Recovery as a Practice


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, and I didn’t want to die. 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, among the things I did want, not being sick and not dying were the ones I wanted most. And I was also starting to realize that, if I was to have those things, 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 dogged 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.


Top image source.

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