Recovery as a Practice

 

Recovery as a Practice | The Full Helping

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 may have been my worst anorexia relapse. This isn’t to say that the behaviors I’m working on now are the same as they were then, because they’re not: 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, 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, because it was a body I had become desperately attached to.

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 be healthy. And I was also starting to realize that, in order to do that, I’d probably have to give up everything else: the restriction, the sense of control, the physical shape I clung to.

I hated this fact. That health and wholeness were incompatible with restriction and starvation was a reality that I resented enormously. It made me furious, and indeed, 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: become healthier, or stay ill. 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 way of life that I’d spent nearly thirteen years within?

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 clothes grow tighter and not taking desperate measures to stop it.

It meant, in other words, a whole lot of unpleasant and trying sensations. It meant allowing myself to feel uncomfortable and painful things every single day without taking one of my customary escape routes. It meant allowing myself to experience the very things that scared me most: fullness, heaviness, the sensation of taking up space in the world, of being seen and heard and noticed. And it meant pushing through every single one of those seemingly unbearable feelings, because there was buried somewhere a timid conviction that if I could just survive the discomfort, 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 both bossy and assertive. To make matters even harder, there was no evidence at first that the whole business of recovery would be worth it. Indeed, one of the cruelest parts of ED recovery is that you feel growing pains and discomfort long before you feel any 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 my stomach turn, 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 downright dreadful, that I hated my body so much that I sometimes found it difficult simply to wake up and get out of bed and dress myself in the morning. I wanted to say that I missed my ED habits and routines more than I could bear, that I felt broken apart by heartache and homesickness. I wanted to scream out loud that I was scared and furious and above all very lonely, because it’s not a stretch to say that my ED had been my best friend on earth, and suddenly she was gone.

But somehow I did manage to survive each meal, each hour, each day. I went to sleep each night entirely unsure of whether or not I’d make it through the following day without reverting back to my old tricks, but I told myself it didn’t matter; I had gotten through this day, and I’d deal with the next one when I woke up.

And 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 heavy thoughts of self-loathing, no mental chatter. 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 didn’t pay too much attention to what I ordered and whether or not it was “correct.”

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. Braced with the hope that function might follow form (a fancier iteration of “fake it till you make it”), we put our heads down and venture out into the fray, one step at a time. Oftentimes we master the steps long before we feel any different.

Don’t get me wrong: I learned many deep and 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 plain persistence in the face of tedium and difficulty. There are always lessons to be learned from a major life experience, but it’s naïve to hope that we’ll learn these lessons before we pass through the fire of the experience itself. Wisdom finds us, but only after we spend some time dwelling in the messiness of being human.

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 or how we feel. We sit down with food and we face our stuff—whatever stuff it is we need to face—long before we can call ourselves transformed.

At one time in my life, this realization struck me as disappointing. I’d wanted a grand recovery narrative, a story of courage and daring, a tale in which I suited up in armor and sallied forth to slay my personal ED dragon. It was hard to detect such grandeur in the day-to-day, humdrum realities of recovery: planning my meals, prepping my food, expanding my portions, trying new things. Carting clothes that I’d never had any business wearing to the 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 something that I could easily hitch my pride to or point to as an achievement (positive feedback and approval were my drugs, just as food control had been).

And 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 could not bear to name until I’d become practically unrecognizable to myself. Fortunately, ED recovery gives me a roadmap of sorts, a hard-won understanding of what it means to show up for a personal struggle with faith, patience, and a willingness to let the process unfold as it must.

This time, I’m not looking for big epiphanies or bursts of insight. Instead, I’m looking to create more space in my life, so that I can sit quietly with my feelings. Creating such space is my practice. It’s a process of moving more slowly (even when it doesn’t come naturally to me) and freeing up my days (when I’d rather be filling them up instead).

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, which includes therapy, mindfulness, long pauses, and remaining open to human connection.

In some ways, it comforts me greatly that growth and change don’t have to reach us by way of epiphany or flashes of insight, because it means that there’s not really anything we have to do in order to access them. We are always changing and always growing, so transformation is inevitable. The trick is how we rise up to greet it: we can face the process with openness and a willingness to learn, or we can dig in, resist, and turn away from the pain that is an inevitable part of change.

We like to believe that growth and healing are experiences that we can consciously control, but our efforts to oversee them only slow them down. The best we can do is to identify everyday habits and observances that will make us more receptive to the process as it unfolds. And it’s the only thing we have to do.

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.

xo

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Categories: Food and Healing

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    33 Comments
  1. That was the most beautifully written expression of why struggling to recover, from anything, does not work. I am grateful beyond words that you shared that with me. Surrender is the key and you have given me encouragement that more will be revealed if I continue to let go. xoxo back to you my friend. What a blessing you are. Lori

  2. This was so powerful. I am not dealing with ED, but this is like a hand to hold during my own journey of recovery of a different sort. It is probably the most “real”, yet still hopeful, description of what recovery truly looks like that I have read.
    Thank you

  3. Thank you for sharing this. I am currently in “recovery” for anorexia. I put it in quotations because that is how I feel about it sometimes (lately a lot of time). I feel like my journey to this elusive destination has come to a stand still. I resonated with so much of what you described with your recovery and it was so beautiful to read your words and feel less alone.

