The beginnings of a hat I knit. I’m known for knitting hats. I love knitting hats. But this one is special. This one was the first time I decided to tackle a colorwork pattern in the body of the hat. Color work has scared me off in the past. This hat, however, turned out pretty awesome!
As I’ve journeyed on this path of recovery, I’ve tackled a lot of different things, things I wouldn’t have been able to handle while sick. Like all of life, it has been a journey, with both ups and downs. And now I have something new to tackle. Something that makes me a little nervous.
Again, I am almost 100% confident in my solid, forever recovery. But now I’m faced with the prospect of needing to go on a special elimination diet to try to tackle not only some GI issues, but some joint issues as well.
The idea of keeping track of what I eat, writing it down, and of not being able to eat certain foods is making me nervous. It’s not like I think I can’t do it. If anything, I know all too well that I can succeed too much. I have this slightly obsessive nature, but this is something I do NOT want to get re-obsessed about. So I am not starting the elimination diet until the next time I see my therapist and share all of my fears.
I need to not call it a diet, or even a meal plan. Those two words have way too much meaning attached to them. And “elimination” doesn’t have many positive associations either. As it was pointed out, I am a manipulator of words (English major). So I need to retrain my vocab.
I am following a healthy plan in order to heal my body. And I know it’s healthy. And I know it may play a part in healing my body. And I know I have some awesome people supporting me now. But I’m still nervous. I know my mind and what it can do. I know how much I like keeping lists and recording things.
I need to remember that these 9 years of solid recovery were real. They are real. They will continue.
It’s been awhile. That’s pretty simple to say, but it doesn’t really do these previous several months much justice. I’ve been aware I hadn’t posted in a long long time, and I (of course) felt guilty for that. But as one friend has said about her own life, “I am learning to trust myself.” This could have been my motto for these months of absence, even though I didn’t know I was learning anything at all.
I finished my first semester at SUNYBroome, and it was awesome. I happened to join an office of creative, hilarious, sarcastic, and empathetic fellow professors. We’re all a little crazy from time to time, and I’m learning that’s actually quite normal. During the winter, I slipped back into another depressive episode, but my treatment team here is made up of some spectacular people, and I weathered it better than I ever have in the past, and we began climbing back out of the depression, with me still teaching and officiating track and field and knitting and maintaining friendships. And learning that my colleagues are some of the most supportive people ever.
On February 28, 2016, I celebrated my two year mark of absolutely no self-harming behavior. There were times I didn’t think I’d make it, but I did, and I am damn proud of that time. No matter what happens in the future, I know I have two years inside of me and that I can keep going.
Speaking of the future, and of the past, I’ve been attempting to finally write the conclusion to my memoir. Honestly, I thought the conclusion would, I don’t know, just appear or something. Make itself known. The “aha moment” would fall upon me and I could finally state exactly all I had learned from my journey and write with confidence about how I never ever think about me as an anorexic. But all of this would be a lie.
The truth? Conclusions don’t just happen. And a conclusion doesn’t mean “The End.” I have no idea what 10 years from now will bring and what I will think when I look back on my past. But I do know what I think now. I will never regret recovery. I have a life I love, a life only possible because I chose to recover. I’d be lying, however, if I claimed not to miss it. I don’t miss the starvation, the weight loss, the health problems, the sickly pallor, or the isolation. But sometimes, I do miss that “out”, that “escape”, that special numbness that comes with having no energy to feel. Sometimes, I miss knowing that “all” I would have to do is lose X amount of weight and claim X behaviors, and I could go back in the hospital for a month. Sounds sucky, I know, but I’m still getting used to The Real World and being present in it all the time. Let’s face it: The Real World is an exhausting, scary place sometimes. Who doesn’t want to escape it from time to time?
While it is tempting to escape, to numb myself out, I know I don’t really want that. Again, I have a life I love–most of the time. There are days from hell. Periods of time from hell. But they have always passed. Eventually. And I’m learning that there are other people out there who also have those days from hell and they support me and I support them and, together, we do more than just survive. We live.
I am grateful for now. I have a doctor I trust who also trusts me and listens to me. I am working with a therapist who believes in me and encourages me to believe in myself and allows me to ask questions–about myself, the world, my life, his thoughts, and therapy in general. I feel freer than ever before to be myself. And I truly am learning to like that person.
So now that I can say I have a clear idea of my conclusion, I feel more confident saying that I am once again ready to continue here.
