What’s it like to recover from an eating disorder?
By Margie Achee | Guest Blogger
Once I finally made the decision to get help for my eating disorder, I thought the hard part was over. I thought a therapist was going to come to my rescue with a magic pill and akin to getting over the flu, I would be better in days. A therapist did come; many came, along with nutritionists, and medical doctors. They were all part of my ‘treatment team.’ After about six months I stopped seeing all of them – not because I was better but because I wasn’t interested in recovery, I wasn’t ready to give up control.
Addictions, I think, are unique from other mental illnesses in that part of recovering from an addiction requires the patient to work towards wanting to get better. If recovery were a race, those of us who have addictions, (and I personally classify eating disorders as addictions) are starting from 50 yards behind the starting line. After six months of wrestling with my team of doctors I was still not at the starting line of recovery; I gave up and sought the solace of my anorexic world. This may seem counter-intuitive, to return to the thing that had been so destructive, but to me being anorexic was a very safe existence. Anorexia offered me something that reality cannot offer anyone – it offered predictability, control, dependability and numbness. Anorexia may have been wreaking havoc on my body but it was also giving my mind a rest. I suspect this is not unique to anorexia nervosa or eating disorders in general. Addictions offer escapes for the mind in exchange for destruction of the body. To recover is to reverse the trade, and that is why it takes us a while to work towards wanting to recover.
I wish I could report a grand story about how I finally crawled to the understanding that being anorexic isn’t the way I wanted to be. The disease is illogical and my personal recovery is just as illogical. It was a slow progression of trial and error over several years that brought me out of my love affair with starving. I would say that I have been in solid recovery mode for at least two years now yet I still struggle with my relationship with food and the scale. But my struggles are different. I am confident that being thin does not equate a successful person. I am confident that I would rather live as a size 12 than die as a size 2. What I am not confident in is how to eat for satisfaction and sometimes pleasure without using food as an emotional crutch. For so long denying myself food was a way to avoid negative feelings and induce positive ones. It provided me with an artificial way to control my emotions. I have not yet figured out how to endure the natural roller-coaster of life without leaning on food but I am confident that I would rather live with these struggles than die avoiding them.
Throughout all of this there has been the over-arching question of will I ever return to dance? If so, what will that relationship look like? Dance, more specifically ballet, played a starring role in my eating disorder. It was the platform from which I jumped into anorexia. Standing in front of mirrors all day in a leotard and tights does not help anyone’s body image, it crushed mine. Yet, I love ballet. I have danced since I was three and while it has had an obviously negative influence on my life it has also provided me with an immense amount of joy.
I tried to return to professional dancing by joining a modern company once I felt ok in my recovery. I didn’t have to stand in front of a mirror; there were no mirrors in the studio. I didn’t have to wear a leotard and tights, baggy clothes were encouraged. Yet, these cosmetic differences didn’t change the inner dialogue that insisted I lose weight if I were going to be a dancer, of any kind. I’m not sure if this is more reflective of how far I still have to go in my recovery or how ingrained the idea that dancers have to be thin was in my psyche, or both, but after two years of fighting to keep myself out of anorexia-land it was clear that I was not ready to return to the studio. I left the company and resigned myself to focusing on the other great things that had filled my life since dance and anorexia left.
Recently I have gotten the urge to try again. I have found an adult ballet class devoid of the competitive feelings that come with most ballet classes. I can take class with only the intention of enjoying the art. For me, I think this is the key, avoiding the competitive environment, wearing a lot of black baggy clothes, standing far away from the mirror and focusing on the art. It is likely that my old dialogue will intervene at some point and I will have to take another hiatus, but for now I can say I am enjoying dancing again.
It’s a personal decision, whether or not to return to dance. Some people are able to pursue successful professional careers after recovery. Some people, like myself, have to proceed with caution, jump in and out as needed. Like everything with this disease, there is no ‘one size fits all’ prescription for when and how to return to ballet. It requires acceptance of where you are in the process of recovery and acceptance of both your physical and mental limitations. These are things that don’t come particularly easy to those of us with eating disorders. For me, pushing myself to listen to my body’s limits has allowed me to bring ballet back into my life; it’s my reward for all these years of hard work.
P.S. You are enough.