    Thank you so much!

  4. This was hands down one of the most relatable, honest and helpful article I have ever read about recovery and the process of recovery. I really like the “recovery as a practice” mindset. I currently am struggling with my own anorexia recovery. Like you said, it is a daily thing, meal by meal. Posts like this give me so much hope that one day there will be freedom, so long as I keep actively working for recovery, even as daunting as that might seem. Thank you so much for sharing this!

  5. Gena, thank you for this- for sharing your heart, for admitting your struggles, so that others can be helped. There are so many cruel messages from the world thrown at us everyday, and it takes so much strength to fight against them. I admire you greatly. My sister just had a friend who recently died from anorexia. Truly heartbreaking. Thanks for giving me a glimpse into her world. Praying for you to be lifted out of your depression and to find the joy and peace of knowing that you are enough just as you are. I am thankful for you.

  6. What an absolutely beautiful post. You perfectly conveyed the thoughts and feelings that I had while I went through my own recovery from anorexia and bulimia. Thank you for your words and wisdom.

  7. Thank you so, so much for this. I have read your blog posts for over a year, but this is the first time I have felt moved to comment. I am going through a particularly difficult time in ‘recovery’ at the moment (a young man recovering from years of ED), and it can feel incredibly, incredibly lonely.

    xox

  8. This entire post rings true for me in where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going, and I really appreciate you writing and sharing it, Gena. It is just the encouragement I need to keep showing up and practicing the small steps daily. 🙂

  9. Thank you for this heartfelt, beautifully written post, Gena. I find myself deeply identifying with these same thoughts as I push away dark thoughts of restriction, over exercising, and bingeing. I am sick and tired of this cycle that has plagued me for the past 20 years. It feels good to know that I am not alone as I read your posts and the wonderful women and men who comment on these posts as well. Love and peace to you, Gena.

  10. “Habit precedes growth…” So, so true. Most people wait for the change to happen in order to change their habits, resulting in a frustrating growth process. This essay was a wonderful articulation of the difficulty of change, which you have accomplished with poise. Thank you so much for your words and insight. I will keep them close when I am dealing with my own change-related struggles.

  11. Thank you for writing this! There are times I feel so stuck, and this gave me a jolt to stop expecting the grandiose changes and start trying to remember to practice the small ones and have a little faith. I’m so, so bad at having faith.

  12. Gena, thank you for using your gifts as a writer to present these truths to your readers in such a beautiful, sensitive manner. Each of your posts on recovery spark healing and deeper reflection on my own personal journey with an ED, and for that I’m sincerely grateful. Peace & blessings…

  13. While reading this beautiful and honest piece the word, “yes”, whispered itself at the end of each paragraph. Your writing has such clarity, your insight such wisdom, your sharing such generosity. And the photo at the beginning could not be more perfect – hands, many hands, together in prayer position at the heart. Thank you, Gena. You are a treasure.

  14. Thank you so much for this, Gena. I wish I could tell you how much it helps me. I’m working to recover from a decades long eating disorder and your words encourage, validate, and inspire me more than I can express.
    Thank you.

  15. Thank you for sharing Gena…as always, so poignant & well written and resonates so much with me in a way that is impossible to put into words. Thank you for your honesty & acceptance that the road to recovery is anything but black & white. Hugs from Chicago!!

  16. Dear Gena,
    All I can say: Thank you <3
    I am still in the process of recovery and it's not easy… But this makes my journey more understanding to myself.

    I wish you all the best and send you a lot of positive energy and willpower <3

    Best
    Michaela

  17. Every single word in your post rings true and reflects my own path to recovery, though I don’t know that I could have said it better myself, or even say it at all. Thank you.

  18. That is a really beautiful post, Gena – just lovely that you can reflect so articulately and so helpful to think about change in this way. I like also what you gently say about when we have these hard times and get through them, that we don’t ride off into the sunset like in the movies, life doesn’t just suddenly stay easy forever but it continues to go up and down, and after a hard experience the downs can be challenging because they bring up other hard times again but I think it is also helpful to know we have an inner strength that got us through one hard time and can get us through another! Best wishes for many little victories!

  19. I just want to say thank you for writing this piece. Pieces like this, and of course your wonderful recipes, are the reason I keep coming back to your site. They always seem to strike a chord within me that needs to be struck and gives me hope in my continued journey to grow into something more than an ED sufferer.

