Trust in the waves.
I have had many a broken heart over the years and I have often compared the recovery journey to that of a break up.
Time sort of slows down when your heart breaks and you are forced to take things step by step, one moment at a time, just like we have to when we begin the journey of recovering.
The process is slow, and it can seem never ending.
There is an experience of forced presentness in the immediate aftermath of a break up which is both incredibly painful and also very beautiful as it forces us to be deeply in the now which is the only place we ever really are, yet so many of us spend the vast majority of our lives drifting into the dreams of yesterdays and tomorrows.
I went through a particularly painful break up almost 2 years ago and I remember the pain striking me with deep force.
It was the first break up I went through consciously, without the numbing of another to soften the blow, and FUCK ME, it HURT.
For the first few weeks I had to dig incredibly deeply to "do the things" I knew would eventually help me but I was in so much pain that it took every ounce of my being to drag myself out of bed to do them. (Sometimes I was, of course, not able to even drag myself out of bed).
I had to take some time off work as I was unable to hold space for others and although a part of me trusted those that loved me when they assured me that things would not always feel this bad, it was hard to fully connect to this truth because of how I was feeling, but sometimes we have to let others hold hope for us, until we are able to hold it for ourselves.
Then months went by and I noticed that I was having larger periods of time without crying and more moments when I would forget about how awful I was feeling.
Now, almost 2 years later, I am deeply at peace with the break up and I have reclaimed myself and my life and I am happier than I have ever been as by letting go of something that was not meant for me I allowed myself to discover who I really was, and what made me happy without the safety net of a relationship.
I very rarely think of the breakup now, but that was unfathomable then, and it is only when looking back that I am able to see how much progress I have made, when I was deeply in the process it was harder to gather where I was and far I had already come.
Letting go of anything, a person, an eating disorder, is incredibly painful.
But the pain does not mean you are doing the wrong thing.
The pain is the indicator that you are transforming, that change is happening, that like a little crab going to find it's new shell, we must feel the vulnerability of not knowing what is next, but learn to trust in the journey anyway.
Trusting in the waves.
Trusting that some of the most overwhelming waves of our lives are helping to move us to where we need to be.
That what lies on the other side of our fear is freedom.
Not knowing what comes next is terrifying, but by beginning to trust in the waves we can learn that even if we do not feel safe, we are safe. That we are held, even in the abyss, we are held by something deeper, that often the tornados that spin through our souls are clearing us out for something better.
Ever since I was a little girl I have received 'signs' from the universe & I asked the universe a question in the middle of yet another heartbreak and it answered with this song:
https://open.spotify.com/track/4feiU1FpB7d2FjeHpJv0Ku?si=e5234b376e4e4e51 - WAVES - 3STRANGE
As I saw the name of the song, 'WAVES' come up in my Shazam I smiled.
I softened and I let go into the moment, surrendering to all that was, as it was in that moment.
I unclenched my jaw and trusted, that like all other moments in my life, there was a bigger picture, that I was not yet able to see, but that one day I would and that I just needed to keep trusting in the waves of my life until then.
Which brings me back to the point of this post, to speak to the waves of the recovery journey.
I often describe myself as being “fully recovered” & although I have no plans to change the way I describe my experiences, I do want to speak to the nuance of what recovery means as I have noticed people becoming frustrated with the recovery process and feeling they are not “recovered enough”.
The truth is the term “recovery” will mean different things to different people.
Some people will have gotten to a point in their recovery where they have enough tools, skills, strategies in their tool box where they have learned to 'live with' their illness but alongside, and part of, a deeply fulfilling and meaningful life.
It is important that this is acknowledged, validated and celebrated hugely.
What this might mean is that conscious steps may still need to be taken to not fall backwards, that the ED voice may still be present but that it is perhaps quieter, less all consuming, that it can be left to protest a little, to feel afraid, but that we have developed and grown the deeper, more rational and compassionate part of ourselves that is able to soothe it and not react to it's demands.
Learning how to 'live with' the eating disorder can also be the pre curser to living without it and in time many, many, many people go on to make full recoveries, myself included.
But I am only fully recovered now, because at one point I wasn't.
It did not happen overnight.
It took years.
It took lapses.
It took relapses.
It took a really, really, really long time to get to where I am today and what is important to note is that it is often incredibly difficult for us to see how far we along on our own journeys.
It is only in hindsight, that we can connect the dots, so to speak as healing is not a linear process so it's so easy to mistake the bumps we encounter as failures instead of gifts that we can learn from.
Every day I see so many people who have made absolutely monumental progress on their recovery journeys discounting their progress because they, indeed, are still on the rollercoaster the journey of recovery.
But in discounting the progress we have already made, no matter how small or big, we are not allowing ourselves to zoom out and see the bigger picture.
There is no magic wand to the healing process, and even if there was, I would not wave it for you.
It is on the journey of healing itself come to know ourselves.
We get to know the suffering and we get to learn how to change the relationship with it.