I have always been an all or nothing girl. My friends know this. My family knows this. My teachers have always known this. My coaches loved this. If I’m going to play Field Hockey, I am going to give it every little ounce of my self that I can. Same with school. Same with life. I don’t believe in doing things half-heartedly.
I spent Thanksgiving with awesome friends who have become family over the years. These people have known me for almost twenty years. I am still sometimes amazed that my friend and I survived these twenty years and that I feel as comfortable in her presence as I did way back then, no matter how much time passes between visits. I have gained friends and family through this one person, another thing I thought I was incapable of.
In the car home, I was listening to Melissa Ferrick, specifically to her song, “Closer,” which you can listen to on her Facebook page. Singing along as I always do when I drive, I sang the words (forgive me for quoting an entire chorus):
“But with every little bang, every little push
Every little step I take, I get closer
A second at a time, usin’ my breath
Maybe it’s true I’ve got a fear of success
But with every little bang, every little push
Every little step I take
I’m gettin’ closer
I’m gettin’ closer”
And I realized–this is true. And I realized–it’s easy for me to be disappointed in this.
When I was young, I must have seen a movie or show with a professor sitting in his or her office–a big, ornate desk and walls lined with shelves full of books–and I knew that was what I wanted. I really had no idea what a professor was or what it entailed, but I wanted to be one.
It took awhile for me to accept this. I have a Bachelor’s in music; I finished it because it was what people expected me to do. Later, I went back for a second Bachelor’s–this time in English. It was home. I went on and earned my MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing at American University, and there really was no option in my mind about my last step: get my PhD. So I moved to Missouri, fully intent on getting that PhD. I thankfully discovered that I love being in front of a classroom. And I love being a student. I think my dream job right now would be to get paid to sit in a library (a very big library) and do research and write. Full time.
I finished my coursework at Mizzou. I knew what I was doing my critical dissertation on. I had my comps list. I knew what I wanted to do for my creative dissertation. And then I realized I couldn’t. I could teach. I could be a student. I could not do both at the same time, and in order to get my PhD, I would have to teach while reading and researching and writing and meeting with my committee and turning out drafts by certain dates and so much more. And I couldn’t do it. At least, I couldn’t do it and maintain any semblance of mental health at the same time.
In the end, my mental health prevailed, and I am now a professor–an adjunct, but my dream is to still be a full-time professor.
So. I certainly am closer. Especially when I look back two years ago, when life started falling apart to a degree I can’t put into words. I took three semesters off of teaching. This semester I am teaching three sections, and I am loving being back in the classroom on a college campus. It has been difficult to restrain myself at times–to not join committees, to not accept speaking engagements, to not push myself into the ground every single night.
It has also been difficult. To be on a college campus and not be working toward my PhD. To know that my PhD is not going to happen. I have always assumed I’d have a PhD. And yes, I still dream of going back and earning one. I get as far as looking at universities’ programs. I feel guilty when I am on Facebook when I see my friends post about their dissertations and their job searches and their publications because that should have been me. That could have been me, if I hadn’t fucked up so bad, if I hadn’t disappointed everyone around me.
I know a PhD is not in my future. I still want one. But I also realize that I need to accept and rejoice in the fact that I am a professor, in a field I love. I am writing again. I am researching again. Eighteen months ago, that didn’t seem possible. But here I am. Closer. But not quite there.
As I continue studying mindfulness and practicing meditation, acceptance keeps rearing its head. I have (mostly) accepted the Bipolar I diagnosis. I have (mostly) accepted my cardiac diagnosis. I can even joke about both of those. I know I haven’t accepted my “academic failure” aka my “non-PhD.” The fact that I still see it as a failure says a great deal.
But I am going to continue to work on this. I had a life planned out for me. Maybe, however, I need to accept that it wasn’t the life I was supposed to live. I still get to discover that.
I recently started enjoying the memories app on facebook. This was one of my memories, from five years ago. Eating disorder wise, I had been in full recovery for eight years. Depression wise? I was entering what would become the most hellish depressive episode ever, triggered by everything going on with my heart–all things I couldn’t grasp on an intellectual level.
Some of these things are still the same.
A lot of these things are different now, and it’s nice to be able to see and acknowledge those changes–and to take pride in the work it took to make those changes.
And NONE of the changes listed could have been possible without recovery. Eating disorders are never your friends, and they will never “work for you.” They are never “the best option for now.” They kill. They steal lives. They hurt the survivors. You will lose more than you ever thought possible.
