Your wound becomes your wings.
"Can people truly recover?"
A profound and interesting question that I get asked a lot.
The misconception is no, but the true answer is yes. The answer is layered, but the answer is still yes.
Recovery will look different for each individual, but people can, and do, become completely free of eating disordered and addictive behaviours and thoughts, but the threads of memory that exist in every human beings life means that in someway they will always be connected to their recovery.
This is a good thing.
I would not be who I am today without my recovery journey and experiences and I wouldn't ever take back my experiences. Even the most difficult parts.
If being "completely recovered" means that you think that you will never think about your eating disorder again then I think an expectation of full recovery would be difficult to say the least, but also unrealistic.
I think of my journey often, but the way I relate to these memories has changed. The very thing I thought I could not survive or overcome has become the thing I am most grateful for in my life.
My wisdom was birthed within the pain. New life came from finding the courage to let go of my self destructive behaviours.
But it was not easy and I think people get lost, sometimes, thinking that recovery feels good all of the time.
I often view the journey of recovery from addictive or eating disordered behaviours like that of a break up.
I distinctly remember thinking I was going to die from the pain of some of my break ups as the wound of profound loneliness hit me like a wave. I distinctly remember feeling so lost in my illness that I wasn't sure I would survive, or to be completely honest, if it was worth it.
When we break up with someone, it is both an ending and a beginning but the initial stages of grief from the loss can certainly feel much more like an ending. A complete reset, often heart-wrenchingly so, but there are always new beginnings that rise from the ashes.
I still think about people I used to love many years ago, even now, of course I do. The difference is I am intrinsically changed and the way I engage with thoughts about them has changed. There is distance. I have healed. They are memories, moments with people that made me who I am now, but not something I actively dwell on anymore. Time heals many wounds.
Recovery takes time.
Very often, when people decide that they want recovery, they want it...yesterday. The magic wand cure to take the pain away.
We forget that recovery is a process of unravelling and untangling, and understanding patterns that have sometimes taken a lifetime to amalgamate. Even if I had a magic wand, I wouldn't wave it for you. The journey is the unlearning. The journey is making your way through the pain.
You know those giant balls of string that people sometimes build, (or sometimes using elastic bands, hey we all have our quirks), but I like to think recovery is a bit like finding one single thread and then just starting there, gently trying to begin to untangle things. It is messy and it isn't pretty, it is frustrating and it is time consuming, but it is worth it.
You are worth it. (Even if you don't think you are.)
But I think it’s important to understand that even when we have truly recovered there will still be sticky or tricky parts to life.
I think that sometimes people think they aren't doing well because it doesn't always feel good but recovery does not mean that you will never feel sad again.
Recovery does not mean that you will stop getting angry or that there will no longer be times that you feel hopeless, lost or broken but being in recovery means that even when the more difficult part's of life do come knocking at your door (which they absolutely will), you have created and connected to a deeper wisdom about, and within, yourself that helps you respond in ways that no longer harm you in the process.
I often describe the recovery journey to my patients as stepping out onto an overgrown pathway, so bathed in darkness that you can't yet see that there is a pathway, or whether it's even worth taking the next step and this is, I think, what often keeps us stuck.
The fear that the unknown will feel worse than the current state of distress, and fears that we can't cope with a single droplet more of pain. Someone asked me recently, if it was really worth it, was it really worth trying, as the journey of recovery feels so painful when you are on it?
It is painful. Deeply painful.
We are literally asking people to stare, deeply (and with magnifying glasses) into the parts of themselves that they are afraid of, the parts that make them feel deeply ashamed or filled with guilt or fear, and I can put my hand on my heart and say that I think my patients are some of the most brave people I have ever had the privilege of meeting in my life.
But yes I, of course, answered, it is worth it.
As one day, with practice, things start to change. And with change comes respite from constant suffering and with respite from constant suffering comes freedom.
But it is hard to believe at first that change will ever be possible if we are deeply ingrained in one way of living.
I remember thinking to myself that there was no way possible on earth that I could make the change.
Without going in too much depth, what can be said was that I was in a bad place. A sad place.
It is only now that I work as a therapist for an eating disorders service that I realise how unwell I actually was.
I felt completely stuck and lost. My brain just could not grasp that one day I wouldn't know the calories in everything that I ate (I have forgotten the carlories in everything, I made a choice to stop caring and looking and it's just not something I ever think about anymore), or that one day I wouldn't feel compelled to exercise or do sit ups to try to get "the perfect abs" (my value is not dependent on my non- existent abs, I really don't care and I love my soft tummy!), or that one day I wouldn't be frightened of potatoes (I think they might now be my favourite food! I say "might" as I love all food so it's hard to pick just one!)
