Last year’s NEDA week theme was “come as you are.” It was an important and overdue celebration of diversity and representation within the recovery community and the treatment field. It also got me thinking about the unique perspectives that we bring to our recoveries, the fact that no two healing processes look alike, which is something I wrote about in this post.
The theme is being repeated this year, and I’m thinking about it in a new light. “Come as you are” is an invitation to show up as our unique selves, yes. But I think it might also be greeted as an invitation to show up for recovery exactly as we are in the present moment—whether we’re ready or ambivalent or frightened or encouraged.
This idea is close to my heart, because showing up for recovery took me a really, really long time. My eating disorder began young and involved two relapses. Even between relapses, my relationship with food was vexed and often tormented. It took about thirteen years for me to recovery fully, and the first decade of recovery has shown me that the process is always unfolding.
During my eating disorder, I experienced periods of intense denial about the fact that anything was wrong. This was especially true during my final relapse, in my early twenties, which was dominated by orthorexia. I was convinced that all of my avoidances were justified for health reasons, which is part of why that relapse was as difficult to unravel as it was.
At many other points in my process, I was aware of the fact that I had an illness and would not have the fullness of life that I wanted unless I recovered from it. I knew things needed to change, but I avoided that change, sometimes intentionally and sometimes passively, through stalling and procrastination. Why?
I think a lot of it had to do with my underlying anxiety, which is something I’ve only been able to see with time and perspective. Today, I’m conscious of my anxiety and take efforts to manage it proactively with therapy. As a young person with an eating disorder, I couldn’t identify or name the anxiety that had probably always been there. I only knew that I was often frightened, uncomfortable, or overwhelmed, and that I felt much better when I controlled my food intake.
I often thought about changing my approach to eating: expanding my diet, increasing portions, eating fear foods, saying yes to more restaurant meals. I didn’t need anyone to tell me that these were necessary steps in developing a better relationship with food; I knew it intuitively, in my gut. I’d wake up in the morning with every intention of doing something, anything, differently.
But then something would happen—a conflict, a stressful academic assignment or deadline, a physical symptom that triggered my tendency toward hypochondria—and my anxiety would flare up. And I was so afraid, not only of the stuff making me anxious but also of the anxiety itself, which was miserable, that I’d think, “not today.”
I’d tell myself that tomorrow, when I’d had a chance to settle down, I’d be in the right mindset to challenge my food behaviors. But you can probably guess what happened next: I’d wake up on the following day, get anxious about something new, and the process would repeat itself. This went on for days, weeks, and ultimately for years.
What I probably knew all along, but didn’t want to acknowledge, was that there was never going to be a day, let alone a string of many days at a time, when I had nothing to feel anxious about. In order to recover, I’d need to feel triggered and still muster up the courage to change my eating habits, even if doing so felt like an additional threat.
Years later, I’ve come to believe that there’s never really a “right” moment for doing the things we fear. Big professional undertakings, new experiences, personal growth, leaping into the unknown with another person: it’s difficult to be ready for things like this, where so much is at stake. And if you live with anxiety, the unpleasant truth is that your life will probably never be free of triggers.
There’s something to be said for pre-contemplation, of course. We all deserve some time and space to prepare. But when it comes to frightening undertakings that might also be life-saving, like eating disorder recovery, the right moment is now. No matter how terrified, ill-equipped, or resistant you feel.
I don’t beat myself up about how long recovery took me. It takes as long as it takes, and there are reasons why my process was as slow and stubborn as it was. But if I had an opportunity to encourage my younger self to take the leap sooner, I would. Life is time, and the time we have is precious.
If you’ve been thinking about recovery for a while, know that it’s normal to feel as though you’re not ready and never will be. Fear is normal. Resentment and resistance are normal. It’s all OK. You’re not supposed to wake up one morning with supernatural amounts of readiness: if it worked like that, it wouldn’t take so many of us so long.
Know that it’s OK—in fact, it’s nothing short of amazing—to show up for recovery with all of the ambivalence you feel. With all of your resistance and anger and shame and fear. It’s OK to come as you are, with all of your stuff and your suffering. You don’t have to be ready or certain that it’s what you want. You simply have to be willing: willing to try a different way of being, willing to step into the unknown, willing to stumble as you go.
Willingness is easier said than done, I know. But it’s a lot more accessible than the readiness or enthusiasm we fantasize about, and it isn’t mutually exclusive with any of your fears. You can be willing and fearful at the same time. Or, to repeat a quote I recently read, “it’s courage and fear, not courage or fear.”
For this NEDA week, I encourage anyone who is thinking about recovery to show up now, exactly as you are, trusting that the strength you need will reveal itself to you as you move forward. I promise that you’re stronger and more resilient than you believe you are. That’s just how it is with people: we’re almost always more capable than we give ourselves credit for, and our fears are usually worse than the reality of what we fear. Recovery was really hard—one of the hardest things I’ve ever done—but it wasn’t quite as horrible as I thought it would be. And life on the other side has been sweeter and more surprising than I could have predicted.
What needs healing changes as our lives progress, but my experience has been that all healing is connected. My ED recovery has given me a point of reference for other healing processes, many of which I’m still working through, with all of my old fears and worries and ambivalence still in play.
Today, as I encourage those in recovery to take the proverbial leap, I’m also encouraging myself to be more fearless in my efforts to challenge anxiety and let go of control. I’m reminding myself that now is the best time to try new approaches and that I’m much better at change than I give myself credit for. I’ve proven that already. I can do it again.
Those are my thoughts for this NEDA week 2020, but I’ll be sharing much more on Instagram as this week continues. I always welcome you to engage or share (or quietly observe) in that space.
Thank you, friends, for reading and for making space for this topic year after year. Take care of your beautiful bodies and spirits, now and always.
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This is a deeply moving and insightful post. It’s a powerful reminder that the journey to recovery, whether from an eating disorder or any other mental health challenge, is a deeply personal and unique process. It’s okay to feel fear and uncertainty, and it’s okay to take it at your own pace. The important thing is to show up, as you are, and take that first step. For anyone looking for more resources on mental health, there are many supportive communities and informative sites out there. Keep going, one day at a time.