Learning the language of recovery is like learning any new skill, it will take time and practice to become fluent in it. Some parts are going to be more challenging than others but if you don't feel that you are far enough along on your journey, this does not actually mean you are in fact not far along enough on your journey, but more that we are just often unable to see how far we have come on our journeys ourselves.
It is also easy to mistake habitual thoughts, behaviours as 'evidence' that you are not making progress.
To respond to this I will often share with people the story of how the house I grew up in (& still live in now!) had a really old toilet in it with one of those flushes that are in the air above your head with a chain.
During lockdown the toilet finally gave in and we got a new, jazzy, modern toilet with one of those flushes that are attached to the toilet itself.
Why is she talking about toilets, I hear you ask?
Because even now, almost 3 years later I occasionally instinctively reach my arm in the air to an invisible chain that no longer exists because the neural pathway of the chain in the air existed for such a long time.
Anyone that knows me from Eating Disorder (ED) services will know how much I go on about a certain video (it is known as 'Cath's favourite video' in one of the support groups that I co-facilitate and I notice myself apologising for continuing to go on about it, but going on about it, over and over, is the whole point really!)
I would like to invite you to take the time to watch the video now: Neuroplasticity: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ELpfYCZa87g/
What did you notice? What might the video suggest about making changes?
So often we will feel hopeless because it feels like we aren't making progress, when we actually are making progress, but the new neural pathway (or habit/ behaviour/way of being/ responding) is still forming so it's really hard and takes so much fucking effort to help it grow.
Also, because the ED neural pathway is often so entrenched and strong, let's be compassionate to ourselves here guys, OF COURSE, it is going to take time for it to become dormant.
There is no other way.
It takes time.
& it takes practising, over and over and over again, until one day you don't need to practice anymore because it is the new dominant habit/ response/ behaviour.
I also like to point people to 'The conscious competence learning model' which has 4 stages when they are expressing thinking around needing to be further along on a journey than they are (which isn't actually possible!)
(I should mention that I don't LOVEEEE the word 'incompetence' but we will go with it for now to help me illustrate the point!)
Unconscious Incompetence – you don’t know what you don’t know (How could we possibly know what to do before we have any idea of what needs to be done?)
Conscious Incompetence – you know what you don’t know (This part can feel deeply painful as it can feel like we are at the bottom of a mountain)
Conscious Competence – you know that you can do it now (This part is fucking frustrating too as this is when the practice really begins and you begin to realise how many times you will need to practice before it becomes 'the new normal')
Unconscious Competence – you can do it without thinking about it (this part is super cool and is usually the part that, wildly, people seem to discount! I notice so many people really minimising the changes they have made and I would encourage active reflection on what felt hard before, but does not now and also point to this as really tangible evidence that things are changing and that over time you will be able to make further changes! COOL HUH!)
*PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT- PLEASE STOP DISCOUNTING YOUR FUCKING PROGRESS!
Progress, no matter how small (which tbh, is usually actually pretty big given how much anxiety many of these changes activate within us) should be acknowledged and celebrated, regularly.
Recovery can feel so horrendous at times as you are having to learn so many new skills/ strategies, sometimes at the same time, that it can feel never ending but over time it does get easier as every step you taking you are reminding/ proving to yourself that you can do this.
One step at a time. One fucking brave step at a time.
Also, it is important to remember that each time you do respond in an ED way, it is strengthening that neural pathway, and this is worth remembering if you are feeling a little stuck.
That using ED behaviours is itself adding to the sense of stuck-ness.
That you will feel stuck in your recovery if you keep using ED behaviours. (But deep self-compassion is required when we do, every single time).
To illustrate this I often ask people to imagine a river when they first embark on their therapeutic journeys with me.
I ask them to imagine the river flowing in one direction with a strong current and this representing the ED, and the ED neural pathway.
When people start their recovery journeys, it is like asking them to swim against the tide. This is why it can feel so fucking difficult.
& getting swept back up by the tide is really easy if we continue to use ED behaviours as that is the way the current is already flowing, that is the tide of the stronger neural pathway when we are unwell.
But one day, with enough practice we get to land in the recovery lake on the other side, where there is more ease and there is more peace deep inside, no matter how turbulent the water may seem at times. As there will still be turbulence, as we are alive and we are human but we are learning a different way of navigating through the complexity as we recover.
So what does my own recovery lake look like?
Through my recovery, I have developed a deep connection to a deeper truth.
That the things my eating disorder was making matter, do not, in fact, matter.
That actually, using the lake metaphor, recovery always exists, in every moment, I had just forgotten, or not been able to notice it.
It exists inside you too. Always, even if you don't think it does.
Underneath the overwhelm, the thinking, the obsession and the suffering there is stillness, there is peace.
My eating disorder made my mind OBSESS about numbers - on scales, on the back of food labels, on clothes sizes.
The truth is, on my death bed, no one is gonna give a shit about what clothes size I popped my clogs in.