With practice, all is coming.
When we are ingrained in addictions or eating disordered behaviours they are maintained by various factors, but one of the main things is that the brain like's familiarity, the brain likes habit.
Think about what it would feel like if you are right handed and then you broke your right wrist.
At first, using your left hand to help you about your day would feel horrendous. It would feel frustrating, difficult and overwhelming. But how would it feel in 6 weeks time?
In that time you would have adapted, it might still feel frustrating, and there might be some tasks that still felt more challenging but it wouldn't be as difficult as it was at first.
And then hey, you find out that you've seriously damaged your hand, and the doctor informs you that your recovery is actually going to take longer than expected and that you won't be able to use your right hand for a whole 2 years. Well, one option is that you just stay in bed and decide not to leave the house until it's healed, but what would life look like or become in that time? The other option is that with continued practice things get easier and more manageable with time and through the pain, you actually acquire a new skill.
Neuroplacticity means that our beautiful brains are capable of forming new neural connections at any stage of our lives. This means that we are ALL capable of change, in any given moment!
But forming new, healthier and non harmful habits takes time.
Sweet Jesus it takes a long time.
To develop new neural pathways in our brains we need strong and frequent activation of these new pathways to activate the synapses in our brains. Basically, learning needs on-going reinforcement. This is why it's so important to focus on small changes and repeat the changes until they don't feel as scary anymore.
Sometimes we might be able to make bigger changes, and that will come with time, but it's absolutely okay, more than okay- vital, to start with the small things as over time lots of little small things become bigger things and eventually you stop having to try so hard, and you aren't having to practice anymore, as it's just there, existing within you. The well of recovery has swelled so deeply that you can barely even remember the distant memories of your unhelpful behaviours that were keeping you so stuck.
We can unlearn unhelpful behaviours, but we can not unlearn wisdom.
Wisdom is the kind of knowledge where once acquired, it almost feels as though it is coming back home to a truth that you have know all along and the more wisdom we gather, the less likely it will be that we we will ever relapse again. Yes, there remains a risk, and some of us may be more vulnerable than others, but in all honesty, I believe I have a much healthier relationship with food and my body than a lot of people that I know.
The first lightning bolt of wisdom struck me in a therapy session many many many moons ago where the therapist succinctly and beautifully reflected back to me my own frustration about my eating disorder, as I was in what I now know to be called a state of ambivalence (a state in which one is neither sure nor unsure, ready but also not ready, basically not quite on board the recovery ship just yet.)
They said, simply- "It sounds like you are starting to realise that no matter how many times you [insert self destructive behaviour] it is not going to take the pain away".
And that was it.
Something had just struck me so profoundly that there was no turning back for me.
It became very clear to me, very suddenly, that my eating disorder was not, and could never be, the solution to any of my problems. The veil had dropped, just for a second, but that was enough, and from that point onwards, my life was forever changed.
Even after the truth bombs have exploded inside of your being it doesn't mean that you instantly feel better.
In fact, you may even feel worse.
Deciding, and committing, to a behaviour change is not an easy process. The urges continue to arise, of course they do. But once we have decided to commit to our recovery and trust in our own wisdom we begin to find freedom. Freedom from habitual harms disguised as momentary mirages of temporary relief.
Yes, there is still a battle field in your mind, but once you have felt the truth of wisdom, it isn't possible to lie to yourself as easily anymore.
That place of wisdom I am referring to, exists within us all.
The place of wisdom is calm, peaceful and lies within you at all times. Like the the depths of a deep river, the ripples will come and go on the surface but underneath there is always a deeper place that sees the ripples but allows the ripples just to be rather than being affected by them.
Like the sun, always sitting above the clouds, it's radiating warmth an ever constant no matter what storm clouds can be seen, the sun continues to shine.
And recovery comes in stages.
Even yoga at first, for me, I first accessed more for the physical realms of aesthetics.
But with practice I have now found a better balance whereby I no longer do the intense dynamic classes, they just aren't for me. When I was practising in this way I, personally, was still trapped in this sense of 'doing', my practice is now one that helps me connect to a sense of 'being'.
