By our lovely client, Chrissy, for Eating Disorders Awareness Week
I wanted to write a blogpost for Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and as my ending in treatment draws nearer, I felt it would be a great time to address both!
I first started treatment at The Recover Clinic two years ago, in the December of 2014. I had developed my eating disorder earlier that year, in the summer. As far as I was concerned at the time, I was just losing weight to finally achieve what would be the end of my troubles. Growing up I had experienced a number of traumas, and I carried them with me throughout the years, unaware of the full extent of the damage that had happened within me. Having received a lot of criticism throughout my life for being overweight, I developed a deep hatred for my body. I saw myself as worthless, disgusting, and believed all the criticism and society’s opinions about weight and what is deemed “attractive” or not. That summer of 2014 I had reached breaking point, I was following a path that wasn’t right for me, I felt completely alone and my self hatred was at it’s worst. I therefore decided that the solution to all my problems was what I had been told for such a long time: to lose weight.
What happened next was a blur of exercise, food and blankness. By blankness I mean the look on my face that resulted after my so-called “achievements”. Looking back at pictures of myself when my eating disorder was at it’s peak, it’s heartbreaking and terrifying to see that there is barely any light behind my eyes, they almost look black. I wore a smile but it looked like it was painted on. But as far as I was concerned, I was “happy”. I finally had the “solution” to all my problems, hadn’t I?
But the feeling of success was short lived. I received approval from those who had criticized me in the first place, I received momentary notice from those around me…and nothing else. I remember thinking to myself “is this it? Shouldn’t I be getting more? Thinness promised me success, love, people falling at my feet, why aren’t I getting more attention?” Going back to uni where I was already so unhappy triggered the start of my bingeing behaviours. This was a terrifying period, I felt that I was losing the only thing that made me worth anything- my thinness- and without it I might as well not be alive. I find it so sad to think that I had so little belief or any sense of worth in myself that I genuinely believed that I was nothing without a thin body. But that’s how I felt. Eventually, I came across the Recover Clinic, and a first I went there with the intention of getting rid of my bingeing “so I can go back to being thin again”.
When I met the Clinical Director, Emmy, an incredible force of nature who would then become a huge inspiration in my life, I was in for a couple of shocks. The first one was when she told me I was bulimic- as far as I knew my only problem was bingeing. The second was when she asked me “do you remember a time when you were ever happy?” and I responded with “yes, last summer when I lost all that weight.” Her response was “no, you weren’t happy, that was your eating disorder making you feel that way.” I remember thinking “what does she know? I was happy, the happiest I’ve ever been!”
Shortly after starting treatment, I very quickly learnt otherwise. Having no knowledge about eating disorders, what they actually were and what mine was doing to me, I had to educate myself very quickly. I soaked up all the knowledge my amazing therapists were teaching me, I wanted to learn it all so that I could recover as quickly as possible. At the time I saw my eating disorder as a powerful monster that took over me whenever I engaged in my behaviours, I called it “the demon.” The first part of my recovery was hard, I was in crisis mode and continually acting out. I was trying both to recover and trying to survive in university, which I realized very quickly was detrimental to my health. When I left university and began my full program at clinic, I finally felt safe and secure enough to focus solely on getting better.
Along with learning about how my ED worked, I then came across a teaching that would change my life forever. Emmy was taking our group when I first heard her talk about the concept of self-love. I had never heard of something like this before- I’m sure I had heard the word before- but I never even imagined it was actually possible to love myself, like I did a best friend. When Emmy first introduced that concept to me, I was instantly hooked. I was very angry at those who had hurt me growing up, and how I had been taught to hate myself, and I decided to “get my own back” by learning to love myself. Of course, at the time I was in a place of wanting revenge. It would be a long time before I learned to love myself just for myself instead of for an ulterior motive.
