I always say ‘I’ve been in recovery for…’ and then either go on to say ‘Just about two months’ if I’m talking about my eating disorder or ‘Just about seven years’ if I’m talking about alcoholism. I’m not sure why. I guess because I have come to believe that recovery is only recovery if I’ve been ‘clean’ for a length of time. I’m not sure why; I do not hold others to that standard. I’m pretty much alone in that category.
The truth is, I started asking for help with my eating disorder in 2005. I was in a treatment facility for alcohol and drug addiction; I ended up being there a total of two months. One of the counsellors caught me engaging in my ED (eating disorder) behaviors, and since she just happened to be my own counsellor, she called me on it. I admitted that I’d had a problem with it for quite a number of years by then, and she and another counsellor there made a call on my behalf to a couple of inpatient ED treatment programs. Back then there was nothing in the way of community-based programs, and there certainly isn’t much out there to begin with; my counsellors were assured that unless I was ‘one of the six sickest people in the province’, there was no way I would be getting into their program.
I got drunk about two months after leaving that place. My eating disorder resumed as well. When I finally made it back into recovery for alcohol addiction, in 2006, I began to realize just how deeply rooted my eating disorder had become. But it was also my shield, my crutch, the thing I used to face the world. I didn’t know at that time I had mental illness. I didn’t realize there was a reason I had such a difficult time functioning. I continued to stay sober via some hard-ass work in the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, but felt guilty and worthless all the while because I couldn’t put the food down. I tried attending OA (Overeaters Anonymous) meetings and found them unhelpful, two times around.
Right after my third sobriety birthday I had a mental and emotional collapse. It’s been almost four years and I’m still recovering from it. In fact, after about six months of struggling through 12 step meetings and trying to live my ‘old life’, I finally had to walk away. My mental health was my first priority and everywhere around me the message seemed to be that that ‘wasn’t okay’. My sobriety had to come ‘first’. But I could no longer identify with that program. So I found the 16 Steps, joined a group and lived happily ever after.
To a point.
As often happens, the funding for the venue the meeting was held at got cut so we had to discontinue. For the next couple of years I put my heart and soul into DBT, psychiatry, counselling, activism, writing, advocacy, spirituality, things that fed and nourished me and brought actual meaning and support into my life and validated my experience. No longer did I have to listen to people tell me that if I only prayed and meditated I would get better and all my problems would go away.
I finally got into an ED program last August, 2012. I was excited – finally, after a lifetime of suffering and struggling and living in the dark, I had answers. I had hope. I had people willing to let me into the ED recovery ‘club’. For several months after starting my symptoms became worse. I was acting out in my behaviors usually every day, and began doing things I hadn’t done in years – purging, buying large amounts of food, hiding it, lying about my behaviors and whereabouts. But in February, everything changed.
Something popped into my mind, something I’ve heard a million different times in recovery circles but which has only ever stayed at brain level for me: ‘I have to be willing to give up everything or nothing will ever change’.
I began to go through all the worksheets and materials I’d received and worked through in the various groups and workshops I attended in the ED program. I started working on a recovery plan for myself, including the beginnings of formulating a meal plan for myself. See, I’m a compulsive overeater, a binge eater, and I’m also bulimic. I have shitty body image, low self-esteem and worth, and no clue what a healthy life actually looks like, especially in this fucked up culture. I made attending OA meetings part of my plan, so I could be surrounded by other people on a regular basis who were also struggling with and healing from disordered eating.
So I was off to the races. It was a rocky start. It was fits and starts. Preparing myself, preparing my partner for the likely lifestyle changes (she was pretty nervous about a lot of it and wondering how it would impact our life together), giving myself time to get ready eventually lapsed into action and I took off running. Originally I had a plan to omit all ‘trigger foods’. Well, that’s ridiculous. Food’s not the trigger for me most times. I have binge foods, but then what HAVEN’T I binged on? I’ve had an active eating disorder for roughly 25 years. It was a pretty long list.
Finally people started suggesting to me, One thing at a time. I thought, This will never work, I’ll never recover, but I took the advice anyway because I knew I couldn’t change it all at once – I would lose my mind; it didn’t feel safe – but I had to change SOMETHING.
So. There I was, being my good little diligent self, going to meetings (I even got a sponsor – never thought that would happen), participating on online recovery forums, attending both my ED program and the new ED psychotherapy group I got accepted into, and finding myself a mentor through an online ED recovery program. I lasted a few weeks, then the burnout kicked in.