But recovery is possible. You have the power to make it happen.
TEN things you wish you could say to ten different people right now:
1. You’re not the same person as you were two years ago. I liked that person better.
2. I wish you would have let me change.
3. I do not understand your priorities anymore. 4. I wish I could say something, anything, that would do this justice.
5. Sometimes I hate you and sometimes I can’t forgive you.
6. I see myself in you and am powerless to stop the train from derailing.
7. I wish you knew how much I loved you, and what I meant when I said that.
8. You and I are no good apart.
9. If I could tell you how much you’ve let me down, I fear that no one would ever look at me the same. 10. I know I’m not good enough for you.
I’ve healed some relationships. I’ve walked away from others. I’ve watched other people change and grow and heal. And most importantly, I know I’ll never be good enough for some people–and I don’t really give a damn, because I’m good enough for ME.
NINE things about yourself:
1. I keep point shoes in vases.
2. I have a model of the human heart on my bookshelf.
3. I am more terrified of living like this than I am of dying. 4. Each day, I wake up with this huge, ominous question mark over my head and I’m not sure how long I can take it. 5. I don’t think I’m supposed to be here.
6. I don’t know where I’m supposed to be.
7. I will never measure up.
8. I treasure silence.
9. Translating Latin is the only escape I have right now.
The model of the human heart is on my shelf, knocked over weekly by Camena. I crossed off number 3 because although I am still scared of “living like this,” I have learned that I can live like this–fully live. I know I can take it, and I know I’m supposed to be here right now. I don’t know if this is where I’ll stay, but I’m thinking it will be. I know I will never measure up–no one ever does, really, because it’s called Being Human. I still like to translate Latin, but I have a lot more healthy ways of escaping than any other point in my life.
EIGHT ways to win your heart:
1. Don’t laugh at my fears.
2. Treasure silence as much as I do.
3. Don’t waste money on jewelry when there are thousands of books to be devoured.
4. Give me flowers. One at a time. On random days.
5. No pressure.
6. If I tell you a song reminds me of you, listen to it.
7. Believe me.
8. Send me a poem in the mail. Snail mail, that is.
These are all the same.
SEVEN things that cross your mind frequently:
1. I hate this.
2. I can’t do this. 3. I wish I could leave. 4. I hate my heart.
5. This was not supposed to turn out this way.
There are still things I hate, but my heart is not one of them. My heart can make me sad and bitter and can make me grieve at time, but I don’t hate it. And maybe things weren’t supposed to turn out this way, but that doesn’t mean that Someday can’t happen.
SIX things you do before you fall asleep:
2. Some form of devotional.
3. Listen to music.
4. If I can, take a hot hot hot bath.
5. Curl up with my cats.
6. have a cup of hot decaf coffee.
Still a journaler–you will never be able to take that away from me! My spirituality is still important, as it always will be. I can’t take a hot bath here because we have no drain plug that fits :( And I’ve become a tea snob in the previous five years, and my nightly cup of tea requires thought.
FIVE people who mean a lot to you.
3. Neesha & Dustin (they count as one)
These people are still important to me, even if some are no longer part of my life. I’m proud to say that I’ve been able to add more people to this list, which was difficult to come up with five years ago.
FOUR things you’re wearing right now:
1. Yoga pants 2. Camisole 3. Keeping the Beat T shirt
4. MedicAlert Bracelet
I will always wear my MedicAlert bracelet. It does make me feel somewhat safer. And I still do wear yoga pants and all that, but right now I still have on my bathrobe and PJs.
THREE songs that you listen to often: (recently)
1. Dublin Boys
2. Bend Before It Breaks
I’d have to say these three songs are still prominent in my playlist. “More Than Ordinary” has been my most recent obsession.
TWO things you want to do before you die:
1. Publish my two books
2. Not have another sudden cardiac death. That kind of sucked.
Yeah, so both of these are still the same!
1) I am drowning.
Maybe I don’t feel like I am always on solid ground, but I have learned that it’s my choice to be on solid ground, and that there are always people around me willing to help that happen.
Here’s another post where I respond to someone else’s work. Allison Epstein recently wrote “Why I Have No Intention of Loving My Body” for an online publication. The title itself intrigued me. As someone in recovery from anorexia, I have had the words “Love Your Body” shoved down my throat for over a decade. I haven’t always reacted well.
