HOW I STARTED RECOVERY, AND HOW YOU CAN TOO
This morning I received such a kind message from a follower, which ended with a question regarding recovery - do I have any advice on how to start?
I realised that this is never something I’ve spoken about on here, and maybe that’s because it’s something I just found myself falling into. For me, it wasn’t quite at first a distinct choice, more a slow wave of awareness that washed over me over a period of around 6 months, where I began to realise that I wasn’t okay, and that I didn’t want to be ‘not okay.’
It began in the summer after my 1st year of university as I reflected on what I’d gone through that last semester, and also experienced something quite profound at a chakra workshop I randomly went to at a festival I was working at (but that’s another story), but took me till winter of that year to realise that I couldn’t just ‘deal with it’ as I thought. That my plight to ‘just have a better balance’ wasn’t quite addressing the root problem.
Things began to spiral as my 2nd year of university went on, but it took me a while after some particular events to actually start being even the tiniest bit honest with myself and start reaching out to people around me, and a few weeks on top of that before I then found the courage to reach out to someone at the university like my friends and family had recommended to Although, even then, I was really unaware/in denial about the kind of help I needed, and how serious things had become.
I thought it was all because of my anxiety. Which it was, in a way, but I didn’t realise that a large proportion of my anxiety was manifesting into my food choices, exercise, body image… I hadn’t yet made that connection. If we go back to the idea of mental health being a spectrum, with intuitive eating at the left, eating disorders at the right and disordered eating in the middle, I had been teetering in the middle point for years, as many ‘normal’ people do (think dieting, eating ‘healthier’, bulking and cutting, etc etc.) but in the past year or two, I had been falling slowly to the right. I was in a lot deeper than I thought, and looking back, I’m so grateful I caught myself before I fell even deeper. So, eventually, I found myself being referred to eating disorder services, but after deciding I needed time out of university to focus on my health and moving back home, the change in city and referral meant I ended up having to wait 3 months before I could actually see anyone.
Now this was the point that I was faced with a choice. I could have kept on the way I was going for 3 months, until I went to see professionals. Or I could try and start recovering myself.
I was looking back in an old journal yesterday and I read an old entry where I had written about this crossroads I was faced with.
“It’s hard because I think that maybe part of me was waiting for the appointment at the clinic in Dundee for my recovery to start and to start putting things in action, but obviously nothings really happened because now I’m waiting to be referred to somewhere here. But I’ve realised again how this is in my own hands, and its up to me to choose when I really start recovering. It’s up to me whether I skip meals, whether I restrict or lie about having eaten. Gaining weight and getting over the fears and in control of my thoughts and life again is in my hands. Only you have the power to change your life. Only you have the power to become aware of your bad thoughts and habits and fight against that. Yes, maybe going to a clinic right help, but in the end they can’t really force you to do anything. I’m going to take small steps each day, and I will get through this.”
Maybe you can tell - I’d also started reading Eckharte Tolle’s ‘The Power Of Now’ which was a big motivation in my recovery. The book taught me that I was the only person in control of my thoughts, the only person with the power to create change.
It’s funny looking back, because whilst this all seems positive, the first part of my recovery was fuelled by the same self-hatred that got me there in the first place.
I told myself that because I was in control of my thoughts, good and bad, it was my fault that I’d found myself suffering from mental illness. Which of course, isn’t quite true, but there was a time I believed it was; I wrote in my journal ‘I’m so disappointed in myself that I’ve gotten in this state.’ (excuse my bad grammar.) The truth is, whilst unhealthy thought patterns were maybe the root of my disorder, I didn’t consciously place them there. Even as an adult, I’m not always in complete control of my environment and what I’m exposed to (*cough* for example; diet industry, objectifying and sexualisation of women bodies, false nutrition *cough*), so how can I blame my younger self for absorbing these things? How can I blame myself when I didn’t have that level of self-awareness and observance; when I was less mature and had more of a black-and-white mentality?
I couldn’t, and can’t put all of this responsibility on myself. I do believe thoughts become our reality, but that isn’t a reason to fuel the guilt or frustration towards yourself. There are so, so many factors that influence the development of an eating disorder - I may have been predisposed with my personality type and the environmental factors I unknowingly exposed myself to, but I never had the end goal of this happening. I was totally, completely unaware. In fact, ironically, it began with a surface level pursuit of becoming ‘healthier.’ Something that, unfortunately, paired with low self-esteem, an over-active drive system, an under-acting self-soothe system became a coping mechanism; a way to control my emotions and my life, a way to distract, to numb.
I later began to adopt the ‘you can’t control what happens to you, but you can control how you react to it’ mantra, which was more positive - still empowering without further crumbling my self-worth.
But in the meantime, I tried to harness this anger and use it against my eating disorder. I had to regain control by forcing myself to do things I really didn’t want to do. And although, eventually, these thoughts and actions came from a place of self-care and self-love, If I’m completely honest, at the start it really did come from the fact that I still felt I wasn’t good enough, that I still really hated myself. I just managed to flip a switch on that part of my brain and use it to aim towards full recovery, rather than digging myself deeper into the hole I was in.
