I posted this story (with much hesitation) in February 2016 for Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Having been through many of these “weeks” in my lifetime, I finally felt like I had something meaningful and hopeful to share. The response I got was better than I ever could have imagined. I got messages from friends I spent time in treatment with 8, 9, 10 years ago who thanked me for writing something they could relate to that wasn’t your typical unrealistic “I went to treatment, got better, and life was great again!” story. I also heard from friends who knew nothing about eating disorders before but thanked me for helping them start to understand what they’re all about.
As weird as it may sound, this is the month/week many of us “insiders” really dislike because of the large amount of well-intentioned but often outdated or just plain inaccurate information that gets put out there in the name of “awareness.” There is so much I could say about this (and have, in the past), but instead this year I want to share what I hope will be a positive message related to my own experience.
I guess my aims are twofold– (1) to give some inkling of hope to people who feel completely defeated and (2) to take away some of the shame/stigma of being open about mental illness (and hope I don’t regret being this open myself).
In the summer of 2012, during a period of profound desperation with myself and my eating disorder, I entered treatment for what felt like billionth time (I eventually stopped keeping track; continuing to fail after receiving that much help was getting depressing). I had been living with various forms of my eating disorder for nearly 15 years and nothing seemed to bring about any long-term improvements. Unlike earlier treatments, I did not enter this one with high expectations. I was honestly just hoping to get a week or two break from my eating disordered behaviors which at that point were beyond my control and making me suicidal.
The place I went in 2012 was not the best (but also far from the worst) place I had ever been. The milieu was not entirely conducive to healing– several cliquey “Mean Girls” who decided right away to band against me, a psychiatrist who only knew how to ask one question (“Biggest challenge today– amount of food, type of food, body image?”), and the same old groups that most people slept through. Given this along with my state of mind when I went in, I never would have guessed this would be the last place I ever went, or needed to go.
After a few weeks and once my depression lifted some (thanks to… food? meds? therapy? some combo of everything, I’m sure), I started thinking more clearly. I ended up staying several more weeks and while the treatment itself was not all that amazing, the time there allowed me to gain a new perspective on my life and my future.
When I left I was lucky enough to be put in contact with a dietitian who had a philosophy other than the usual “give up your ED 100% or… don’t and eventually die from this.” Really, that’s what I had gotten up until this point… the message that full recovery is ALWAYS possible with enough motivation and the right fit of treatment. You just need to find the right place, the right therapist, and/or the right medication on top of REALLY wanting to change! But what about those of us who did really want to change and who had tried countless different therapies, inpatient and residential facilities, medications, etc? I “graduated” from treatment facilities that boasted a 98% long-term success rate, which I have to laugh at because of their very flawed research methods. I’ve seen friends go in and out of the same treatment center 6-7 times expecting different results (“You just weren’t ready the first 6 times!!”). I’ve had therapists try to make my parents feel guilty for not being able to afford luxury $2,000/day treatment that would SURELY save me when no other place could. The truth is, there is currently no evidenced-based treatment for adults with anorexia and EBTs for other EDs and age populations are spotty.
N was the first person I met who offered a realistic alternative to the “full recovery” thing. She took the time to understand my unique history without putting me into a box. She didn’t threaten to stop seeing me or push me into a higher level of care at the first sign of struggle. She helped me see that I didn’t have to wait until I reached various unrealistic “recovery milestones” to start living my life.
One of the biggest things holding me back at that point was all the regret I had… for wasting all of my adolescence and early adulthood in this stupid disease. Why did it take me 8 years to graduate from college? Why did I not have a single friend who wasn’t someone I met in treatment? Why could I not relate to normal people my age because my experiences were not of college parties and dating but of spending nearly every night alone hoping my eating disorder would finally kill me? Any progress I ever made was overturned by the fact that I remained so stuck in the web of regret and self-blame. I couldn’t see any future for myself other than continuing to “get by” from one treatment stay to the next.
Around this time is when I finally started to accept that yes, the past happened and there was no going back. I definitely missed out on a lot– either because I was too sick and tied up in my disorder to engage in life or because I was off in yet another hospital or treatment center that was supposed to finally “cure” me. I would get none of that time back, but there was also no point in dwelling on what I couldn’t change. As “old and hopeless” as I believed I was, I was actually still relatively young and capable of change.
Fast forward to today, over three years later– my life is infinitely better. I haven’t been back to (inpatient/residential) treatment since and I’m doing better than I ever could have imagined. I’m careful not to call myself “recovered” though, and that’s actually a big part of what allows me to be in this better place.
The idea of living completely without all of the behaviors I relied on for so long seemed (and still seems) impossible. I was never going to be completely normal about food and I was definitely never going to “love my body” or stop wanting to change it. So no, I may never reach that pinnacle of “full recovery” but that’s okay. It doesn’t mean I have to resign myself to living a constant nightmare in the depths of my disorder. For the first time I saw there was a grey zone… I could still function and even thrive with some level of diagnosable “disorder.” Who cares what other people think (about the specifics of my daily routine, the timeline of my life, what I have and haven’t accomplished yet and why, etc.)? This was my life and I was tired of not living it!
The past three years have been pretty monumental. I graduated from a master’s program that gave me much more than a degree; I credit the people I met there with helping reintegrate a very Socially Awkward Becca back into society. I adopted one very special cat– Mango Mandarin (yes, I actually named him after the Bath & Body Works scent) — who helped me in more ways than he ever could have known in his short life. I took a job that allows me to do the work I love and care deeply about on a daily basis. I cultivated closer relationships with family members. I discovered my love for yoga. None of these “achievements” are that outwardly spectacular, but they are when I remember how drastically different and darker things were not too long ago. I’m grateful to be living my life and doing things I never thought I’d be doing, even just waking up every day not completely hating myself.
I’ve still gone through really hard times since then. Mango passed away tragically and unexpectedly in December and I’ll admit my first thoughts were of how unfair life is and how I might as well dive back into the one thing that’s always been there for me– my eating disorder. How cliche, right? Had this happened before, I would have done just that. Today, however, I have so much more to lose. It didn’t take long to convince myself how absurd it would be to go running back to the very thing Mango helped me pull away from. I was recently lucky enough to find my newest fur baby Penelope, and while she will never replace Mango, she is uniquely awesome in her own way.
I still deal with some aspects of my eating disorder every single day, and there are still days when it makes me pretty furious. However, I’m also living a life far better than I ever thought possible. I know this month tends to bring out the dramatic “I was on the brink of death and now I’m on top of the world!!!” stories, complete with graphic before/after photos. However, I’m always more inspired by the less dramatic stories of people who have made more gradual and realistic changes. I hope my story can be one of those stories.