I do agree with Epstein’s argument that the “Love Your Body” campaign has turned into just one more way for certain industries–fashion and publishing come to mind–to make money. Not just among people struggling with eating disorders, but for anyone in a society that is programmed (due to fashion and publishing industries) to see only a certain kind of body as worthy or beautiful.
Speaking as someone who has recovered from an eating disorder and struggled with intense shame surrounding my body, I don’t want to proclaim that I have no intention at all of ever loving my body. Loving my body is an ideal that I work towards, and I even have days when it’s true. But to be honest, I haven’t yet reached a transcendent point in recovery where I can say without any hesitation that I love my body with all my heart and soul and always will.
But those of us who have sought treatment for an eating disorder or body dysmorphic disorder, we are told that we must love our bodies in order to recover. At the beginning of my recovery, I was so far away from loving myself that the whole concept seemed impossible. Which must mean recovery is impossible. Or so I was made to feel. In painting across my body’s outline on a piece of paper, I could not draw butterflies and suns and rainbows or symbols of peace and strength. I could draw angry red scribbles as I tried to destroy my image. I was fully weight restored, eating intuitively, and not over-exercising. All awesome things to have accomplished. But every time someone tried to simple tell me to love my body, I felt as if those things didn’t matter for much since I still kinda hated my body. And I really did try to “just love my body,” but I think most of you know it doesn’t work that way.
Here’s how things worked for me. During my first year of recovery, I focused on intuitive eating and I learned how to listen to my body and respond appropriately. Because of the severity of the over-exercise, I agreed to one year exercise free–no running, no yoga, no speed walking, no biking, no weights. Nothing. The idea was to “reset” my relationship with exercise. I still really couldn’t have cared less for my body.
So during the second year of recovery, I had a pretty good handle on intuitive eating and no longer consulted a nutritionist and didn’t see my doctor every week “just to make sure.” I gradually reintroduced exercise into my life style. i did not let myself keep a schedule, because in the past, that only led to obsessive thoughts. Instead, I woke up and thought, “What would I like to do today? Run or do yoga?” It was through yoga that I released a great amount of hatred toward my body. On the mat, I realized that even though I didn’t have the same super-athletic body I had while I was an All American in Track and Field, my body could do some awesome things. I’m not extremely flexible, but I realized I was doing poses a lot of people couldn’t, and I could hold poses for a significant amount of time. My time on the mat gave me the opportunity to appreciate the body for everything it could do for me, just as it is in that moment. I didn’t need to improve upon it or make it stronger.
But did you note the language I just used? I used “it” instead of “my.” I still saw myself as separate from my body. My body was this appendage that was necessary for me to exist, so I had to put up with it. Not only did I continue practicing yoga, I began practicing slower, gentler forms of yoga than I was accustomed to. While I was in a pose, I listened to what my body was telling me, something I’d later call mindfulness. My body could tell me where I was sore or if I was tired and needed rest. My body could also tell me if I was stressed emotionally, or angry, or overwhelmed with sadness. This was when I began to learn to accept my body, and I learned to say that it was indeed my body.
Then I began learning more about mindfulness, which, to be honest, terrified me in the beginning. Body scans could cause nightmares. Very slowly, however, I learned to sit in my body, to be still in my body, and to be present in my body. I am still beginning my journey of mindfulness, but over the previous few years, I have moved from a tolerance of my body to an appreciation of my body.
I admit, I do not wake up in the morning filled with love and awe for my body. But neither do I wake up hating my body and dreading the sight of it. There are days when I can appreciate my body just as it is, but there are more days when I still appreciate my body for what it can do for me. This does not take away from my recovery. If anything, the fact that I can acknowledge the different stages of body awareness is a huge accomplishment.
This body is mine. I treat it well and take care of it. I listen to its needs and wants and respond appropriately. I could not do any of this while I was sick. I think that if we expect people to jump from intense self-hatred to all-encompassing love of the body, we put too much pressure on them. Recovery is not a one-day process, and we should not expect sufferers to “just get over it” as soon as they maintain weight or maintain healthy behaviors. Our bodies carried heavy loads for such a long time, and we need to give them the grace and patience to heal.
I came across Seven Things to Remember During Eating Disorder Recovery, and I encourage you to read it if you are recovering from an eating disorder, an addiction, any mental illness, or if you are recovering and having one of those days when you doubt everything.
I, of course, have some things I want to add. Yes; it was the hardest thing I have ever done, and my even on my bad days I remember the hell of life with an eating disorder.
