicap. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, I allowed myself to believe that I wasn’t ‘sick’ enough, and that I didn’t need professional guidance when it came to proper nutrition and health. The battle between the ED-oriented part of my brain and the rational part raged on, with no accountability or speaking truth on a regular basis. Anorexia continued to scream that finding a job was more important than making time for a proper breakfast and lunch, sometimes even dinner. When trying to eat, I kept avoiding certain foods because of their texture or packaging. Scales and weight brought on a weird mix of feelings; automatic happiness when the number down, and a mild freak out if it went up. It told me that all I had to offer was my body, whether that related to men or general attractiveness. For most of my life, that’s all I’ve ever known.

I began attending a series of twelve step meetings at a local health center, and initially connected with a sponsor. However, there were few boundaries in place and eventually I had to put distance between us due to her projecting aggression over how I should navigate the complexities of mental illness. My experience with her left a bad mark on group meetings and mentorship, and it was difficult to be vulnerable without the fear of being judged or criticized for not getting help ‘the right way.’ For a while, I stopped going all together.

Life ebbed and flowed, and the disorders seemed to be buried under work and weekend activities. Until mid-March, when I came home from a lackluster date and began using behaviors. I’d had the occasional slip up, but I knew it was bad this time around because I didn’t care what happened, or where it would lead to after.

It was a full-blown relapse.

It felt like a setback at first, but in hindsight it was more of a come-through. I was tired of caving into the pressure of putting up and shutting up, of putting off doing what was necessary because not everyone around me understood it. Church is great, and therapy is wonderful, but oversimplifying and relying on sheer willpower will only carry me so far. In other words, I can’t do this all by myself, and I need help from a specialist who’s trained to go up against this toxic disease.

But that’s just the physical aspect of it, and the psychological is just as important: practicing self-compassion is a lot more feasible than trying to fully love what you’ve been told to hate or change. Letting go of perfectionism and no longer taking responsibility for the actions or behaviors of others.

Recovery at its core is really the practice of imperfection in the journey of getting it right. And the more anyone tries to fit into the ideals of recovery, the less like they’ll fully recover.

There’s no timeline, and getting better is more of a lifestyle then a destination. I don’t get triggered easily, but the major ones can be relentless; that means I engage differently with alcohol, busyness, relationships, and even sex. If I sense that any part of me has to be compromised or that my body becomes the central focus, I’m not going to go there. There is such a thing as too much compassion (or trying to make something work) and not enough boundaries. If it means I’m ‘boring’ or ‘selfish,’ so be it.  Trying not to be either was how I got sick in the first place.

It’s literally all one day at a time. And if anyone asks me how long or when, I’m perfectly fine with saying I don’t know

ldn’t be here without my support system, those that walk alongside me and sit with me in the uncertainty, rather than try to fix me or sweep the issue under the rug. I can only imagine how hard it is to be a parent, friend, spouse, or partner in this kind of situation, and feel helpless along with it. But there’s always something you can do, whether it’s affirmation of who they are (and whose they are), educating yourself about eating disorders, attending meetings or appointments, or doing something with them that makes them happy. It feels good when a loved one tells me that they’re proud of me, or is willing to literally hold me through the physical discomfort of trying to eat a full meal. It’s better to ask question than make assumptions, and please don’t ever assume what they need or don’t need.

Recently, I went to Florida for the first time in over a decade, and wanted to celebrate the one year mark at Disney World. I was a bit of a pain in the ass about it for most of the week, but I didn’t want to come right out and say why it was so important to me. Eventually we made it to the Magic Kingdom fireworks, and I quietly cried tears of joy and gratitude. I’m still working on doing things for myself, even at the risk of being told no or looked down on for it.

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When I’m ready and strong enough, I’d like to use my writing to advocate for those in unique situations, as I’ve been. We talk about overcoming stigma, how to go about getting the necessary help, and how to keep pursuing it even if you don’t have the best insurance coverage or have to travel a good distance. It’s daunting and overwhelming, and part of me still digs my heels in when I think about the steps I’ll have to take, and what I have yet to go through.

A friend once told me that fire softens steel, but then it comes back stronger. He said that was me as a whole, and I choose to hold onto that. Recovery is flexible, and that’s what ultimately makes it possible.

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