In group therapy this weekend, a tearful young woman said she doubted that she’d ever recover from her eating disorder. The more she fought it, the more she was consumed by strong urges and painful emotions. Her therapists and peers assured her that recovery takes time, but she was starting to feel defeated.
The group therapist asked whether any of the rest of us had glimpsed recovery yet, and, if so, whether we could talk about what it feels like. Apart from a few tentative nods, the group was quiet. Many of us were in the same boat as our tearful friend. Recovery often seemed to us like the Polaris: We saw that it existed, and we kept our eyes fixed on its steady light, but no matter how long we trekked through the dark, it seemed to never draw closer.
Like the eating disorder itself, recovery is both gradual and deeply private. The thoughts, feelings, and behaviours that characterize recovery for one person will not necessarily apply to another person. To complicate things further, the line that divides illness from wellness is blurry, making it difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint where the eating disorder ends and recovery begins.
So how were we supposed to assure our friend that recovery exists, even if she couldn’t see it and we couldn’t say what it was? As I sat in the hesitant silence of the group, I thought about how I’d completed nearly a year of treatment and graduated from the residential and partial hospitalization levels of care. Surely I know something about what recovery is like. And yet, even though I consider myself “in recovery” from my eating disorder, I realized that I, too, lacked a clear idea of what that meant.
So I tried a different question: How do I feel now compared to a year ago? That one was far easier to answer:
First of all, my days do not center on food or my body. A year ago, I was consumed by thoughts of:
What should I eat? Should I eat at all? How many calories are in this meal? How long do I have to exercise to burn off what I’m eating?
These obsessions filled my day and crept into my dreams at night. Today, I still think and worry about food from time to time, but I do not obsess over it as I used to. As a result, there’s more space for productive thoughts:
What should I focus my master’s thesis on? I wonder how Michelle’s job search is going. Ricoeur’s analysis of Freud’s professed atheism is absolutely fascinating.
Secondly, life is much more interesting now. I used to think that my job was unfulfilling and that I had no interests or passions. As it turns out, my eating disorder was behind those thoughts. It kept me from fully engaging in my life because maintaining it was a full-time job in itself. Now, I’m enthusiastic about my work, I enjoy school, and I cherish the time I spend with my loved ones. Even the world around me has a different feel to it — colours are brighter, the sun feels warmer, and music sounds more powerful. Life is fuller in so many ways.
Third, I enjoy increasingly longer periods of time free from my eating disorder voice. Just today, I ate an ice cream cone and found myself thinking about the latest assignment for my graduate class. It was only after I finished the cone that I realized my eating disorder hadn’t chimed in once. I cannot remember the last time that was true for me.
Finally, and most important of all, I can feel. Starving your body inevitably starves your brain, leaving very little energy for neurological processes like emoting. As a result, a year ago I could not feel much of anything (and if I did, it was usually just depression.) Now I experience the full range of emotions — joy, hope, anxiety, excitement, curiosity, empathy, anger — and I feel them more intensely. Of course, this means that I also feel sadness, rage, fear, and the like. Be that as it may, I’m less bothered by the presence of negative emotions, because I know that being able to feel them means I can also feel positive emotions. I’d take sadness or anger any day if it meant I could keep my new-found ability to laugh.
You don’t need to have a crystalline idea of recovery to know whether you are “in” it. Zooming out and taking a birds-eye-view of your journey offers useful information about where you are in the process. But besides being informative, I think it is rejuvenating to do this exercise from time to time. As the treatment process stretches on — and believe me, at times it feels endless — it’s hard to not succumb to frustration or impatience. Healing from an eating disorder takes time. (I once heard a therapist say that it takes 7 years to achieve full recovery.) When it starts to feel as though you are fighting the same battles day in and day out, it helps to take stock of of your journey as a whole, rather than focusing on just one day or one week.
Recovery is not linear. There are ups and downs, back-swings and forward pushes. Ralph Waldo Emerson put it best in “Self Reliance,” when he reminds us, “The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency.” From one day to the next, it’s hard to detect changes in your thoughts and behaviors. But when you consider where you are now versus where you were a year (or a month, or even a week) ago, you will see the growth you’ve undergone much more clearly. It may even astound you.
About Joanna Kay
Joanna Kay is a writer in New York City and is recovering from an eating disorder. She is the author of The Middle Ground, a blog that deals with issues that impact people midway through the recovery process. You can follow Joanna on Facebook and Twitter, and additionally you can check out her blog The Middle Ground. Follow her HMC posts on Twitter with #AfterAnorexia