As of August 15th, it has been one year since my last day of eating disorder treatment.
The anniversary passed with little consequence, my partner and I had flown to Sydney for the weekend and I mentioned the significance of the date as we were waiting at baggage claim. I didn’t feel compelled to make an event of it; the possibility of taking slow days for granted still isn’t lost on me.
We shared a smile, a kiss and ‘congratulations’, then hopped in a cab and left the airport. While in Sydney, I shared the news with a few other friends and felt immense warmth from the true joy they felt on my behalf. What a distinct pleasure it is to be loved by good people.
A concept we discussed at length in treatment was worthiness. No mystery as to why. An eating disorder is a strange self-sabotaging instinct developed out of a sense of unworthiness and maintained by the same train of thought, a spiral of self-loathing exacerbated by unhealthy behaviours that doubles back on itself again and again. Being at war with yourself is a tiring and vicious experience.
Many people at treatment clung to religious convictions to convince them of their worth. As a spiritually raised agnostic, born in a watery flux between races and religions, I didn’t have this opportunity. And anyway, religion felt like a cop-out. I wanted to hold myself accountable in order to feel capable of true change. I grappled with accepting that I was worthy of anything just by simply being alive. Winding up alive doesn’t seem to be that hard, why should I be rewarded with this all-encompassing sense of significance just because my parents didn’t use a condom?
And to what merit exactly? Material pleasures? Emotional stability? Healthy relationships? Recovery…?
I’ve since learned not to really care about the semantics of worth, whether or not it mattered that God loved me or cared or existed. I learned instead to focus on the fact that for all efforts I’d taken to deny myself self-love and care, I was here. In this body, this life, this planet, at this time. With my eyes and pores and desires and ideas. With my double-jointed elbows and proclivity for bad (read: excellent) puns. I could keep making the ride totally miserable or I could turn my internal ruins into something useful, propel myself forward and keep building. I took the single-pointedness with which I was paving my own destruction and slowly, agonizingly turned the wheel toward a way of life infinitely more sustainable and, let’s just say it, enjoyable.
One advantage I had in recovering was the fact that the catalyst that sent me to treatment came from the same place my eating disorder did: inside. I realised that my eating disorder was literally ruining my life. Weeping inconsolably, covered in snot, I cried ‘’send me away, just make it go away’’ to my perplexed father. Even then, understanding that you are undercutting your wholeness doesn’t make it an easy pattern to let go of. I found myself having to constantly relinquish pieces of my ED I was planning on keeping for myself, tucked into a back pocket for when things got shitty. The crux of a lot of conversations with my therapist went something like: ‘’I know I definitely have to stop self-induced vomiting but are you SURE I can’t continue loathing and resenting every inch of my body for its very existence? You are? Well fuck, okay.’’
Even now, fifteen months since I boarded the flight to Arizona, I’m finding myself picking out splinters from my mind, unlikely distortions and conclusions left over from darker times.
I’ve had to clear out the rubble, again and again to find an understanding of my real priorities and admit that my eating disorder, – as steadfast a companion as it had been- was robbing me of the thing I found most important: my autonomy.
I am one of many who developed an ED in search of the very things it ultimately took away from us: control, independence, confidence, freedom, health. The great irony of our disorders weren’t lost on many of us. They often call the circumstances that surround the development of an eating disorder ‘a perfect storm’ of genetics, upbringing, societal pressures and one’s own inability to process the traumas and tragedies that befall us all.
To focus on one’s relationship to food when building recovery requires the recognition that it is a small facet of a much larger and more complex issue. Again, it’s no mystery that most of us at the centre had histories of co-occuring addictions, substance abuse and mental illness that spanned further than our eating disorders. An eating disorder is simply a quicker way to turn all the shit going on in your head into something you can control with your hands, your choices, your body, your intake.
When asked to write down the purposes our behaviours served, I wrote: ‘’uncontrolled binge eating as a way of bringing myself down into my body when I’ve felt ‘floaty’ for too long. The guilt of overeating makes me feel justified to self-punish’’.Prone to slamming between the extremes of dissociation and hyper-awareness, I’m still in the process of guiding my mind back to centre.
Over the year, recovery has taken me down unexpected roads, all leading to choices about how I experience moving through the world.It’s required a more precise level of purpose and attention in areas of life I’d previously left ambiguous, knowing my disorder would always fill in the gaps. Prior to recovery, I regularly allowed myself to shrink inwards and collapse when under duress, awaiting the perverse sense of satisfaction that always followed. I allowed myself to not really care who I was spending time with, who I was fucking, what I was reading or even just my goals and passions. These were all secondary to the relationship I was secretly maintaining; not a loving relationship, but one with enough devotion that it could be seen as so.
Being in recovery means living your life through a different context, the meaning behind why and how I do things is always tilted in the favour of maintaining this simultaneously abstract yet incredibly tangible way of life going. Paying attention to my time, filling my life with things that feel good just because they do. Rewiring the way my brain responds to itself when I feel bad.
The ground I’ve covered since August 11th last year has varied greatly in landscape, the first few months slippery and bright. Constantly double-checking that what I was doing was in fact, coming from a place of self-care and not a way for my bad habits to sneak back in. Diligently going to therapy, being honest about my emotions, interrupting conversations about body image with a swift subject change, staying clear of triggering material, actually wearing swimwear in public (!!!). Eating. Regularly.
It also feels a bit reductive and disingenuous to talk about recovery in such cut-and-dry terms, because recovery from what, really? In my own, very personal experience, it hasn’t been enough to just stop engaging in my disordered behaviours and call it recovery. It’s doing so and making sure the energy I had allocated toward my eating disorder is now focused on better things. Not letting it pool and collect, manifesting in another destructive pattern. Prioritizing my relationship with myself, reclaiming autonomy, again and again. Re-learning how to approach food, exercise and my body, my relationships to others, to my art. Honing in on what I find important and always allowing growth. The list clearly goes on. What may have moved my recovery forward 6 months ago may greatly hinder it today. Every day, it is this part of the process, the constant dialogue with oneself so essential to pulling it off, that is the most exhausting. I can’t afford to shy away from myself any more.
Recovery is a dynamic experience, no more able to be limited to a series of rules than an eating disorder can be discussed just in terms of food. There have been some constants I adhere to but they are few and far between. When I left treatment, I was given a strict set of guidelines, a meal-plan to follow and structures within which to live my life. I didn’t follow any of it besides getting blood tests, going to therapy and eating. I’m sure my forgoing of all this has hindered my progress at points and made navigating certain intersections harder than it needed to be. Maybe I wouldn’t have cried at that Polaroid my partner took of me naked if I’d been following my meal plan.
And yet, after fighting for the autonomy I’ve never truly had, every misstep and every corner turned has been indescribably worth it.
…Am I worth it? It doesn’t matter.
Here’s to many more years of a recovery in motion. Of authenticity and brightness and tears that fall when they need to. Of Sunday morning pancakes and dancing to the Killers in my underwear.