Nor will they care about yours.
But being “fully recovered” does not mean that I reached some kind of enlightenment & being recovered does not free us from the experience of being human & I think there is where people get stuck in somehow they are failing in somehow, but they aren't.
I still get angry, livid in fact, I hurt, I make mistakes and I cry (a lot), I still feel overwhelmed, stressed and not good enough, or incapable at times.
But what is key is that I no longer respond to things with eating disordered behaviours.
Do I still get the occasional unhelpful thought about my appearance, sure, I’m
human and we are living in a society with a fixation on beauty ideals and every once in a while I look and the mirror and don’t like what I see.
But I stopped sucking my stomach in a long time ago and I’m just not willing to engage in that kind of chat with myself anymore, or hopefully ever again.
You see the key there, it is not that I will never ever have unhelpful thoughts, the key is how I respond to them if/ when I do.
Some of the deepest wisdom I can offer you to help you with your own recovery journey is that I cannot underestimate the importance of learning how to refocus your attention when the obsessions around your body or food enter your your mind.
In therapy sessions I will act out a scenario where I pretend to answer the phone in the middle of a therapy session and ask the person I am working with to notice what happens to my attention when I do so, when my attention is fully on the 'person at the end of the line' and not them.
Refocusing of attention can be a bit of an arse ache but the hard truth is, you just can’t be fully focused on two things fully at the same time.
So if you are engaging with unhelpful thoughts, then you’ve not fully refocused your attention.
So you will need to dig deeper to find new ways to refocus your attention when the thoughts get really loud. (Please note this is just one of many recovery tools and will not always be the answer but it is a starting point for the purpose of this piece).
And yes, you will likely fall back into your unhelpful thinking, repeatedly, even after you’ve practised refocusing your attention until but over time it starts happening less, then even less.
The seeds we water, will be the ones that grow and rumination- as brutal as it sounds, is a choice.
We cant stop the thoughts from coming in but as soon as we notice them, that is the choice point.
It is then we get to choose. Am I going to keep ruminating or am I going to do something differently? How helpful is this thought? Is there a kinder way I can speak to myself in this moment? What would I tell a friend in a similar situation?
Do I still ruminate? Of course I do. The content of the thoughts are different but I am human.
Once again, recovering from my ED is not because I am some kind of super human.
But I ruminate less now as I understand on a visceral level the harm it does to me and I am able to catch myself more frequently, and more quickly when I am starting to spiral.
You have the power to begin to notice your rumination spirals.
And you have the power to choose to refocus your attention when you notice you are ruminating.
Sometimes I don’t understand how I have managed to come as far as I have on my recovery journey and it’s easy to forget how unwell I once was because I can’t really connect with that version of me anymore.
But residual parts of her flicker within me, but now in a helpful way.
The essence of her is now my lighthouse, keeping me safe from harm & she helps me to point towards the light for others still on the journey of healing.
Your recovery gets to become your armour over time.
Your hyper focus that used this be on critiquing yourself, gets to become hyper focus on what types of things (eg certain types of social media) you avoid.
The hyper focus instead becomes spotting the unhelpful thoughts when they arise and using them as cues to speak to yourself kindly.
Also, trust me when I say you won’t waste your time on fad diets after you’ve recovered.
Trust me when I say you would rather buy a pair of jeans the next size up and be comfy rather than bothering to squeeze yourself into something too small after you’ve recovered.
The more we focus on something, the more we make it matter so keep practising focusing on what you want to matter.
On the things and ways you actually want to be remembered for having done, for who you became, on your death bed.
On the experiences you want to have across your life.
If you can imagine getting to the end of your days, what do you think you would want yourself now to know about what really mattered in life? What advice would you give you?
Write a list of 'Reasons to recover' and come back to this often, when things start to feel too hard to keep going.
When you want to give up in your recovery, rest, pause, do not give up.
& the truth is, if you have come this far in reading my words, you are further along than you think you are as I do like to waffle on, yet you chose to keep going.
So keep going.
Keep going knowing that even if you don't yet believe that recovery is possible, it is.
Wherever you are on your journey, you are exactly where you are meant to be.
Trust in the waves of life, you never know what gifts they will bring to the shoreline.
Playlist to accompany journaling should you desire this! Please listen: OFF SHUFFLE:
Trust in the Waves- Journaling- Almond Blossom Yoga https://open.spotify.com/playlist/1ESsFDpC5e1l1ZJDWfZ2P9?si=FKwx0fHaQ8aXW4B8glc5Aw&pt=9063fb03efbcef765e2de3c6930988cc
What is my main takeaway from reading this blogpost?
Is there anything I might like to try doing differently following reading this?
What progress would it be helpful to acknowledge so far on my recovery journey that I might usually discount? (*hint* Even getting to the end of this blog post can be counted!)
To work with me privately for 1:1 therapy or supervision visit Light Of Mind: https://www.lightofmind.co.uk/about/staff/cath-perry