“Yay, it’s a good day!” You think upon waking. Then someone says something, or you look in the mirror, or you “stuff up” your meal plan and suddenly you feel your self-esteem “Equals Zero.” It can last for a minute, an hour, days, weeks; in other words, you can be recovered and yet be not okay. I call these Bad Times. You can gain all the weight you need to; you can be healthier, stronger, more confident, more intelligent, more experienced, more happy—but it does not mean that in due process, you have built an impenetrable wall with Gandalf guarding it, through which “No Self-Doubt or Negativity Shall Pass.” No matter how much you try, and I hate to be so blunt and seemingly discouraging, but you will never be the exact same again after mental illness (this can be a positive thing too, though). The reason I am telling you this is because one often wonders what it means to be recovered, and there are so many false messages that make us see this as something easily attained; that parts of life or life in general are as easy as it was before the illness. It often makes us feel more helpless:
“How can it be so easy for them and so hard for me? I’ll never get out of this.”
“Why can’t I do what he/she did?”
“Why can’t I think like he/she does?”
“The life they’re living is so much better than mine. I feel nowhere near as well as they seem to be.”
I myself often write articles and know that the issue I’m talking about is nowhere NEAR as simplistic as I have unintentionally made it appear to be, for I don’t want to write a Beowulf-long poem. I tend to make my finding of solutions seem like some sudden epiphany when it was actually incredibly difficult to adopt the healthier mindset, purely so I can paraphrase a massive cognitive change that took months to achieve. This post is trying to encourage you to be wary of unrealistic expectations that the world and you yourself hold in regards to being “Well Again.” But don’t fret! I’m not about to tell you it’s not as good as what you’d hope. Here’s a little science, a little experience, and a little inspiration for you.
There is this thing in behavioural science called “spontaneous recovery.” Nope, it’s not how it sounds. It’s not people spontaneously getting better, but rather when a behaviour spontaneously comes back out of the blue when we think we’ve gotten rid of it for good. I’m talking about things like binging, purging, feeling fat, being obsessive, even after acquiring a healthy mind again. In psychology, it is why we believe that several behaviour “extinction sessions” need to occur to get rid of the behaviour we wish to be—well, extinct. These sessions for us can manifest in the form of therapy, intensive patient programs—and just life in general when we successfully and actively avoid these habits on a regular basis. It’s why recovery is a fragile process rather than immediate change, where our behaviours do frequently show their ugly heads. However, the more times we tackle them (and the closer together these battles are), the less likely they’ll pop up like an unwanted computer virus. It’s why when we fight, we need to fight HARD and continuously, instead of allowing setbacks every now and then when we’re experiencing Bad Times. Otherwise, we’re slowly allowing our tight-knitted army to become permeable, constructing a breeding ground for unhealthy habitual patterns to return, and we just cannot get better this way. Just cannot.
Often people on the internet—people like me—we. . . we involuntarily paint a pretty convincingly optimistic picture of how we are now that we’re “better.” We want you to get better, so we want to show you the best bits of being better! Kind of like “recovery propaganda” (please read that with less sinister/Nazi connotations than I just did). However, its so important to make known the fact that post-recovery can still be a relatively rocky terrain on the odd occasion—even when you’re a well person again. Read my “About” page and you’d get the impression that I’m someone that has completely moved on and got on with my life—I have, but things are still different now. Meet me and you’d probably say I’m the happiest, neurotic and bubbly person you’ve ever met. Really, this is mostly because I’m still quite socially anxious, and occasionally I have to remind myself that I need to stop trying to make everyone happy, and that I need to own this awkwardness—which is so rewarding, might I add, because it’s embracing my quirkiness as a part of my character, and I feel real this way. I often have to tell myself it’s not important to make everyone like me, as I like everyone and have an instinctive tendency to depend on a reciprocation to build my self-esteem (please fight these kinds of urges). I usually remember it all but sometimes I get those days where I forget whether I’m Arthur or Martha, and need to appreciate what I am.
