Wouldn’t it be nice if recovery went exactly the way it was “supposed” to? If there were milestones that you could definitively expect to arrive at: at three months, this will happen, and three months after that, then this? If it was all smiles and happiness and joy? This is an illusion that’s been shattered for me lately.
You see, my eating disorder manifested itself out of a desire to create control and stability in my life where I felt there wasn’t any. It’s an extension of the perfectionism that has always driven me. I always had to look just right, get the highest grades, be the most talented, be the best at everything. And unless I attained this virtually impossible ideal unless I adhered to these incredibly high standards, I was excruciatingly disappointed in myself. So in a way, having an eating disorder was a way to be perfect. If I could retain control over myself, what I ate, and how much energy I expended, I would reach that ideal.
It was also a way of making myself disappear. There was never small enough. Because in reality, an eating disorder gives an intense illusion of control. Your distorted perception of the world makes you believe that you are the director of the course of your life; the captain of your ship. But this is the biggest lie of all, because in fact, there is nothing more out of control that has happened in my life than when I was really acutely suffering from my anorexia and was hospitalized. I had lost all hold of the truth. I believed all these falsehoods. If I was just a little bit smaller; if I ate just a little bit less; if I looked just a little bit more this way, I could be perfect.
(This sign makes me giggle but also makes me a bit sad, because it’s so true.)
That makes it sound like an aesthetics thing, doesn’t it? I think one of the biggest misconceptions about eating disorders is that they’re driven by vanity. This is honestly the most ridiculous thing. If I look at pictures of myself from just a few months ago, for example, I am painfully aware of how sick I look. My cheeks are sunken, my skin is sallow, and my smile that I put on for the camera doesn’t ever reach my eyes. It’s the ultimate facade. It’s a pretense that you show the world because in reality, you are suffering immensely.
For me, recovery has been a very rocky road. I’ve done tons of reading about what to expect to try and prepare myself for the bumps along the way that I know I’m going to face. Some I already have. I’ve had to deal with being incredibly bloated in places that have always made me incredibly self conscious, which to my eating disorder, appears to be solid proof that recovery is bad.
Bad. How can something that is logically so good and correct feel so wrong? Easily, as it turns out. It’s so difficult to surrender the illusion of control, admit you need help, and give yourself over to blind faith in a process that is incredibly difficult. It’s tantamount to bungee jumping or something like that. You jump off a cliff with this insane thought that a stretchy cord attached to you will save you from crashing to your death at the bottom. And even when it does kick in, you’re jerked back upwards and bounce around a bit. To further the metaphor, recovery is like intending to take the shortest route on a trip and instead having to take all these detours and end up zig-zagging all over the place.
Because recovery isn’t meant to be easy. It’s meant to be painful. It’s meant to feel wonky and horrible and uncomfortable. You’re repairing damage that seems irreparable. Your body has to work to undo all the harm you’ve done to it, both physically and mentally. And that’s an amazingly long process that will push you to the very edge of your limits. You’ll have to jump off that cliff and get yanked around all over the place until your stomach ends up somewhere in your throat and your pulse skyrockets. You have to take that detour and trust that it will eventually lead you where you need to go.
Recovery means relearning what it is to be happy and who you actually are. It helps me immensely to personify my eating disorder; to think of it as a separate entity to myself. The person in the hospital was not me. The person who was barely clinging to life just a few short months ago was not me. It was my eating disorder, doing what it’s so good at and preventing me from seeing how much I was destroying myself and everything around me. That person was miserable and broken. She had no sense of self and no desire to live. As I’ve nourished my body more and more and stopped engaging in destructive behaviors, the fog has somewhat cleared.
But it’s still incredibly hazy. And this is perhaps the most difficult part. Inherent in being a perfectionist is a desire to know exactly what’s going to happen, how it’s going to happen, and when it’s going to happen. And recovery doesn’t work that way.
There is no perfect recovery. There is no straight shot. There are certain things that will definitely happen, yes, but no one goes through recovery exactly the same way because everyone is an individual. We are all going through the same process, but at our body’s own pace.
Recovery is about learning to embrace your imperfections, mistakes, and flaws, as they are: pieces of you that are just as integral as all the good things about you. It’s about starting to realize that you have more to offer the world than the shadow of yourself that your eating disorder reduced you to. You have so much more than that. You are worth so much more than a life relegated to something so devastating.
There may be no perfect way to recover. There may be slip-ups and errors and roadblocks. But ultimately, I’ve found that somehow I have the strength to continue the journey. I discover this every time I take a bite of something or decide to distract myself instead of exercising. I push myself to the very limits of what seems possible.
Because really, I don’t want to be perfect.
I just want to be me.