In my early recovery, yes, there were hard days. Days when I made crappy choices. Bad body image days. Falling back on old habits. It is a process of recovery, because you learn that one day, one binge, one purge does not define you. You are now aware that maybe that wasn’t the best, and you are able to stop, look around you, and keep moving forward. It doesn’t matter if you have a few of these days. What matters is when you choose to make better choices for yourself.
But I don’t want people to think this is it. That recovery will always mean hard days. Recovery looks different for every person, though. I no longer have panic attacks at the thought of eating cupcakes. I don’t ever wish I could go back there. Ever. I eat intuitively. I listen to my body and go for walks when my body feels well, and I take naps when my body is sore. I’m pretty sure men and women all have days when we look in the mirror and are disappointed or even crushed, but those thoughts are no longer tied to my self-worth and don’t weigh me down during the day. My eating disorder is gone. Gone. Read my blog and you’ll discover I have plenty of bad days, but they no longer have anything to do with food or size or exercise.
Repairing your relationship with food does take time. You’ll have a lot of relationships to repair. My relationship with exercise was especially difficult, and I was afraid I would never enjoy exercise again, that it would always be laced with hatred and anger and self-loathing. You will also have to repair actual relationships with actual people. Sometimes, you will come across relationships that cannot be healed. This is okay. You will likely need to end a relationship or two if you find the other person is pulling you toward the eating disorder. This is a healthy decision.
And yes, remind yourself of where you were then and where you are now, be it the day you choose to start recovery or a week into the journey or a month or five years. Remember everything you held yourself back from, and celebrate your strength and ability and courage of today.
There’s really no meaning to this picture. I have a clear glass head, and I put a black wig on her, and periodically use it to display hats I’ve made and to creep some people out. But I have no main topic today, just a mish mash of what’s been in my head lately. Perhaps one of my readers has a better picture?
I am doing an Out of the Darkness Community Walk for suicide awareness on September 12. These are run by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. I am close to my fundraising goal, and would really like to go over my goal, being the over-achiever I am. You can help me here. Five dollars means that more people can be helped. If you are in the area and would like to walk with me, that would be awesome. This is an extremely important subject for me. I am a survivor of suicide, and I have lost family and friends to suicide. You can read more about my story here. I am mentioning all this here because it is absolutely necessary that our society talks openly about suicide and mental illness in general. I remember being in high school and feeling like I was somehow broken because I had all of these bad thoughts that no one else had. Except I know now that I wasn’t alone back then. But mental health was not brought up in schools, so we were not encouraged to talk about it. I was terrified to talk about it. But imagine if we do talk about it in junior highs and high schools. Imagine that one student in the classroom who has felt alone and broken, and then s/he hears that there are other people out there who struggle with the same types of thoughts, and then s/he decides to talk to someone, and then s/he gets help early, and then s/he may never attempt suicide at all. That is why when I got my semi-colon tattoo, I put it on my wrist. Not only is it easily visible to me, but it is easily visible to everyone else. I hope people will ask me about it.
I hope my students will ask about it. I will head back to the classroom this semester and teach eager college students about writing essays. When I first began teaching in 2008, I spent a great deal of time wondering if I should wear long sleeves to cover up my scars from years of self-harm. But I decided that, in my own little way, I wanted to show people I was not ashamed of my past. And because of that decision, I have had multiple students approach me after class or via email about my scars–and about their own, be them external or internal. Students who felt alone and scared and didn’t know where to go for help. I have been able to direct students to the university’s health center, mental health center, and various treatment centers. I have witnessed them grow and struggle and change, and I still tear up when I think of some of them. Even if they didn’t take me up on the offer to walk them over to the mental health center, and even if they didn’t go at all, I put the idea in their heads that the life they were living could be left behind and a new life could begin.
If students ask why I took a year off of teaching, I will tell them. If I had had major surgery, there would be no shame in needing time to heal. There is no shame in needing time to heal from a serious depressive episode either. It took me time to come around to that belief, and I hated running into people in my small hometown and having them ask, “So what are you doing these days?” I felt ashamed for not being a productive member of society. But I now realize that if I had tried to work last fall or last spring, I would not have been an effective teacher, and I might not have been physically capable of meeting all of my responsibilities. Of course, I am nervous about this semester, but I am no longer ashamed of the time it took to get me here.