Instead of 'having' to get my body into complex postures and feeling bad if I couldn't or didn't, I found a practice of softness, gentleness and flow, a practice that enabled me to connect to the sensation of every moment, and connect not only to the destination of asana but also to the journey and this is what I teach and embody for you now in my classes. But that's also not to say that I won't ever revisit a more intense asana practice, or don't occasionally need something more intense to clear my head, but a big part of recovery is flexibility. I don't have to, or want to, pre-plan every little moment of my life anymore. I am in flow. In a a place of balance and freedom.
So how did I actually recover? I guess this is what some of you are now wondering as commitment alone doesn't give those of you trying, but feeling that you aren't succeeding yet, enough credit for where you are on your journey.
Recovery is about re-choosing recovery in each moment. Recovery is becoming a lie detector for you own thought patterns. Calling out your own bullshit. Becoming a detective at noticing your own triggers. Forgiving yourself for returning to an old coping strategy. Changing the way you talk to yourself. Treating yourself with compassion. Taking small steps. Recovery is each time you notice that you have started dwelling on unhelpful thoughts (we can't stop the thoughts from spontaneously occurring, but we change how we engage with them once we notice them), recovery is finding balance, recovery is nourishing yourself, recovery is reminding yourself that you were not born hating yourself and that you are deserving of recovery, recovery is unfollowing anyone on social media that in your deeper place of wisdom you know isn't helping you, recovery is remembering who you were before, recovery is dreaming of who you still could be, recovery is shining a light on society's values on the human body and beginning to question in whose interest this is (... spoiler...it's not ours), recovery is re-focusing your attention to all of the aspects of you that make you you that aren't based on what you look like. Recovery is focusing on the parts of you that you don't hate, not just the parts of you you do. Recovery is starting to engage with your body neutrally at first, then gradually moving to kindness and love and forgiveness. Recovery is allowing your body to forgive you. Recovery is not thinking we can do this alone. Recovery is reaching out for support. Recovery is being honest, even with the stickiest parts of life. Recovery is letting go of guilt and shame.
Recovery isn't a goal in itself because recovery isn't static.
Recovery is transient and moving and it ebbs and flows like the wind.
Recovery moves through you and there will be moments where you feel completely hopeless but you are still 'in recovery.'
It is already happening, even right now, in this moment. Simply by choosing to read these words, you are accessing a deeper realm, a truth that it is always here, it has always been here, within you, we just need to remember to find it when we lose our ways.
People can also feel that they are 'undeserving' of recovery.
This is a tricky one and deeply held core beliefs such as these are often developed through complex and difficult childhood and adolescent experiences, but what I often help people realise is that we weren't born hating ourselves, or feeling guilty, or full of shame or not good enough. Many of us have been so deeply affected by recent events and this has caused a lot of us to really examine our own beliefs and ignorance's and make changes to help us create a better world, with equality for all. We believe in a world that is equal for all, but we often do not feel as deserving or as good as others and we must first look inward at ourselves in order to help others.The truth is, we are all deserving of healing and of recovery and of goodness. This is a basic human right. If we believe this to be true for others, then we must also build this bridge inwards, back in to our own hearts.
The pain you feeling will not always feel this severe and our current pain ultimately becomes our future strength. Recovery, in fact, becomes your armour, protecting you, like an inner lighthouse guiding ships to safety and this is why I will always be grateful to my own recovery. It allowed me to fully step off the hamster wheel of the story of self hatred towards myself and my body and has freed me from society's grip of telling me what I should look like.
I should note that I am aware that I speak from a place of privilege. My recovered body is still one that society deems (highly) 'acceptable' but I am here to tell you that your body is acceptable too. There is NO right way for your body to look.
Even across cultures what is considered beautiful varies and western beauty ideals morph and change over time depending on what we are told is "en vogue". Just take the "heroin-chic" bodies of the 90's compared to the current fad of the Kardashians (please read the Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, mind blowing feminist literature). Why do we put pressure on ourselves to change ourselves to fit in with whatever is in fashion at the time? We are all built differently, even our finger prints are unique, why do we try to shrink ourselves into shells of who we could be and to what cost? Maybe it's time to start directing your anger away from your own bodies, towards the systems that have oppressed you into feeling that you are not good enough.
Women are wearing corsets in 2020. To me, it is utterly shocking and upsetting and makes my job harder as the media is feeding people beauty ideals (please...get good at questioning motives of advertisers...), but I guess with recovery comes an ability to no longer feel jealous of others bodies and fitness lifestyles (this is definitely a phase I went through) but in honesty, I now feel sorry for the Kim Kardashians of the world.
