There’s a rumour out there that full recovery from an eating disorder isn’t possible. And as much as I disagree, I can understand why some people come to that conclusion – in part because a lot of people in recovery haven’t received appropriate treatment, for an appropriate length of time.
As a past client of The Recover Clinic, I want to share my definition of “recovery” inspired by a poem (copied below) that a lovely therapist at the clinic shared with me.
Ithaca, by Cavafy, is about a journey to a long-lost place, narrated by a traveller who has taken the journey himself. The poem is riddled with metaphors that, to me, mirror the ups and downs of recovery from an eating disorder. The first part touches on the importance of mental state and emotions, the second about the journey itself, and the third part about expectations.
One of the most important parts of recovery is learning to accept and listen to your emotions. Lots of people in recovery, myself included, begin recovery with a wall built around themselves, serving to protect them from overwhelming and uncontrollable emotions. Therapy helps to take that wall down, brick by brick, in a safe environment and alongside people who understand.
The narrator’s words “unless you carry them within your soul” speaks to the point in my recovery where I confronted the darkness I’d been carrying – learning not to fear it, but to understand and heal it. I’ve come to love the ups and downs of emotions, and use them as a tool to navigate my experience of the world and my relationships.
Now, to the much disputed ‘journey’ and the quote “Hope that the road is a long one”.
Once you’ve removed the messy, food-related behaviours, you realise that the real work is healing the underlying causes of the eating disorder – what purpose the eating disorder was serving, and why it was needed/there in the first place. You realise that at a crucial point in your life you didn’t know how to love and care for yourself, and so things veered down a self-destructive path. Perhaps you were never taught how to, or perhaps an experience (trauma?) made you think that you didn’t deserve to love yourself.
Eating disorder or no eating disorder, I feel there’s a lot of people out there who don’t know how to love themselves. Learning that you deserve love is the first step, but learning how to give yourself that love – on a daily basis – is the next part of the process. And learning a new way of thinking takes time.
Self-love is something that everyone can work on. Especially in a culture that fuels such extreme self-criticism and judgement. And there are, of course, days where self-love feels really hard, and your critical voice is really loud. But with or without a mental health diagnosis, this is a very normal and human experience.
I feel that there shouldn’t need to be an end to the journey of learning to love yourself, just as the poem says: “Better that it lasts for many years…rich with all you’ve gotten on the way”. I changed my expectations for recovery when I realised that recovery isn’t about food, and therefore there doesn’t have to be an abrupt, end-goal. Recovery is a decision you take to open your eyes to a new way of seeing the world and your place within it. As life goes on we’ll change and grow, so take an active role and grow with yourself.
Choosing to love yourself every day means that you don’t fall victim to harmful coping mechanisms. Too often people fixate on food as the thing you “don’t” recover from, but it’s something much deeper than that – but you’ve got to be willing to go deep in the first place in order to recover. And it is possible.
Recovery is self-defined because we are unique people with different experiences of the world. To me, recovery is being a strong and independent woman, who wakes up every day feeling grateful and energised for opportunity and human connection. Being mindful of my emotions is not an eating disorder chore – it’s a human skill I’ve learnt, that I feel everyone should learn. By putting up barriers within yourself, you’re restricting different ways of being present in the world. Learn to enjoy discovering parts of yourself instead.
This is no longer recovery from an eating disorder, this is a journey of self-love that I relish granting myself the permission to be on.
Ithaca by Cavafy
As you set out on the way to Ithaca hope that the road is a long one, filled with adventures, filled with understanding. The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes, Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them, you’ll never come across them on your way as long as your mind stays aloft, and a choice emotion touches your spirit and your body. The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes, savage Poseidon; you’ll not encounter them unless you carry them within your soul, unless your soul sets them up before you.
Hope that the road is a long one. Many may the summer mornings be when—with what pleasure, with what joy— you first put in to harbors new to your eyes; may you stop at Phoenician trading posts and there acquire fine goods: mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony, and heady perfumes of every kind: as many heady perfumes as you can. To many Egyptian cities may you go so you may learn, and go on learning, from their sages.
Always keep Ithaca in your mind; to reach her is your destiny. But do not rush your journey in the least. Better that it last for many years; that you drop anchor at the island an old man, rich with all you’ve gotten on the way, not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.
Ithaca gave to you the beautiful journey; without her you’d not have set upon the road. But she has nothing left to give you any more.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca did not deceive you. As wise as you’ll have become, with so much experience, you’ll have understood, by then, what these Ithacas mean.