Mistakes are valuable lessons in eating disorder recovery
I became a champion mistake-maker when healing from my eating disorder (ED). This trial and error period occurred during a complete, internal makeover. I was exploring a new frontier, a whole new set of challenges that would lead me to me. Forty-four years as ED’s prisoner had left me devoid of self. With no idea of who I was, I needed to develop new thought and behaviour patterns. But how?
When anorexia nervosa developed in my brain at age 11, I missed out on the normal development that takes place during adolescence and young adulthood. When I began treatment for my ED in my early 30s, in many ways, I needed to allow myself to re-visit little girl June, take her hand, and explore a path of self-discovery together. To catch up on important missed self-growth opportunities, I was encouraged to explore life, and engage in new experiences, because that is really the only way to learn. I needed to do this, to find out what felt right for me. There was no road map.
A major step forward occurred when I changed my married name back to my maiden name. ED had caused the breakdown of my marriage to George (the ED robbed us of our marriage but not our lifelong friendship or shared love and care for our children) and this small act of a name change was crucial in my efforts to establish my healthy self-identity. In a very dark moment, I figured that I had a right to be born, and the name I was born with was the name I would cling to and develop as my own. I had lost a lot due to my ED and effects of early childhood sexual abuse, but nobody could take my name from me.
My co-morbid anxiety had been so severe, I had been unable to drive for years, but now I took refresher driving lessons, bought a secondhand car and named it ‘Liberty’. One of my proudest moments was when I managed to drive alone through the city to a rowing venue to watch my schoolgirl daughter compete and win a gold medal in national titles. I was terrified, pushing through fear barriers that day, but by the time I returned home, having seen my daughter compete and on the dais with her rowing mates, I felt I had pushed aside a major obstacle on my recovery path. Showing myself that I could do things that were nurturing for my healthy self, was very important.
Family dynamics were already in disarray due to my many years under ED’s dominance. But now in mid-life my behaviour came under more criticism. I seemed to have become totally unreliable – I was labelled ‘The Problem’ in my family of origin. Previously a conscientious, goody-two-shoes, my morals and values seemed to have flown out the window in the tussle with my ED.
Being high-functioning, I managed to maintain my job as a journalist in a city-based newspaper, but moved from house to house a lot and lived life on the edge (for a long time this seemed preferable to facing the scary dark hole left by ED, within). I had a string of relationships with men who, I would later realise, were like my ED. They were initially exciting, charismatic and attentive, but progressively manipulative, dominating and controlling. Like ED, they were very difficult to get away from. I met some nice men, too. They loved me for all the right reasons and were respectful, compassionate, caring, safe, secure and stable. For some reason I could not fathom, such men made me feel trapped and suffocated and I would push them away. For a long time, I was more drawn to the men who had ED-type characteristics. A therapist explained this was because such behaviours and traits were familiar to the ED part of my brain, and the chaos that surrounded them was all I knew.
Obviously, I had more healing work to do. I was an embarrassment to my family of origin and became alienated from them. They did not understand my illness and could not comprehend that I was a middle-aged woman with a teenager’s mind. They would shake their heads and roll their eyes if I said that I was trying to find me. “Aren’t you better yet?” they would say. “You’re not still seeing the same doctor, are you?” “He can’t be any good.”
Healing involved hard work to establish who I was, without my illness. I needed to become my own best friend; I needed to learn to trust myself; and to be at peace with myself. I needed to learn to live with myself before I could possibly entertain the thought of living with anybody else. Only then would I be able to allow myself to feel vulnerable and let a man who had my best interests at heart, into my genuine healthy-self life.
My diary-writing was a great help in this regard. Journaling became my practice ground for developing, exploring and reviewing new healthy-self thoughts and feelings. For years my thinking and behaviour patterns, embedded in the illness, had been black and white, all or nothing. A good day or a bad day was determined by how little, or how much, I ate. Life was regimented, painful feelings were suppressed. The ED infiltrated and tainted every aspect of daily life – study, career, family, friends, relationships, social life, health, freedom. Torment was constant because enough was never enough. There was no inner peace or contentment.
Letting go of the ED to allow flexibility, variety and trust, had required great courage, and took many years to achieve, because ED’s way of living, of coping with and managing daily stresses, was all I knew. When I reached the healing stage where I could understand that ED’s way of living was dangerous and doomed, more years would pass before I could take first tentative steps in learning how to think and feel for myself.
My challenge was to create and strengthen my healthy self, and to develop my own identity and life purpose, independent of ED. Encouraged by my patient health care team, I achieved my goal at age 55.
How did I do it? There was no quick fix.
I was driven by a desire to show my family that I was not really ‘The Problem’ or the weakest link in our family. I wanted to explain, especially to my children, that I had an ED, that I was doing my best to heal, and that, unlike my ED traits, Healthy-Self Me was kind, sensitive, conscientious and caring.
Using writing as a power tool
Although I had developed anorexia nervosa in childhood, a correct diagnoses of chronic eating disorder, anxiety and depression did not occur until I was in my early 30s. Diary writing had been a survival and coping tool during my ED, and upon recovery, my journaling developed to the point where it became a power tool for a new passion: writing books.
The writing of my memoir, A Girl Called Tim, was followed by another eight books, all relating to EDs. I found purpose in channelling my many years of illness experience into helping others. At the same time, I developed a global family of choice in the ED field. This ‘family’ of caregivers, researchers, clinicians and people with ED experience, has been invaluable in nurturing my self-belief and establishing an ongoing healthy sense of belonging and connection.
I am currently writing a seventh book with Routledge Mental Health, London, this time with co-authors Nina Tejs Jørring (Denmark) and David Epston (New Zealand). I am excited about the messages in this book, which explores narrative psychiatry and family collaborations. When a child develops a mental illness, the best outcome is achieved when all family members are involved in treatment. As my own experience shows, recovery is possible without family of origin support, but it is so much easier when everyone in the family is engaged in recovery efforts.
I also feel privileged to be a narrative mentor for people with mental health challenges who are striving to continually increase their life quality and live the best version of their healthy self.
Some people with an ED believe they are their illness. Not so!
We are NOT our illness. We are a person with an ED and there is hope at every age (don’t let anyone tell you otherwise).
Don’t be afraid of trying something new and failing – if you try something new – for instance a friendship or job – and it does not work out as planned, then okay, you know that person or job is not for you. No matter which way you look at it, your venture has been a success. Now let it go, forgive yourself if necessary, and move on and try something else. Treat your failures as valuable lessons. Eventually, as with me, you will find the right interest for you and your ED will fade into the background.
You deserve contentment and you deserve a fulfilling and purposeful life. Settle for nothing less. Keep trying.