Recovery was a winding, crazy, zig-zaggy road, full of twists and turns and bumps and bends. It started off pretty linear, dealing with my symptoms and working on my nutrition, working on the trauma that was very obviously coming up for me- it was painful and exhausting, especially when my behaviours were happening so often. I was so fearful and untrusting of my body, and still very much fixated on my weight and what my body changing meant. But as I also delved deeper into other aspects of my recovery, I learnt about what was fuelling these behaviours, what had created so much hatred of my body, and what I could do to remedy this. I didn’t feel like my acting out would ever end, I took risks like giving up restriction even though my bingeing continued- which was terrifying at the time- but overtime my acting out happened less and less and eventually, the last binge happened.
Recovery, of course, is far more than just the symptoms and the food stuff. In my journey, that was dealt with pretty early on, but little did I know the things that would come up for me in the deeper stages of my recovery. One example of this was the discovery of my “false self”. I had made some very close connections in my journey, with one person in particular. We instantly hit it off, growing close very quickly, and in that first year of my treatment I remember her saying to me “I can’t explain it but sometimes when you talk to people it comes across as fake. You are kind, but sometimes it doesn’t feel truthful.” At that point I genuinely did not have a clue of what she was talking about, I thought I was just being me. Soon to follow came an identity crisis that opened up things in a way I never imagined. But this identity crisis being triggered, and all the pain that I felt going through it, became one of the biggest parts of my recovery.
The things I had experienced in my childhood left me in a state of fear and distrust, constantly looking over my shoulder to defend myself. That, combined with the core beliefs I had internalized about my body and my sense of worth, resulted in my developing a “false self.” Of course, I wasn’t aware that any of this was happening, and I guess that’s why it was so painful when it first started coming out at clinic. I didn’t understand what was happening and why, I only knew that I felt so scared and untrusting of everyone around me. I felt particularly untrusting and scared of those closest to me, including my therapist. I started feeling things that I felt deeply ashamed of, things hat I had squished down so many times before and never would have talked about. In the past, if I had ever felt uncomfortable around someone, I never would have been honest about my feelings. I felt like a bad person if I ever said or felt anything that was disagreeable. My inauthenticity started being called out by others in my group therapy, I was always “sugar coating” whatever I said, trying to manipulate situations to stay out of “trouble” and always, always, always trying to keep myself “safe”.
It’s not surprising to me really, that I had such fear of other people’s anger. My experiences of anger in the past were always frightening, and because I had felt rejection growing up, I never wanted to feel that way again. So with friends, any relationship really, I molded myself to be “perfect” for each person, manipulating myself to be whatever I thought they wanted- because in doing so I believed I was being a “good” person. I thought that’s what made me loveable. When I was a teenager, because I felt so lacking in my looks, I felt that my only other source of worthiness was being a “good” person, a “good” friend- a.k.a. giving all my power away to those around me and losing touch with my true self. It’s heartbreaking to think that I ever felt so loathing of myself, because as I see it now- I was never unworthy, but I learned to feel that I was. But it was never true.
This realization about myself led to a lot of pain and confusion. I felt anxious around everyone- especially those I had started to let in. The only people I felt relaxed around were those who I kept behind a wall. I started acting out emotionally, and not only did I not understand what was really happening, but I also beat myself up incessantly. Whenever I hurt someone’s feelings, I projected onto everyone around me that they saw me as the truly “bad” person I was and used that to beat myself up further and further distance myself. It was like an ongoing cycle of discord. Looking at it now, from a distance I can see that the years of fear had built up into all these unhealthy ways of relating- and it all came spilling out. As my therapist once put it, “the mask had dropped”.