  20. This post made me cry- tears of sadness for what you went through, of pain because I know what it’s like to be there and I still struggle through it, and of happiness, joy, and hope that you are recovered and that I may be one day too. For the longest time, I have been waiting for that “epiphany” moment, like you, and now I’m realizing maybe that’s not coming and that I don’t need an epiphany to get better. It’s little moments that build upon each other. One day, I will look back from a place of complete recovery, and I am so excited for that day- to be not just “not sick” anymore, but to actually be well. Thank you thank you thank you for such a beautiful post, Gena. You are such an incredible, amazing soul! xo

  21. I thank you Gena with tears in my eyes. The path towards wholeness is riddled with stumbling blocks and it is scary to acknowledge progress lest it jinx you and send you back where you began. I agree that it is the daily practices that move us in the healthy and wholesome direction: meditation, yoga, a greatfulness journal, readings, pausing when the internal dialogue starts to spin. I recommend “Learned Optimism” by Martin Seligman to teach us to recognize our pessimistic, critical or depressive thoughts, challenge their validity, and replace them with thoughts that serve us well.

    Gena, I wish you healing and happiness. Thank you for sharing your path with us so we see we are not alone in ours.

    Warmly,
    Sasha

  22. Gina, it is as though you distilled my innermost thoughts and turned them into poetry. Thank for this post and thank you for everything that you do. I hope that you one day write an ED recovery book.
    PS Would you ever be willing to address GI issues in ED recovery that conflict with vegan diets? (I.e. rumination, GERD, gastroparesis, enzymatic insufficiency, inability to eat raw fruit/ veggies, inability to process cellulose or lots of fiber, inability to eat large volumes, the need for LOTS of protein and less cards in early re-feeding, etc.????)

  23. I love you. <3

    For my last two therapy sessions, my therapist pointed out how I already had the skills to handle my current anxiety and tech bingeing – they were the same skills I used to overcome my ED. They're already in me.

    My first therapist for my ED said the same thing 3+ years ago.

    And I preach it about sex & relationships: the grand gestures often don't produce the results we suspect because they're more fleeting and leave one or both of you exhausted. But the little things – the morning kisses, the sitting and eating together, the pet names and inside jokes –
    those are what really sustain intimacy.

    I need to reread this about a million times to get all the takeaways but for now this'll do.

    Thank you m'dear, as always, for your honesty and vulnerability and the way you so clearly & beautiful articulate your journey.

    xo

  24. What an incredible piece, Gena. So much of this resonates with me and with the small, but crucial, steps I take forward (and sometimes backward) every day. Recovery is truly a journey, one where I learn from both those advancing and relapsing moments. It’s the little things, the small but good habits, that have changed me the most. And your writing, along with that of all of the brilliant green recovery writers, has contributed much in getting me to here.

  25. Stumbling upon this blog post tonight was no coincidence. Thank you for sharing your journey. I felt like I was reading about myself. It’s a long road and humbling to admit food has control of one’s life. But it’s inspiring and refills me with hope and encouragement when I know other people have been down this same road and triumphed. Thanks for your openness!

  26. Thank you for this, Gena. Words can’t express the degree to which this post simultaneously resonates with and inspires me. I am not “recovered” per se, but I’m doing quite a bit better than I have in a very long time. I just made it through a painful accelerated 2nd Bachelors RN program. Ultimately, I will be an integrative medicine NP. For now, as I begin working and enter this new chapter in my life, I am more serious than ever about slaying this beast. Thank you for your honestly, humility, and beauty. xoxoxo

  27. Gena, what a beautiful heartfelt post, and perhaps the most wise and beautiful post in all your time as a blogger, which means the practice of writing us about all this has given us this gift at a whole different level, today. I SO agree that the steps to healing are a practice and do not involve control, clarity, or even feeling like it. Just a willingness to bring oneself to the table, to take the step, to sit and be present ,whatever practices over time help reveal that mysterious healing process unfolding amidst all the struggle. It is there. It is THERE. And that you could write a post affirming this, in this way, is also testament to it. No, it doesn’t always tickle either. My moment of realization about this came a few decades ago after picking my bike up from the bicycle repair shop. I was filled with depressive thoughts of one kind or another, yet I also noticed I was putting one foot in front of the other, wheeling my bike back to the car to put it on the bike rack, so the next morning I could ride it to campus, because that would lift my spirits, even if I didn’t want to believe it in that moment. And it was all true and seemed more true, the more I put one step in front of the other. That may be the moment when I learned to “practice” in the way you are talking about, whether on the yoga mat, in the kitchen, at the desk, in my hopes and fears and all else. Deep love to you, my dear, wise, courageous friend, in your continued healing practice. oxox

  28. This post has me almost in tears, and it is exactly what I needed to read. I’m currently recovering from a relapse with an ED, and so much of what you wrote in this post resonated with me, opened my eyes to why I’m currently “stuck” in this recovery, and inspired me. I cannot thank you enough.

  29. Thank you. That’s really all I have to say. This post was so beautiful and every word was so true. Although I’ve never had an ED, I am going through a lot of healing right now – mainly from a long-term relationship unexpectedly ending. I’m getting better, slow and steady, but it frustrates me sometimes with how slow it is! I can relate too much to wanting that epiphany, to waking up one day and having everything be sunny and grand. Thank you for the reminder that healing takes time, but it’s worth the wait.