I want that message to spread. Healing is possible, and it is worth the time and energy involved. I realize that due to the cyclical nature of Bipolar I, I will likely need time to heal again. But I also can’t plan my life around that fear. Maybe my career in academia won’t be as I originally pictured it years ago, but I’m not the same person I was years ago. I’ve changed, I’ve adapted, and I’m ready to continue seeing my dream come true.
This wasn’t as mish-mashy as I thought it would be, but I still have no idea for a good photo.
I’ve been noticing a lot of blogs with titles like “10 things I would tell my former self”–usually the “former self” is specified further with “anorexic,” “addict,” “depressed,” “medicated,” and other adjectives. The lists are poignant, and often reveal more about the process of recovery than anything else, and a lot of them are universal truths we can all nod our heads at. I wish I could go back and tell my former anorexic self a few things, but I can’t. People did often tell me those things, and I just didn’t listen or believe them.
I would like to go back and ask myself a few questions. Things I could have pondered, if I had been open to doing so. I would have given myself journaling assignments! I have always preferred writing about something before speaking about it.
1. What do you want to be when you grow up?
We’re all asked this, and I journaled about this question all the time, and my answers morphed as I grew older, but I loved the world of academia and always say myself in an antiquated office with lots of books and a big, ornate desk and fancy chair. And a patterned rug. I wasn’t sure what would go on in the office, but I wanted to be in that office. The worlds of teaching and writing and reading smushed themselves together, and I wanted to be an English Professor.
Someone did ask me a variation of this question that started me thinking, and this did lead to change on my part. My first semester at my MFA program, I couldn’t decide if I should go into treatment or not. I was debating this with one of my professors (whose office was nothing like the one in my dreams), and she asked me why I wouldn’t just go get help. And I told her that I was a graduate student and couldn’t. (My logic skills never were that great.) But she just looked at me and told me I wasn’t a grad student. Not really. I came to class and read and wrote, yes. All while obsessing over food and exercise. I didn’t socialize. I hadn’t gotten to know my peers. I hadn’t explored the city I was living in. I was isolated in my sick world and turning in sub-par papers.
I did go to treatment, and I learned that you could be a graduate student while seeking help for an eating disorder, but you couldn’t be an anorexic while being an effective graduate student. Maybe I was ready to listen to that professor then, and I wouldn’t have been five years prior. But what if someone had asked me–this goal-oriented overachiever–if I wouldn’t be able to be who I wanted to be if I weren’t anorexic?
2. What is your picture of a perfect life?
I would have had myself write down every little detail, from my job to my location to my friends to my family to my church to my living quarters to my cats to my hobbies to my daily routines. Ev-er-y thing written out. A story book world that I created all about me. All of my dreams. All combined.
3. Why don’t you want that life?
“Of course I want that life!” I would have shouted. And then I would have asked, “Then why don’t you have it? Why don’t you make it happen?” Eventually, along my recovery journey, I would ask myself these questions. I’m still waiting for the perfect happy-ever-after fairytale, but I do realize that I have more of a chance of reaching that place now than when I was sick.
Question 3 would lead directly to number 4: What are you afraid of?
Many people mistakenly believe eating disorders are about food and size. But although I had a perfect life pictured in my head, and even though I had was given opportunities to make that life happen, something held me back. Basically, the answer was fear. I was afraid of being hurt. I was afraid of failure. I was afraid of what success meant. I was afraid of people taking advantage of me. I was afraid of being disappointed. I was afraid of disappointing others. I was afraid of imperfection. I was afraid of anything I wasn’t familiar with that I could not control. Therefore, it was easier to live in a world I created and controlled.
5. How is that working out for you?
Could I have even answered this question then? Everything I wanted out of life was not possible because of the anorexia. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t safe. I was alone.
But I was still scared. At least I knew my current surroundings. Sure, I could dream up a perfect life, but I had no reason to believe it was even possible.
People kept telling me that I could “learn how to manage this” and that “things would get better” but they offered no proof, just vague motivational lines of hope and faith. I wanted, I needed, to see results. After a few years, I did meet someone who had that proof of recovery. And then I met a couple other people whose results matched my dreams. Eventually, I came to believe I could do the same. And then I became part of that network of recovered individuals who want to let people know that full recovery is possible.
We have enough media stories about the hell of eating disorders. We have blogging communities devoted to sharing specifics of eating disorders. We have online forums for people to compare symptoms. News articles focusing on recovery that first must rehash all the trauma–complete with pictures–before summing up the “things are better now” conclusion in a nice succinct paragraph.