Self love was something I had to be taught with the same energy and perseverance that all those negative messages had been taught to me earlier had. Nowadays the concept of self-love can be considered a bit tongue in cheek. It’s not a light term, though it can be used lightly. And when it is, the sincerity and the all-encompassing effect of how powerful it really is gets diminished. Self-love was not an easy thing to practice, it was the biggest most opposite-to-what-I-knew experience I would ever come across. I hated myself so much, in so many ways, to be able to speak to myself in a forgiving way. Whenever I did anything wrong, I judged myself. Whenever I started stepping away from unhealthy things, I judged myself. My past trauma had manifested itself in many different ways, one of them being codependency. My self-hatred, my desperate need to be loved and my feeling alone resulted in me developing co-dependent and therefore very destructive relationships with a number of people in my life. Whether it was sexual relationships or friendship, that’s the only way I knew how to show love- to be completely “there” for someone. Being their carer, being able to look after them, and to do what they wanted me to do. Manipulation, guilt and fear were at the forefront of these relationships, as these were the tools I had learned to relate with. When I realised how unhappy and how unhealthy these relationships were for me and tried to step away, the guilt in me attacked me full force. I felt like such a terrible person for “abandoning” all these people. But through recovery, I learned what real friendship was, what healthy, unselfish love really was, and overtime, I learned that it was this kind of love that I deserved. Not the destructive, painful “love” I had known for so many years before.
My relationships at clinic were one of the biggest contributors to me learning to love myself. I had found people that promised to love me unselfishly, who only encouraged and wanted me to get better for myself. I learnt that I could make mistakes, and I could be forgiven. I learnt that even when I did bad things, even if the other was furious at me, it did not make me a bad person. For the first time in my life I learnt that I could be seen for all of me, for who I really was, and I wouldn’t be rejected. I showed the darkest parts of myself at clinic, and though at the time I felt I was showing them against my will, I am so grateful that I was pushed to do so. Because when I did, I wasn’t left and abandoned the way I feared. Sure, people were angry and people were hurt. But it was through all that that I learnt that people are allowed their feelings, that no on is bad or good, and that true love means not being turned away. It also means being called out for your bullshit, even if it’s what you don’t want to hear. I learnt that I could trust these amazing women around me to be honest with me, to tell me truthfully how they felt. And I learned that I could tolerate those feelings, that I could survive anything, no matter how scary it seemed at the time.
As I became more and more comfortable to express my true self, to be honest to who I really was and to trust those around me, I found the same happening in my outside world. With friends who I loved but previously had always painted a smile on for, I began being more honest with about my less “happy” feelings. And in return, they started showing me other sides of them. I started seeing the world and those around me in a less black and white way. Previously I saw my friends as “happy” people and me as a “sad” person, and therefore never being able to relate. But now I see how we are all just human, and we all have our shit. This realization brought me a lot closer to people in an intimate way. It also taught me who I feel comfortable to share myself with. Previously I never had any boundaries- I didn’t even know what they were. And I struggled a lot when I first started practicing them, I felt so guilty. But now I see that boundaries are just another form of self love- I don’t do anything I feel uncomfortable or unhappy doing- and I’ll be honest with someone about my feelings. If they reject me, it’s their problem, not mine. When it comes down to it, why would I put myself through misery? It’s my right to protect myself from things that might do me harm. This is true self-care, which is also self-love. Learning to look after myself was one of the most amazing gifts I learned in recovery. As a result, I am able to relate to people in a healthy way without getting enmeshed in their business, and therefore I am able to just live, and not carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. Relationships that were previously unhealthy became healthier, as I was no longer playing into them in a destructive way.
Overtime I learnt a lot of things through my relationships to other people, but I needed to learn to love me for me. Just for being me. Earlier in my recovery, in that first year, I had done a lot of work on my inner child. I envisioned myself when I was young, and I was able to develop a strong sense of self-compassion and love for this little innocent girl. This stage of my recovery helped me heal in many ways. But I also needed to learn to love myself now, as I was. With my body, with all the mistakes I made, with all the darkness, the anger and the distrust. With all the flaws. And all the “flaws”. Experiencing love in my relationships helped me begin bridging the gap between me and myself. The more I realized that the way I imagined how others saw me and judged me was untrue, the more I started to let go of these internalized core beliefs. And I learnt that even if one were to judge me in this way, that their judgment isn’t my truth. It is another person’s judgment. It seems so complicated trying to explain it sometimes, it’s a multilayered thing. But the long and short of it is, I learned to let go of all the things I hated about myself. I targeted each negative thing and challenged it, either in clinic or outside. Really when it comes down to it, I was able to question: why? Why do I hate myself for all these reasons and why do I deserve it? I would never want someone else to beat themselves up relentlessly so why was I doing it to myself?