A while ago, after getting the flu as well as not getting my much-needed endorphins from running and being with friends, I hit what felt like rock bottom. It lasted about three weeks, going up and down—the longest my recovered Bad Times have been. Once I’d finished work, my grin would quite literally drop instantaneously into a morose, ashen expression, and I’d loll about daily life like I was unconscious in an ocean’s swell. I’d often trip over my own feet from how low I felt—talk about the feeling of “Snap BACK to reality, OOPS—there goes gravity.” In these times I can feel fat (but not always. I see myself now), but I gradually come back to realising that’s just joining the rest of the human experience. This will probably happen to you; first frequently, then less so, then perhaps rarely— and this is okay! At least it keeps us grounded, I guess. Of course, there is a line to be drawn between being humble and feeling absolutely inadequate a majority of the time. The latter means there’s still a long way to go before you can classify yourself as “well.” This can be a hopeful thing, because it means things do get better from here.
Similarly, there are days when I eat more than I necessarily need, and again, this is what every first-world healthy person does every now and then (I was bored and just ate half a jar of peanut butter. I regret nothing). This happens more often in those still overcoming an eating disorder. I know it’s easier-said-than-done, but don’t worry if you do it a lot! Your brain’s still learning that its not in the Sahara desert! It takes sometimes months for this to calm down (it took me many)—please be kind to yourself. At the same time, sometimes I lose weight and feel proud, and have to remind myself that this kind of thinking only led me to hospital and dissatisfaction. I see friends, I stick with family, I take my medication. They help me, I help myself (a skill I have newly acquired) and I find my feet again. I recall what is important in life. I start smiling again. I look forward to the future. I think. I do. I create. I inspire myself to repeat this process.
I want you to know that that if you’re modelling your understanding of recovery off people like me, I honestly say I’ve never been this well in my life—EVEN after all I have just said. I just want you to know that around 5-15% of life post-anorexia can be hard, with the percentage expanding and contracting in proportion to how long you have been well. I wish I could tell you Bad Times don’t exist—I myself tried everything I could to ensure I could be someone entirely free from ill thoughts, but it’s unrealistic to assume this. You must come to terms with the fact that your brain is actually physically different due to what you have gone through, and its a process to get every nook and cranny back to being “good” once more.
It can start off as 50%, then 40%, and then it gradually becomes just that occasional bump in an otherwise smooth road. It’s because life comes back, and Anorexia takes a backseat. You prioritise things over it, until you’ve got friends, family, maybe even a couple of children in the back and some camping gear in the trunk, and anorexia’s left behind altogether (Toodaloo). Now, and have in mind that I have only been “well” for nearly a year, I’m about 90% of the time really happy about life and in myself. I appreciate what my body can do (I’m running a Half Marathon in three days), and I don’t feel anywhere NEAR as fat in my 10% times as I used to ALL the time when I was 15kg smaller. Yes, that 10% for me is Bad Times, which can seem quite large, but I’m able to address them logically now. If a behaviour comes back, I don’t flip out and give up on life—I actually sit down, sip a cup of licorice tea, and I unpick and re-stitch my thoughts—not my behaviours—and my future behaviours will follow suit as an extension of the cognitive work I’ve just put in, and I’ll be okay again (all that was once a big issue, are near no-brainers now). So, having a 90% Good Time now as opposed to when life was 99% Bad back when I was sick. . . well, I’ll take this new life any day, Good, Bad and all.
The message is, don’t give up on recovery when you have a terrible day, week or even month. It doesn’t mean you’re not getting well or making improvements. Recovery is worth it despite its challenging nature. Being human isn’t always easy, but being better is infinitely more fun than being sick. Putting in the effort now means living a more effortless life in the future—TRUST ME. Sure, the cogs will buckle, the car will need more fuel, but just remember that all recovery is asking you to do is do what every other healthy human being does everyday, everyday, so you can be one of those healthy human beings too. All a day-patient program is asking you to do is eat flexibly like everyone else—those people that are out there living a life that orbits around hobbies, loves and interests rather than just food and bodily affairs. And if you’re needing to do some things that are more unique (supplements etc)… well, recovery’s simply asking you to do all the things that’ll ENABLE you to one day do these things that make you the healthy human being you’re supposed to be. One day it’ll be first-nature again. Come spend some time with me and the other recoverees! Yes, the weather gets rainy on occasion, but that’s Earth! More importantly, we have some pretty jolly campfire nights.