Eating disorder recovery: Finding happiness in relationships

By Dannielle

“Happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder” – Henry David Thoreau

I feel this quote encapsulates my eating disorder as I was forever striving for that unattainable goal that my eating disorder created for me … The ‘butterfly on my shoulder’ that would plan my day for me, of course with its focus almost wholly on food and exercise. When I would eat, what I would eat and how much exercise I needed to counteract all of the above. I would strive for that goal of a smaller weight, of a personal best at the gym, of being the smallest in the room because surely, I would then be happy!

Evasive happiness

“Go hard or go home” … “Don’t wish for it. Work for it!” … “Beauty is pain.”

For me, these quotes were my motivators. Work hard now and I will achieve this goal of happiness that I have created in my mind. The happiness that will come from holding a 15 minute plank, 25 burpees and eating as ‘clean’ as possible. This happiness that I will one day achieve at the expense of every other moment that could have also brought me happiness.

I shared this journey to what I thought was happiness, with my partner Anthony. A relationship that impacted and was impacted by my eating disorder in more ways that I can ever articulate. At times I know that my desire for ‘happiness’ was also at the expense of beautiful moments and memories that could have been created with my best friend, lover, team mate and quite literally my other half.

Ultimately, our relationship saw me recover sooner than I would have on my own, however in my perception my eating disorder did hinder our relationship at times…

Guilt flipside

I would feel great guilt when I let my ED prioritize over my connection with Anthony, yet almost simultaneously I would feel guilty when I did not follow the strict plans of my ED. It seemed I had a stronger connection with that butterfly on my shoulder than I did with my boyfriend.

In reflection, I would perceive myself as selfish as I would only cook the meals I wanted, stock the cupboard with the foods I allowed myself to eat and would sometimes use sex as exercise not as a form of connection with my lover. I was essentially pushing my eating disorder on to him, a three-way relationship that I am sure he didn’t sign up for.

Dangerous illusion

Hard to admit, but I was convinced Anthony was with me for my body, my aesthetics. I can assure you 100% that this is never something he portrayed in ANY capacity, however it was something the little butterfly on my shoulder would remind me of regularly, this illusion of happiness based on my body image was not only for me but for him as well. I couldn’t enjoy a pizza on the couch and a couple of beers with my other half because if I did I wouldn’t achieve this body I was working towards and he would surely leave me.

Ahhh, that bloody butterfly…

Flip my perception of our relationship, and I found that standing beside me was the best team mate I could have had for this journey.

‘I’m worried about you’

At first, Anthony just didn’t understand it (heck, who does), and then it seemed he understood it more than I did. In fact, it was him who turned to me one day, completely out of the blue and said “We need to do something about this Dannielle… I’m worried about you”.

From that day, he could walk that line between encouraging me through recovery and pushing me through it, and for the most part, he could walk that line so well. Of course he overstepped sometimes but who am I kidding, I overstepped the line all the time, just like I mentioned above.

I know that ED took up more of my life than my relationship with Anthony. That I was pushing myself along this never-ending pursuit of happiness when all I needed to do was realize I was already experiencing some of the happiest moments of my life.

Real happiness is within

Now, seven months into remission and our relationship is stronger than I ever thought possible. Turns out this happiness I was looking for was right there, not only within myself but within our relationship. Now that I am not looking for this happiness, I instead find pure joy of being, living and sharing my life with him.

I now practice being present, working towards noticing every little moment and appreciating each emotion as they fill each moment.

I don’t strive to be happy, I just be…and this allows us to just be amazing.

* * *

By the time you read this, Dannielle will be on a two-year overseas adventure with her partner and best-friend, Anthony – a trip they’ve been planning for years. Dannielle’s success in her recovery journey is making this trip even sweeter. Dannielle is an occupational therapist, grew up in country New South Wales, Australia, and is a supporter of World Eating Disorder Action Day and other initiatives serving to support those touched by the insidious nature of an eating disorder.

This Dear Diary post is the seventh in our series focusing on relationships in support of World Eating Disorder Day on June 2, 2017 #WeDoActTogether.
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June Alexander

About June Alexander

I have written nine books about eating disorders since my recovery (my “reconnection with true self”) from anorexia nervosa and other long term mental health challenges in 2006. In 2017, I graduated as a Doctor of Philosophy (Creative Writing). My contribution to the eating disorder field was recognised at the 2016 Academy for Eating Disorders International Conference in San Francisco where I was awarded the Meehan/Hartley Award for Public Service and Advocacy. I am currently a co-chair of the NEDC Steering Committee Evidence of Experience Group, a foundation steering committee member of the annual World Eating Disorders Action Day, and an Advisory Panel member for F.E.A.S.T.

All articles by June Alexander

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