A few weeks ago, I said something in a weekend reading post that seemed to resonate. I mentioned that recovery “may not take the form of an earth-shattering solution or insight. Instead, it may take the form of small actions that we repeat consciously over time.”
I’ve spent some time thinking about this statement in the weeks since. Much of the work that I’m doing in therapy now brings to mind the work I did in therapy in my twenties, as I gradually found my way back from what was in many ways my worst anorexia relapse.
I’m working on now are different. Food is no longer the outlet. But the underlying causes are similar, if not the same. In fact, one of the things I’ve learned in returning to therapy is that, long after you’ve put the ED struggle behind you, it’s possible to discover that whatever wound gave birth to the disorder in the first place hasn’t entirely healed.
I’m a different person today than I was back then, and “the work” is different, too. But there are similarities between the healing journey I’m on now and the one I undertook a decade ago.
In both instances it has been necessary for me to put aside my vision of what I want healing to look like, and to accept instead what it is. Both then and now, I’ve had to surrender my controlling grip and focus my attention not on orchestrating the experience in its entirety, but rather on cultivating small, daily practices that might ultimately give way to change.
When I was in ED recovery, I wanted nothing more than a grand realization that would suddenly put the whole process into perspective. I wanted an epiphany, an awakening, a come-to-God moment. I sat around waiting for this epiphany, and when it didn’t show up, I went hunting for it in books and memoirs and poems and songs. Surely someone had the answer, the motivation I needed. Surely someone would be wise enough to explain things to me in a way that would make me listen.
At the time, I didn’t want to be sick. But as anyone who has been through recovery can tell you, not wanting to be sick is not exactly the same thing as wanting to be well. I was over being fatigued and cold and anxious all the time, often lightheaded or out-of-breath. But I didn’t really want to do the things I needed to do in order to be healthy, and I didn’t want to give up my sick body.
It was all a big mess, a set of conflicting impulses that I couldn’t make sense of. I was starting to suspect that the thing I wanted most was to live a bigger, healthier life. And I was also starting to realize that, in order to do that, I’d probably have to give up everything that made me feel safe and solid: the restriction, the sense of control, the physical shape I clung to.
I hated this fact, and it made me furious. I’d spent years fighting it, convincing myself that it was somehow possible to starve myself and be healthy at the same time. In the end, I failed, and now I was faced with two options: heal or stay sick. The choice was that simple after all.
No wonder I wanted an epiphany. No wonder I wanted a realization to sweep me off my feet and magically carry me over the messy terrain of ED recovery. Wouldn’t it be nice to be told something so paradigm-shifting that I wouldn’t mind giving up my habits and rituals? Wouldn’t it be great to be so moved or so inspired by something or someone that I’d effortlessly detach from the disorder I’d lived in, on and off, for thirteen years?
In the end, of course, there was no such realization to be had. True recovery meant letting go of the fantasy of finding a shortcut and of being saved. It meant coming to terms with the fact that, unfortunately, I had to save myself, and that process was going to be much less glamorous than I’d hoped.
For me, the process meant waking up every day and eating. Then eating again and again and again—meals, snacks, all of it. It meant feeling full—uncomfortably so, sometimes—and eating a little bit more, because I knew at that moment that my idea of fullness was faulty and not to be trusted.
It meant feeling my digestive system wince and trusting that if I could only tolerate it for a little while, my body would grow strong again. It meant watching my body change, my clothes grow tighter, and not taking measures to stop it.
It meant, in other words, a whole lot of suffering. It meant allowing myself to feel uncomfortable things every single day without taking one of my customary escape routes (subtracting, skipping, delaying, denying.)
I had to experience the very things that scared me most: fullness, heaviness, the sensation of taking up space in the world. And it meant pushing through every single one of those seemingly unbearable feelings, because I had a timid, yet persistent hunch that a better, fuller life waited for me on the other side.
I say “timid” because for a while my desire to get better was neither confident nor loud—a problem, because the voice of my ED was strong and assertive.
To make matters even harder, there was no evidence at first that the whole business of recovery would be worth it. One of the cruelest parts of ED recovery is that you feel growing pains and discomfort long before you feel better. This seems counterintuitive: if EDs are so unhealthy and so bad, shouldn’t recovery, by extension, feel good? Shouldn’t being healthy be easier and more straightforward than being sick?
You’d think so. But for me, anyway, this wasn’t the case. I felt like crap, for a long, long time, in spite of how hard I tried to pretend that I was feeling better. I didn’t confide in friends back then, but when someone found a way to gently intimate that I “seemed better”—which of course made me want to crawl into a hole and hide, because all I heard was “I’m relieved to see that you’ve gained weight”—I’d put on a placid smile and nod my head.