We need to hear the stories of eating disorder sufferers, yes. More importantly, however, we need to hear the stories of recovery: not just the fact that someone recovered, but how they did so. We need stories that provide a road map to recovery, not a road map to illness.
Reading around the internet today, I came across A Disordered World, and the home page drew me in. A site about experiencing mental illness and accessing treatment. I read a lot of passion in this site, and I believe this author’s story is one of the stories that need to be told. But it’s only one of the stories, and the first article and second article in a series investigating eating disorder treatment centers raised a lot of red flags for me.
Let me be clear: It is not my intention to nullify this author or to negate her personal experience, but to draw attention to another point of view. I do think the “investigation” is flawed because it’s an openly biased position with no acknowledgment of any other view. This worries me, because I am afraid that people would look at this site and use it as justification for not seeking treatment.
I also support anyone who suffers outright abuse at a treatment center and speaks out, but I won’t say that the entire treatment system is flawed and incompetent.
If you have an eating disorder, are suffering, and are scared, please seek appropriate treatment.
I’ve been in treatment for anorexia multiple times: Inpatient, Partial, IOP, and outpatient group therapy. I was labelled as “treatment resistant.” Maybe those are harsh terms that bias providers against potential clients, but using the word “noncompliant” only puts a prettier spin on things; it doesn’t erase the fact that in the beginning of my eating disorder, I resisted treatment. I played the hospital’s games and got myself discharged and went back to the eating disorder. I certainly am thankful there were people in my life that “did this” to me. I would not be alive if people had not intervened and forced me into treatment. Did I benefit emotionally, or did I come to any understanding about why I suffered from an eating disorder? No. But I am alive today because of the NG Tube inserted against my will. These hospitalizations bought me time. I certainly didn’t enjoy them, but I don’t consider them failed experiences.
Eating disorder treatment centers all have rules, and usually they are pretty strict rules. A lot of the times, it’s because if those rules weren’t in place, clients would continue to use eating disordered behaviors. So yes, there are meal requirements. Early in my treatment, I learned to just play along and clear my plate and I could go home earlier. When I made my decision that recovery was my only option, I didn’t just “play along.” I cried at my first dinner and could only manage a few bites. I believe the first few meals went along the same lines. And because I wasn’t following protocol–by refusing meals and refusing supplements and, therefore, not gaining any weight–there were repercussions. At the time, I would have cursed the entire facility and staff and anyone who stepped into my field of vision, and I would have blamed everyone but myself. But even though I was noncompliant, my psychiatrist and my therapist were supportive and encouraging. It’s not like I was the first anorexic they saw who didn’t want to eat. Eventually, I was able to work up to my full meal plan and supplements, but it took a couple of weeks.
I felt like I “should be trying harder” and that I should “just suck it up and deal” and that “it was all my fault anyway.” One of my proficiencies is accepting guilt for almost anything possible. But for the first time in treatment, I was being open and honest and showing my true fears surrounding recovery, and I needed that. Because then, when I chose to eat a couple more bites of food at one meal, it was a personal accomplishment and not just “doing it because I have to.”
I don’t think my experience is unique. I know many other women and men have experienced similar journeys as mine. Relapse after treatment is not unusual, but it does not mean treatment failed. Eating disorders are insidious illnesses; they take over an entire personality. Recovery is learning who you were to begin with, and who you want to become. And although it’s cliche, journeys usually involve some stumbles along the way, even as overall progress is being made.
I question writing that offers a blanket statement that inpatient facilities are not the most effective way to treat eating disorders. (Have we come up with THE effective way to treat EDs yet?) That doesn’t mean they’re not effective at all. In an ideal world, people with eating disorders would get help before they required inpatient care and, therefore, immediately benefit from outpatient modes of therapy. In an ideal world, insurance would pay for these outpatient modes of therapy, but a significant majority of individuals are faced with the either/or decision of inpatient treatment versus once a week sessions with a therapist. Yes, you can appeal your insurance company, but that takes a great deal of time and energy. At the time I decided I was going to recover, no matter what, I did not have the time or energy to appeal, and I didn’t have anyone in a position to call the insurance company for me.
I needed the inpatient treatment. Because I was noncompliant by nature. I needed the strict rules and consequences to get me through the initial stages of intense fear. I would not have benefited from a partial program at first. After six weeks of inpatient care, I did step down to their partial program, but I was ready for it then. It was still scary and difficult, but I had also developed some faith in myself by that point.