I kept asking myself those questions, I kept reflecting and being curious. That’s one thing I would give to all those in recovery, to ask yourself “why” and explore those negative beliefs. Because they’re not true, they are things we’ve picked up along the way. But they aren’t helping us. It’s not helpful to see oneself as ugly or stupid or evil or anything like that, those are the things we need to work towards letting go of. Overtime as I let go of my anger more and more to those around me- which non-coincidentally came hand in hand with forgiving myself, and letting go of my negative core beliefs- I became happier, more free. It’s not worth it to carry all this pain- other people’s pain, our own harshness towards ourselves, constant raging anger at others and ourselves. We all deserve to heal and be free of it all. It takes time but I have seen it happen in myself and in so many others. And healing goes way past my time in recovery. Sure, I may not have an eating disorder anymore, but I do have healing still to do and that takes time. But I’ve realized that I will never be a “perfect” product, with everything neatly tied up and packaged into place. I am a human, something vibrant and messy and colorful and exciting. I’m a wild woman, I’m an explorer and an artist. I’m a mix of so many things, I’m not going to limit myself anymore. I allow myself to be and feel whatever I want to be and feel right in this moment. And I think that’s probably the biggest thing I found in recovery: being able to feel.
I never realized before how truly numb I was. I numbed myself out so that I wouldn’t have to feel anything. I used food, I used sex, I used drugs, I used unhealthy relationships, co-dependency, materialistic things, whatever I could to numb out the pain, anger and self-hatred I was always feeling. But recovery has helped me let out the pain in a safe way and be able to heal those painful parts of myself. And doing so has enabled me to not only feel negative emotions safely- but also to feel all the amazing things I could never feel before. I know I was always loving but I could never truly feel LOVE the way I do now, towards my friends, my family- even my cat! I could never feel that warm rush of wanting to hug someone until they squeal, or cry with happiness while experiencing an amazing holiday, or simply just holding a friend’s hand and sitting with them in their sadness (while still being able to hold myself). I remember being so disconnected from my body that I couldn’t even feel deep tissue massages properly, it was almost like there was a second layer of skin between my body and the masseuse’s hands. Something amazing that happened recently was when I was sitting in group and listening in empathy to the pain someone was going through, and realizing I was feeling for them without getting sucked in. I know now that yes I can feel- and thought that concept feels scary at times- I don’t need to be afraid anymore. Yes I grew up in a very scary situation and I learned to be afraid, but I no longer have to feel scared. Recovery has made me strong, empowered, and able to say no to shit. I have every right to stand up for what I believe in and say no to anything I don’t want.
That to me is what self-love is- it’s knowing that I am worthy and I deserve my voice. It’s being able to see that I’m beautiful and not criticize my beautiful body that has been through so much and still continues to keep me alive and do incredible things. It’s being able to have healthy, loving relationships that I want and that I have a say in. It’s being able to build a life doing what I want to do and what I enjoy. It’s being able to take responsibility and be an adult and feel empowered doing so. It’s being able to eat whatever the fuck I want and to not be terrified about my body. It’s being able to hold myself and cry when I’m sad like I would a friend. It’s being able to ask for help when I lose my way and trust that I’ll be helped to find my path again. It’s knowing that I’ll always find my way back in the end. It’s knowing that I’ll always have myself. It’s being able to look at myself in the mirror and smile. It’s being able to be proud of me. It’s being able to feel love for me. It’s being able to be me.