When does Recovery become Recovered?
What does it mean to me to be “recovered”?
I don't know the exact date that I recovered from my eating disorder, or that I can so completely close the door and give myself the title “recovered”, as the “ed” suggests that it is all in the past. Was it the day seven years ago I begrudgingly “gave in” and started eating enough to gain weight, or was it the day that I never again worried about any of the food I ate? Because the real truth is the latter has not yet occurred – so does that mean I have not recovered? Contrary to how I feel people looking from the outside sometimes view an eating disorder, my recovery did not end when my weight returned to healthy limits. Every day I make the decision, whether it be conscious or unconscious, to choose health, and I will continue to have to make that decision for the rest of my life. For me it is an active process, and therefore I am in recovery and not recovered. But that’s okay.
The Box Analogy
Instead of describing my illness as multiple voices or multiple people living in my head – although I can relate to those views – a joke about the apparent simplicity of the male brain gave me the idea to think of my brain as a series of boxes. I have realised as I have grown older, observed and gained greater perspective of my behaviours, that my eating disorder is not a separate box, only concerned with my weight, but slots into a bigger compartment. Let’s refer to it as my “control box”. This box continues to push buttons now, and like so many people with eating disorders it’s not just about food. To explain it in another way, I can be running, alone, no one knows I am running, sometimes no one is even around. I am really tired, and I feel like it would be best to stop; in fact I have a blister forming on my toes and my shoulder is really aching. Even though nothing would happen if I stopped to walk for a section of the route, no one else would care, I find myself running on, I can’t stop. My “control box” wins. This is what it felt like for me when my eating disorder had a hold. I knew I wasn’t going to gain all the weight back by eating slightly more than I set out to that day, but like not being able to stop running I couldn’t stop restricting. The anxiety about losing control is still there; I feel it often in some form, but I feel it is now somewhat separated, like a whisper instead of a shout. Right now, I have a hold of it.
Whilst I don't always love the way I look, there are bigger, better, and more important things in my life that have taken over from my illness and pushed it further and further back into its box. Getting through the depression associated with my anorexia has brought me closer to my family, and I am able to enjoy time spent with them. Active participation in sport and tackling a difficult university course have also given me highs surpassing those felt when I had lost more weight than expected. The more I allowed myself to enjoy my life again, the less dependant I became on my illness and the further it drifts away from my thoughts without me being aware it is happening.
I always felt embarrassed by my illness, I felt people would look at me the way I am now and wouldn’t believe that it’s true. I even lied on multiple occasions in university interviews because I thought if I told the truth it may make me sound weak. But when I have opened up about my illness, so many others are able to understand and relate. Sometimes it is even starting the conversation with others that allows them to recognise habits of their own or other loved ones that they have never previously addressed.
I am now 24 and I no longer want talking about my mental illness to be a taboo subject, because truthfully, as much as I didn’t want to admit my problems, it was only when I talked about it that I could re-organise the boxes in my head and regain some power back. The best way, as much as I ran in the opposite direction, is to talk to others, but if you don’t feel ready talk to yourself – you’re awake all night anyway – or write it down. Even if it's only you who reads it, you may find out some things you didn’t previously want to admit. I thought by now I had learnt about myself; however through writing this piece I now know that I will continue to learn and gain further perspective about myself and my illness as I continue my journey of recovery. It’s lifelong, remember, and that's okay for me to admit.