I state on my blog that I do not recommend what type of treatment to seek. We are all individuals, and have our own unique sets of needs and desires and tendencies and fears. So I ask you not to write off a form of treatment because it wasn’t successful for some. If we based decisions on that belief, every single treatment option would be scratched from the books. I know people who have recovered fully using residential programs, inpatient centers, partial programs, IOPs, and outpatient therapy. I also know people who have died after seeking each type of treatment. But I know a whole lot of other individuals who died before seeking treatment at all.
If it hadn’t been for the “ineffective” treatments I received in the beginning of my journey, I would not be alive to say that I have been fully recovered for eight years now. I may bear scars from some of those experiences, but I have to admit that I’m thankful for them. I may have chosen recovery a little later than others had wanted, but in the end, I did choose it, and I thank everyone who helped me get here today.
A comment from a previous entry: “Despite how crappy it is, it makes me feel better that someone else has had similar experiences as mine. And so happy to read how positive you are, even though you are having a tough time at the moment.
The problem is I’m still so angry about the poor treatment, the stigma, the fact that I was effectively left to die on my own.
How did you move on from such poor treatment from those who were meant to be helping you? How did you forgive them?”
Forgive and forget. Don’t dwell in the past. Look forward to the future. Let go and let God. No use worrying about spilled milk. Be thankful for where you are now.
I hear the value in all of these statements. But I’m not sure I can honestly say I follow them, and I think that’s an okay thing.
There have been times when my psychiatric care was just plain lousy and my treatment providers were negligent. I found better providers. Then had sucky ones again. Then had good ones, etc. I want to say that I was the changing force, but that would be a lie. In my case, most of the changes in providers had something to do with me moving, from Pennsylvania to DC to Virginia to Missouri to New York.
I look back at some aspects of my care and I am angry. “Where would I be now if I had had a better therapist then?” crosses my mind, and I get angrier. But feeling anger is less harmful than feeling guilt. At least now I can look back and say, “That aspect of treatment was not beneficial.” At the time, I thought it was my fault and, of course, kept silent. My train of thought was: Why do I get a say in determining what’s effective and not effective? Aren’t I the sick one with poor judgment skills? I must be doing something wrong.
I remember, however, voicing my concerns at various points in treatment. And getting responses along the lines of You aren’t thinking clearly, and I know this is right for you. And, because I’m not a professional, I listened and felt guilty.
This year I have realized that that is what makes me angry. Not that I had inadequate care at points, but that my concerns were not listened to. The number of factors that go into making a healthy therapeutic relationship are great, and we as a society are only just beginning to explore better ways to handle psychiatric emergencies. This doesn’t change my past, but it has helped me from feeling bitter, and I no longer blame them.
It’s easy to dwell on “What would I have accomplished by now if only X hadn’t happened?” but that’s pretty futile. X did happen. I am still angry, and I try to use that anger in a positive manner. I try to remember that I have a say in the doctors I see and my treatment. There are effective ways to voice concerns and some not-so-effective ways, but I do have a right to voice my concerns and open up a discussion, just as if I were seeing my cardiologist. I try to advocate for others when they feel they aren’t strong enough to speak up. I encourage others to write down exactly what they are concerned about and not to leave their provider’s office until that question is answered. I speak at conferences and schools and share my experience and emphasize that one crappy doctor/treatment does not mean the next one will not be helpful.
The stigma? I fight this every day. I want to cover up my scars and wear long sleeves because I know people stare. But I’ve also had people come up to me and ask about them and tell me they are scared because they do the same thing and don’t know how to stop. I don’t lie about my eating disorder history because I know when I am in a random group of people, someone in that group is struggling, and just by knowing that I recovered, I might give them hope that they can, too.
I have a harder time with my suicide attempt. The stigma surrounding those who attempt/commit suicide is so heavy and dark. But I recently got a tattoo–the semicolon tattoo. Yes, it reminds me that I still have a story to finish, but I am hoping other people ask me about it and learn from my story.
And as for being positive? For these several minutes, I have tried to look at things through a positive lens. And I generally try to do that away from the keyboard as well. But sometimes, I am a bitter, cynical person who writes angry entries in her journal and questions every experience in her past. Those days suck. But at least I am aware of them now, and I do my best not to use them as an excuse to treat those around me poorly. And I write in my journal and write a lengthy, whiny letter to a friend and wake up the next day. Sometimes back in a positive mood, and sometimes not. Which is how pretty much every person lives.