Everyday, I started making a conscious effort to eat more. I forced myself to start eating three times a day again, sat myself down at the dinner table fighting back tears, pushing away thoughts. I pushed myself through acid-reflux, incredible fullness, 9-months pregnancy type bloating, stomach cramps and extreme fatigue. I recognised rules and regulations and purposely broke them. I listened to what that voice in my head wanted and did the opposite. I listened hard to try and find my natural body signals and honour them. I forced myself to quit exercising, realising that it was the no.1 tool in the compensation, eradication game.
I didn’t always succeed. But every day I committed to trying again, to trying more. I spent all my time reading articles, scientific journals, listening to podcasts, youtube videos - trying to educate myself and understand what the f*** was happening to me. Why was I so anxiety-ridden, so deeply afraid? Why did my mind want to calculate and compensate and balance and make everything ‘worth it’ or make everything okay, to tick boxes to then allow myself permission? Where did this come from, what caused it? How did I find myself here?
I wanted to understand the science, the biology. I wanted to understand the thought process, the psychology. I wanted to understand the aetiology, the environmental factors; the recovery methods, the therapies, the theories; I wanted to know other people’s stories, their anecdotes, their advice. I distracted myself from the anxious voice and the physical uncomfortableness by reading, learning, absorbing. I was on a mission.
But more than anything, I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. And I wanted to get out of this state as quickly as possible, to be the person I wanted to be, live the perfect life I wanted to live, to not be judged and talked about by others like I felt I most likely was.
I couldn’t understand, all I had wanted was to become ‘healthier.’ I had never asked for this to happen.
All of this negative energy; all of my pain and shame created a fire in me, fuelled my once-toxic drive in a more positive way. I wanted to get better. I wanted to be free of all of this.
I have to be honest and say that it wasn’t a strictly upwards journey from there. As I started fuelling myself more, my emotions started to come back, my brain started working more, and I found not only the anxiety worsening, but I found myself in periods of deep depression, where I couldn’t feel anything. It was like all these emotions were too much for my brain to deal with; I’d been avoiding and suppressing them for so long through the control of my food and exercise. My mind started doing it’s own numbing. But that whole story is for another time.
The main thing is, throughout it all, I tried to remind myself that I could regain control over the voice in my head, that sounded like my internal chatterbox, but wasn’t. Or maybe it was - but that was the ‘ill’ part of me. The part I needed to heal. I had the power to change my life, or to continue to stay in the same place I’d been for so long.
I was the only person holding myself back in life. I was capable of anything, if I truly believed it.
Recovery was a journey of self-awareness, of being able to differentiate between my true intuition and the disordered thoughts. Of being able to catch it, check it, and change it. Of being able to recognise, observe the disorder and not engage.
So now that you’ve heard a bit about how I started, how do I recommend you start recovery?
First of all - reach out to people around you. Open up to friends and family, to university support, to your GP, to online help-services or phone-lines. You don’t need to be able to articulate everything, even by just telling them you’re not okay, you’re taking the first step. It took me aaaaaaaages before I was able to type the words ‘eating disorder’, let alone SAY them out loud to someone else. But these healthcare professionals know the right questions to ask, know how to get you to open up and feel comfortable (nine times out of ten.) Believe me, once you do it and things start moving, you’ll feel a huge weight lifted from you.
But aside from that - It has to start by believing that you can - or by telling yourself that you can until you believe it, and continuing to tell yourself it through the times that you don’t. It starts by listening to that voice that tells you ‘you can’t yet’ or ‘that’s too hard’ and proceeding to do so anyway. It means forcing your actions when you don’t quite want to mentally, it means shifting your mindset mentally so that the actions then follow. It literally means, scientifically, re-wiring your brain.
It means finding that motivation, wherever it comes from. Ideally from a place of self-love, of realising that deep down you don’t want to, and never wanted to harm yourself. That all your body wants is for you to be alive, to thrive - that hunger isn’t to be feared, that calories simply mean energy, that macros and micros don’t mean quite as much as you think they do - and anyway, aren’t worth the mental bandwith they take up. But maybe that initial motivation comes from frustration and hatred and shame, like mine did, or your over-achieving personality trait. Maybe it comes from a medical scare, like mine also did, when you realise that if you keep going like you’re going, you might not be here much longer. Maybe you just realise that this isn’t what life should be like, that you want to live, not just exist. Maybe you write a list of reasons to recover, like your family, friends, a future family, future children, career, university, physical health, travel, pursuing your dreams…
Whatever it is, find that small flame that will be there, somewhere, and don’t let it die out. Even when you feel like it has, it will still be there smouldering. know that it’s not an easy journey to embark on. It’s uncomfortable, it’s painful, both physically and mentally; you unearth memories and belief patterns you’ve been harbouring for years, your body will feel like it’s shutting down in order to begin to heal the internal damage. But I don’t even have to tell you - you know how worthwhile it will be. You know that deep down, part of you wants it. But only you can make it happen.
A friend recently said to me ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’
That’s all it takes. A single step. And every day, one more.
You can do it.
I believe in you, even if right now, you don’t.