When I was younger, I had this recurring anxiety dream/daydream about walking along a path and suddenly holes would open up in the ground and I would try to avoid falling in. I fell into the holes a lot, and the more I would fall into the holes, the more I was afraid of falling in. To 10 year old Becca, this was horrifying, and felt like something I wasn’t able to control. I still sometimes will daydream and go to this familiar setting and struggle to control my imagination to prevent holes opening up in the ground in front of me, to prevent myself from falling in.
It now feels like eerie foreshadowing of my journey with recovery from an eating disorder. Recovery feels like walking along a road where holes are randomly opening up in front of you. Sometimes you see the hole in time and can avoid it entirely. Other times you almost fall in and are a little shaken. Other times still a hole opens up so suddenly that you can’t avoid falling in. And much like falling into an actual hole in the ground, it takes much, much longer to get out of a relapse than it does to fall into one.
The general discourse surrounding recovery is that it’s linear. You realise you’re sick, you realise you need to get better, and you work on it. It’s a line that’s constantly going up. It’s ‘x’ days since your last relapse. There’s no real room for failure.
And maybe this kind of thinking helps some people. It allows there to be a light at the end of the tunnel, something that you strive for, that if you just keep walking on this path, you’ll be fully recovered. But for me, this kind of thinking has trapped me and made my relapses so much worse.
Recovery isn’t linear. It isn’t black and white. And the belief that it is often means that you feel like a failure for having bad days, for struggling, for relapsing, for falling into that hole which has opened up at your feet. People who develop eating disorders often have a number of shared traits, including perfectionism and the need to succeed. So, unsurprisingly, feeling like a failure is really damaging.
Because of this rhetoric surrounding recovery, and the expectation of linear recovery, you would think that once you’ve dealt with one issue which fed into your eating disorder, that’s it. You’ve sorted it, you’ve dealt with it, you’ve gained a level of acceptance and you’ve moved on to the next thing. And so, you become complacent. It feels as though because you’ve gotten to a point where this thing, whether it’s ‘junk’ food or exercise or weighing yourself, no longer triggers you, no longer makes you want to use disordered eating behaviour, it never will again. You’ve ticked off that box on your recovery to-do list. It’s over now. So you don’t need to worry about it.
And so, when I had thought that I had ticked off certain boxes in my recovery, and then those things which I thought weren’t triggering anymore, become triggering again, it feels like a kick in the face when you’re already down. It feels as though your recovery thus far has been fake, or not real in some way, because it wasn’t all uphill. Those holes in the ground weren’t meant to open up anymore, let alone open up without any warning and take you down.
Becoming complacent about stuff that could be triggering, or were once triggering, means that you can go to bed fine and feeling good and wake up and go head first into disordered eating behaviours, seemingly out of nowhere. Because you’ve been on track to walk right into a big hole in the ground, and you haven’t been able to see that you’re heading right for it, because you don’t want to see it, you don’t want to see that you’re not as recovered as you’d like to be.
I don’t know if I believe full recovery is possible. I hear folk talking about how they have fully recovered and don’t engage in disordered behaviour anymore, but I wonder do they have to be conscious of potentially triggering stuff. I wonder do they still almost fall into holes in their recovery path. I wonder if full recovery is a sort of utopian best-case-scenario story that’s told to people in the middle of their struggle as a way to give them hope. Personally, I don’t really believe there’ll ever be a day where I don’t actively have to think about food and my body, where I don’t have to actively choose recovery multiple times a day.
For me, recovery has changed to mean something different. It’s more so about taking it one day at a time. It’s about being conscious of potentially triggering things, like exercise or the idea that I could lose weight in a healthy way, or that I should eat ‘better’. It’s coming to terms with the fact that I can’t be complacent with recovery. I can’t assume that I can do things that other people can without it having disastrous effects. It’s reminding myself that recovery isn’t linear and that you can take a handful of steps backwards, you can stumble and fall into that hole, and it doesn’t mean that you’re failing at recovery.