Here’s where I’m at right now. I’ve struggled through the last couple of weeks, uncertain of where I’m at or why I even bother. Yesterday I had a complete emotional breakdown because some of the stuff in my life isn’t working and I didn’t know what to do about it. Or rather, I was pretty sure I knew what to do about it but was scared to make the change. When I attended my group yesterday, one of the exercises we did was choosing a goal we can immediately begin working towards in our recovery. Mine? To make recovery my own; to follow my intuition and go where my heart leads me.
I have been in this game long enough to know what to do. And I’m a doer. I don’t hide, put things off, ignore the warning signs. When I’m in danger I reach out, jump in, bail myself out, sometimes call on the aid of others to help me. And the truth is that 12 step programs stopped working for me a long time ago. I have admitted that in the past, and found almost instant relief when I made the break. But now it’s the fear that’s getting me: what if all that programming is right? All that stuff I’ve heard over the last 7 years about AA being the only way? What if I DO get loaded? What if it’s true? What if, what if, what if?
Yesterday, though, after I made that commitment to my goal, things began to change immediately. I found another 16 step group, and I am going to check it out tomorrow. There are some Buddhist-based recovery meditation meetings that I want to check out. And my file at the ED program is being transferred to the new area I live in, and I can start from the beginning there with a fresh 18 months of groups, workshop, nutritional advice, medical advice, the whole nine. I will continue to attend the psychotherapy group for now. I do not like a lot of the content of the group. I believe there is a big focus on weight loss, which is ridiculously referred to as ‘physical recovery’, and not enough on the actual underlying stuff. It’s very 12 step focused, which makes me wary. I have tried to quit once, but the conflict lies in the fact that the group facilitator is also my regular psychiatrist and I can only utilize that service if I am actively participating in one of her groups. So, for now, I will stay.
I have suffered enough in my life. I am tired of living in a way that takes cues from fear-based policies, ideals and principles. I want freedom. I just want to live. I’m not just recovering from disordered eating. I’m recovering from emotional illness, an abusive childhood and a life unlived. I need my plan to be holistic.
I believe that the 12 steps were a fantastic foundation for me. They removed my denial post-haste, shattering any previous idea I had about who I was and what I was doing, which is one of the main reasons I have maintained sobriety to this date. I am grateful to that, and I continue to recommend that program to people who are new to recovery and struggling because it’s a good place to start, there are meetings everywhere so it’s accessible, and it’s a program. There’s action involved. It’s a good way to take a look at oneself and see where the weaknesses are, the areas that need to be healed, the amends that need to be made.
I also believe that it’s okay for recovery to change over the years. Many people will say ‘If you don’t do this, this and this you will drink/eat/drug/whatever’, but many people go to those programs and have no success, or still relapse after a long period of sobriety. If I have learned anything in this life it is that there are no guarantees about anything. We can only do the best we can do.
I encourage anyone who is rethinking their recovery strategy to be honest with yourself. Don’t choose a different route just because it looks like the easy way out. Ask yourself if it’s a matter of really not having your needs met, or just that you don’t want to do the work and are looking for an easier way. I mean, ultimately either choice is valid; there are no rights or wrongs, only choices and the resulting consequences, whatever they may be. But my experience is that recovery is work. If you don’t feel like you’re working, then you may need to reevaluate your plan.
Every person has the right to recovery, regardless of whether it’s science-based, program-based, spirituality-based, or rationality-based. Nobody can tell you what’s best for you; it’s something you will need to invest the time and effort in to figure out for yourself. But you earn more than a hundredfold back compared to what you put in, in the long run. Recovery does not just give us tools to stay clean and sober; it gives us tools for living and solving life’s problems as they arise for us, and learning how to live with painful situations without having to ‘do something’ about them. It helps us to truly live, to calm down and be in our own skin, to learn to relate to others and ourselves and to the world at large, and to begin to trust our values and beliefs (either again, or for the first time).
Also, recovery is not a linear journey. It’s a spiral. Sometimes it weaves in, sometimes it weaves out. Sometimes it’s painful and hard; sometimes it’s beautiful and full of ease. Sometimes there’s relapse involved. But struggling does not mean that you’re not in recovery. It means that you’re trying something new and you haven’t mastered it yet. If you want to recover, just KEEP GOING. Pick yourself up when you fall, reorient yourself, make note of what happened, and when you come across it again, take a look at it from a different perspective and try to figure out another way to handle it.
Don’t count yourself out of the game for mistakes. Mistakes are part of recovery. If you’re truly recovering, they’re inevitable. All the best.