On Healing…

Our client, Kirstin, talks honestly about what it’s like to truly heal yourself…

It’s tempting to portray the process of healing as smooth and enjoyable – a universally positive experience. But from my experience, the reality is pretty far from that. It kinda sucks. Of course there are beautiful, even magical moments. There are turning points, milestones and achievements. We can feel an overall sense of improvement when we take a step back and get some perspective. But even from a purely physical point of view, the process of healing is not a comfortable one at best. It requires change. Growth. Patience. Time. Acceptance. Slowing down. None of which our monkey brains particularly like.

Repair actually requires an incredible amount of energy and effort from the body. Take a wound. Swelling occurs as white blood cells rush in to prevent infection. The whole area becomes red, hot and inflamed. Blood clotting factors are recruited to start sealing it off. The sides of the cut are pulled together, stretching the skin tight. There might be internal bleeding and bruising. In the later stages – I’m sure everyone’s experienced this at some point – the cut gets frustratingly itchy as it dries. It can feel like an eternity before the scab is ready to peel off and reveal the shiny new skin underneath. Personally, I’m incredibly impatient and it often gets picked off before it’s ready. Much to my regret, I discover the wound is still a bit raw underneath, the skin too soft and lacking waterproofing. So in rushing and forcing the process, I generally leave myself with a worse scar than if I’d just left it alone. In short, when we zoom in, the healing of even a small graze is often ugly, messy, and at best uncomfortable.

Why? Because as humans we’re inherently impatient. We don’t like the discomfort of the unknown, of uncharted territory. Everything has to be boxed, defined, categorised, neat. It’s ok for something to be uncomfortable if it’s predictable and we can understand it intellectually. But when we’re healing from something bigger, more significant, recovery can be equally as difficult and complicated, sometimes more so, than the incident itself.

Eating disorder recovery is a good example of the complexity of healing. The work is both mental and physical, and each aspect brings its own challenges. On top of that, the initial stages can be excruciating as every single positive action is met with fury from the inner demon.

I entered recovery in what felt like a trance. Numb. Detached from everything. I didn’t care whether I lived or died. My body was directing every single ounce of energy towards keeping my heart beating, my lungs breathing, my eyes open. Someone recently told me she saw me walking from across the street at the time and I could barely lift my feet off the ground. All I knew was that what I was doing was upsetting my mother, everyone around me, and that was the motivation I desperately clung to. Of course the deeply buried part of me that did want to live, and did believe there must be better, started getting nourished as I started regular treatment and therapy. Does that mean it was all up from there? Definitely not.

From a purely physical point of view, recovering from a state of chronic starvation and malnourishment is exhausting. When I was restricting I felt “great” whilst my body ran on adrenaline and not much else. The ‘high’ I got was exhilarating – I felt invincible. I didn’t need anything – not food, sleep, or rest.  I was still doing life. When I came home I would go for walks in the freezing cold, swathed in ten layers of clothing, despite not having the energy to walk up the stairs. But when I finally stopped, sat still, and just let myself be, it all hit me at once. Months of exhaustion and burnout. Aches, pains. I would wake up drenched in sweat in the middle of the night because my blood sugar levels couldn’t cope. More recently my body temperature has been fluctuating wildly as my hormones try to readjust. Not to mention the digestive issues that come along with re-feeding. Awful, painful bloating that makes me look constantly pregnant. Stabbing pains when eating, nausea all the time. Feeling like I could never possibly eat again and then feeling sick with hunger. Not knowing when I’m hungry, or full. Not being able to trust my body. My body not being able to trust my mind. A complete split. Disconnect.

And that’s just some of the physical symptoms. Mentally, healing is probably even more challenging. I am having to keep surrendering, over and over. To do things that feel completely counter-intuitive. To keep eating when I don’t think I can. To keep showing up to therapy.

In fact, the first step of any healing process is acknowledging that something is wrong, that we’re hurt. It requires a whole new level of vulnerability. We have to allow ourselves to reach out and be supported. To admit we need help. Because we can’t do it alone. If we’re recovering from major surgery that may not be so difficult, but when we carry shame around our condition, when we have an investment in our illness – as with an eating disorder – that step can feel like a huge, terrifying, leap of faith.

The urge is to try to control the process. At the beginning, especially, I desperately wanted someone to show me what recovery was going to look like. What the steps were, and how long they would take. What the milestones were, and when I’d passed them. I wanted a chart, a neat list of things to tick off. I wanted to do it quickly. To rip the plaster off and get on with my life. Ignoring the fact that doing so would leave me more hurt and more vulnerable than ever before. There’s a lot of shame and stigma around needing to stop, recuperate and heal in our society. It seems like everyone is always rushing. Everything is urgent, has to be done quickly and perfectly. Busy is the way to be, at all times. We always have to be doing something. I definitely had that mentality, and I would force my way through everything. Go go go until burnout. I was terrified of what would happen if I stopped.

So sitting with not knowing what was going to happen, when it was going to happen, or what it was going to look like, was absolutely excruciating. I wanted everything to be quick. I wanted to deal with everything as quickly as possible. But the truth is, life doesn’t happen quickly, even if it may look like it from the outside. Healing is about accepting that there’s going to be a lot of discomfort, messiness and pain. That we’re allowed to feel frustrated, angry, sad, envious, ashamed. We’re allowed to hate the process. But we cannot substitute anything for the process. Even if we know exactly what’s going to happen it will still feel crappy. We still have to live it. Knowing something is not the same as experiencing it. And that’s the fucking annoying truth of healing. No matter how much we fight it, try to understand it, or control it, it will still take its own time. It will still happen the way it’s meant to happen. And the only thing we can do is sit back, complain, allow whatever comes up, and try to get to a place of trust and acceptance. Seeing it for what it is, understanding it’s unpredictable and annoying and uncomfortable, but holding our desires in mind. Remembering what healing is: a process of growth that allows us to evolve, to become newer and stronger and more fully embodied in ourselves.

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