Imagine having everything, literally everything (materially at least), that you could possibly want. A family, a life that so many would dream of, then to waste it all on a treadmill working out wearing a corset sucking a laxative lolly.
To me personally, that's not what my own dreams are made of, and I wish so much more for your life too.
So the facts are now that I will never engage in a fad diet, or any diet for that matter, and I will never overexercise, I do not engage with any accounts on social media that cause me harm. I am able to respond to my inner critic with kindness, compassion and forgiveness and have been able to access parts of life that I would never have been able to access without my journey of healing.
My life is full. Full of food and freedom and full of hopes and of dreams. Complexities, complications, but also self belief. A deeper knowing that whatever it is, I will get through it, whatever it happens to be from moment to moment.
My recovery has enabled me to develop a strong boundary of protection, keeping me safe from undue harm, I am strong because of it, and so are you, no matter what you are going through.
What you are recovering from will be different from mine, but we are meeting here in this crossroads of this very moment.
We find ourselves in this moment, right now, where perhaps you have experienced a mere flicker, a mere glimmer of hope that life might one day be different for you.
Notice, perhaps, did you forget even for a second, as you read any of these words that your usual thoughts momentarily hovered away, as your attention focused on these words.
Recovery starts here. In a fleeting breath of respite.
Recovery wavers and it has ups and downs and sideways sharp turns and steps backwards and it goes round in circles but every single step you make on the recovery journey is as valuable as the next.
Even the lapses and relapses are little treasures to help you realise what to do next time. Next time you dance within troubled waters.
When we look at recovery like this, there is no failure, there need be no more guilt, nor anymore shame. We are human. The ups and downs, they are the journey. The ripples are our lives. We can't stop the ripples from coming, but we can choose how we respond to them. That's the magic. That's where the magic lives.
Every single is moment is an opportunity to re-choose recovery. And one day all of the little moments build up to make longer moments, and in time, your recovery choices become your new normal.
The recovery process will take time, years sometimes, which can feel overwhelming at first. But imagine trying to become fluent at a new language, think how long this would take you! We are learning a new language in being kinder to ourselves, more compassionate, more forgiving. It takes time. But don't worry about the entire journey just now, all you have to do is consider this moment. This one right here. And now the next. Be patient with yourself and keep coming back to the present moment. Over and over.
What can you do in this moment that brings you one step closer to your recovery? Talk to someone, unfollow any unhelpful social media accounts, contact your GP, tell your critical thoughts- "not now", remind yourself that thoughts are not facts, simply sit and follow your breath for a moment more. And then start again, re-choose recovery, again, again and again.
The only way we are ever going to make the changes is to take it one step at a time. Be kind to yourself.
It took me a long time but I can safely say that I live at peace in my body now. Every day. It is my home, and it is a beautiful home, as is yours and I look forward to helping you on your journey back to this knowing.
I am not the expert in your life, and what has worked for me might not be your answer but I am here to remind you that no matter what you are going through, you, my darling, matter so very much. And recovery is so very possible for you too.
We can choose to spend our entire lives hating ourselves. Or we can choose to be kind to ourselves. What are you going to choose?
Get to know your body, the nooks and crannies, the curves, the wonky bits, all of it. Get to know yourself. Who are you, who could you be?
Your body is not the enemy. Your body is your home. It may be bruised, broken, weak, struggling to feel the light inside but it exits within you. It always has, and it always will. You will come home. In time. And your body will be right there waiting for you, with open arms, filled with loving kindness.
As a final note, I want to say thank you.
To my friends, family, people I have loved and lost, strangers in support groups, therapists, body positivity activists that came before me.
Thank you for being the people I needed when I was lost, when I felt broken. For helping me find the pathway when my world was bathed in darkness.
What a gift it is that I now get to be that person for you.
True recovery is possible. Keep going.
(Pic of me, aged 14, happy on a beach, happy in my body just before my eating disorder took hold, how beautiful I was but didn't even realise. I'm glad now I do.)
If any of this has felt meaningful for you please do speak to someone for support. Speak to your friends, family, you GP. I have also attached some resources for you to access.
FREED FROM ED https://freedfromed.co.uk/
The Inside Out Revolution- Michael Neill
Heart Talk- Cleo Wade
For sufferers of Bulimia Nervosa or Binge Eating Disorder- 'Getting Better Bite by Bite'- Book by Janet Treasure and Ulrike Schmidt