National Eating Disorder Awareness Week begins tomorrow.
I post less in honor of this week than I used to; now that I work with eating disorders, it’s nice for me to have some space from them in my down time.
But I do want to mention that I recently read Arthur Brooks’ book From Strength to Strength, and its message got me thinking about ED recovery.
The book is aimed at strivers and high achievers who are entering the second half of their careers and lives.
Faced with the inevitable decline of some of the skills and energies that made building careers and accumulating knowledge possible, how does our sense of self shift? Do we continue to pursue growth and success in the same way we always have, or do we take a new direction?
Brooks proposes a new direction. Specifically, he suggests that we begin to turn our focus away from aiming to be special and toward trying to be happy.
That’s a big simplification, but it’s pretty much the jist of the book.
Brooks draws upon research and anecdote to make the point that people who cling to the idea of being ever more exceptional often struggle as they turn the corner of mid-life.
They can, he suggests, become consumed by workaholism. Or they might dig in their heels trying to maintain a foothold on career and/or public success, rather than enriching their personal lives.
Brooks writes about new measures of success for a new phase of life.
One measure is connectedness: relationships with family and friends. Another is a sense of spirituality and wonder. A third is the impulse to teach and mentor, to share what we’ve learned with those who are starting their journeys.
Brooks also mentions finding more pleasure in the everyday—the proverbial “little things” that we sometimes take for granted when we’re very young.
I found it a little hard to relate to anecdotes about CEOs, college deans, and high-profile business leaders; Brooks’ central milieu has a very different lifestyle than mine.
Even so, I could recognize my younger self in some of Brooks’ description of overachieving. It made me glad that this part of my personality has mellowed.
To Brooks’ point, I’m now letting go of certain goals and measures of success that I used to think were important.
For example, I hope that I keep writing cookbooks and that people find them valuable. But I haven’t written a bestseller, and I think it’s unlikely that I will.
I doubt I’ll ever be the highest trafficked vegan food blogger, and I don’t foresee myself becoming a big-time influencer (at least not unless I learn to use TikTok).
But I hope I’ll keep writing this blog for many years. I cherish the creative process, and my small life is so much richer because of the big community that I’ve found here.
When I finished up my dietetics training, I was so burnt out that I doubted whether I even wanted to practice. I’ve been lucky to find meaning in being an RD.
Mind you, there isn’t a single day when I feel like some expert who’s at the top of my field. The work is very challenging, and I make mistakes. I’m OK with that, so long as I continue to learn and grow as a practitioner.
My understanding of success continues to soften and develop. It’s increasingly focused on slow, sustainable growth and on the personal satisfaction that I take in my work.
What I care about for the next chapters of my life are exactly the things that Brooks focuses on in From Strength to Strength: family, friends, sense of purpose, giving back. I want new relationships, and I want to nurture the ones that I have.
I want to be happy.
It’s funny how hard it is for me to own my desire to be happy—I always feel afraid to say it out loud, or as if I need to apologize for wanting it. But it is what I want, and by “happiness” I don’t mean a blithe vision of life becoming painless.
I mean that I want my own capacity for pleasure and contentment to deepen. I want to feel the joy that’s possible for me.
Why am I talking about all of this for NEDA week?
I’m bringing it up because so much of my anorexia was intertwined with the desire to be and feel unique.
I’m not the only one; most people with eating disorders have a strong sense of exceptionalism.
When I entered recovery I wrote blog posts about finding a new sense of distinctiveness and identity post-ED.
In recovery, we’re able to grow into more well-rounded identities, which are separate from food, body, and control.
I still believe in the importance of this process, in which eating disorder sense-of-specialness gets replaced by new measures of potential and purpose.
Increasingly, though, I believe that recovery is about letting go of the fantasy of being exceptional in the first place.
In recovery, I learned how un-exceptional my ED was. I wasn’t more self-controlled than anyone else, and I didn’t suffer more than others with the same disease.
In recovery, I’ve learned to be OK with my body. This isn’t the same as loving it or even liking it, but it doesn’t include hating it. I’m much happier with this neutrality than I was at my sickest, when I did actually approve of my appearance, but I was constantly anxious about my body changing.
In recovery, I’ve found an eating style that’s sensible, but not overachieving. I’m balanced, but my diet isn’t going to win any awards for purity or perfection, and I don’t want it to.
All of the things that made me feel “special” when I had my disorder have slipped away. Life has marched on more happily than I ever could have imagined.
My hope for long-term recovery is that my capacity for contentment deepens. I hope that I can spend less time overefforting, white knuckling, and trying to get it all so right. I just want to enjoy what exists in the life that I have.
I’m writing this post from Amsterdam, a city that I’m visiting as part of a larger effort to travel more, see more places in the world, and take greater advantage of the freedoms that exist in my life right here, right now.
I’ve been enjoying great food, tasting fun wines, chatting with interesting people, and sightseeing without having too fixed of an agenda.
It’s been fun and relaxed in a way that no trip could have been when I was sick. I’ve been very happy.
If you have an eating disorder, I hope that healing is or will soon be within your reach. I hope you have, or can find, tools and supports that make the challenges and difficulty of recovery feel less daunting.
Once you get to the other side of the process, I wish you contentment, ease, and yes, happiness.
That’s it for today, friends—no links. I’ll be finding my way back into the groove with posting this coming week.
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