What I really wanted to tell people was that I felt terrible, that I hated my body so much that I sometimes found it difficult simply to wake up and get dressed. I wanted to say that I missed my ED habits and routines more than I could bear, that I felt heartbroken in the same way you do when you lose a relationship. I wanted to scream out loud that I was scared and furious and above all very lonely, because my ED had been my best friend and closest ally and I was forcing myself to walk away from it.
Somehow I did manage to survive each meal, each hour, each day. I tried not to think too much about the future. Before bed each night I told that I’d gotten through this day, and I’d deal with the next one when I woke up.
In the morning I’d even give myself permission to use the old behaviors the following day, if I had to. My rule was that I had to aim for food normalcy that day. I had to get my nutrition in. Three meals, two snacks.
Somehow, over time, simply through the act of my forcing myself to put one foot in front of the other, things actually did shift.
First there came the day when I woke up and ate a meal without questioning the very act of doing so. Then there came the day when I simply got dressed—no mirror checks, no showering in the dark so that I wouldn’t have to look at myself, no obsessing over how my clothes fit.
Little by little, there came days when I’d eat out with friends, and the ambiance or conversation or sunny weather outside would be so nice that I actually felt distracted from food guilt.
There even came the day—and then many days after—when I filled up on food, and for the first time in a long time it didn’t feel bad or shameful or triggering to have given myself what I wanted and needed. It felt, actually, very good. And it began to dawn on me that in spite of all the mess it had taken to get there, I was getting better.
Growth can be like this. I’m starting to wonder if maybe growth is always like this: not neat and linear, as we’d like it to be, and not circumscribed by deep insights or obvious wisdom, as we think it should be. Rather, it’s a cluttered and confusing process that we survive only by mustering up a mixture of faith and determination.
In my case, action had to come before readiness. I once said in writing that “function followed form,” and this was true. I was behaving like a healed person long before I could identify myself as one.
Don’t get me wrong: I learned many important lessons along my path to recovery, and over time I did gain certain insights that put the process into perspective. But the insights aren’t what happened first, and I don’t think they’d have been possible without a certain amount of habit formation and persistence.
I guess this is what I mean by calling ED recovery a “practice.” What I’m trying to say is that recovery is often something we show up and do every day before it becomes a part of who we are.
The habit formation didn’t feel big or heroic. It was so tedious sometimes: planning my meals, prepping my food, expanding my portions bit by bit, writing down fear foods and then forcing myself to buy them and try them. Carrying my sick clothes to the local consignment store.
Over time, though, I’ve come to understand that these small actions were amazingly courageous. That I woke up and attended to them every day is probably the bravest thing I’ve ever done, whether it meets the conventional definition of courage or not. In fact, the little, everyday practices were all the more courageous because they weren’t obvious, didn’t appeal to my ego or that ED part of me that liked feeling exceptional.
Now, years later, I’m creating a different sort of practice, one that allows me to work through a different set of challenges. This time, the struggle is not with my ED, but with the depression and sadness that crept into my life last year and which I couldn’t even name until I’d become practically unrecognizable to myself.
Fortunately, ED recovery gives me a roadmap of sorts, a hard-won understanding of what healing really looks like.
Right now I’m not looking for big epiphanies or bursts of insight. I’m going to therapy, allowing myself to feel and acknowledge feelings, taking walks and sticking to a healthy enough routine, resisting the urge to like on my couch for days at a time, in a depression stupor. Feeding myself three meals daily even when I don’t want to, or don’t feel worthy of food.
Calling friends. Returning texts.
Once again, habit precedes growth: I don’t quite feel like myself—or even a transformed self—again, not yet. But I feel more human and more at peace than I did three months ago. And I’m sure I wouldn’t feel this way had I not stuck with the practice.
In some ways, it comforts me greatly that growth and change don’t have to reach us by way of epiphanies. Because who can summon up epiphanies on demand?
The trick is to find every day habits and observances that set us up for change. And the real work is to show up for them daily, even when it’s hard. Terribly hard.
If you’re on a healing journey that feels impossible to you right now—whatever that may be—understand that you do not have to muster up clarity and enlightenment before you’re ready. You do not have to feel reconciled with the process in order for it to happen, and you do not have to like it or pretend that you do. You simply have to respect and listen to that part of you that wants to be whole. That part has the strength, I promise, to carry you through.
In the meantime, try to identify a set of small actions and undertakings that you know in your heart will allow you to stay truer to yourself and to your healing. Carve out whatever space you can for these practices, and then show up for them every day. It might not feel like much at first, but one day will become two, then three, then many. Have faith that, one day, the growth that was inevitable from the very start will have found you.
It’ll happen. And until it does, I hope this post reminds you that you’re not stumbling through this alone.