Recovery, healing and growth are compromised when addictive behaviours shield an eating disorder

“Recovery” is a treacherous word that is spoken about freely by people who have admitted they live with an addiction.

From drugs to alcohol, eating disorders, workaholism, depression, anxiety, control, overthinking, self-harm or perfectionism, none of us are perfect yet many of us find a way to hold our pain at bay.

For me this way of coping worked successfully for a long time, and I was able to form a life. This life allowed me to raise my children, have a career and spend time with family and friends. In this life every moment was busy, and I always had things to do. I lived in total ignorance, not recognising I had a problem, let alone one so deeply seeded that I could not see or feel its existence.

I suspect I could have remained in this place, allowing me to stay in denial, yet age, genetics, and life itself, seem to have their own agendas, and my body began to slow me down. Rarely am I prepared to take my foot off the pedal and in my rush to get to the end, I was cutting myself off from everyone and everything that did not give me power to push myself harder and in this, I gave my addictions the room they needed to grow.

My mind is strong. I tell myself I could have pushed myself further for success however the reality is, in hindsight, my body will not let me live much longer if I continue to protect and suppress my pain.

Dysfunctional coping mechanisms can create a wall too powerful for others to penetrate

In my rush, in my chaos, in my disorder, I created a wall too powerful for anyone to penetrate, leaving me alone with my dysfunctional coping mechanisms. For many years I have been surrounded by family, friends, and work, yet I have not let them come close. I did not do this with conscious intent, there was never a moment when I decided to separate my head from my heart, but this is what I have done. By frantically moving, changing, pushing myself, taking action, smiling, working, adjusting myself to fill the space to suit others, no one seemed to notice me and the anorexia, the perfectionism, and the anxiety stole the space that I didn’t know existed within.

The days had light, but I was too busy to notice and at night, when dark surrounded me while others slept, my thoughts kept racing and the quiet gave fuel for the memories to shift and take shape.

In these moments, I am aware that I live with addictions that have taken over my life. My critic is quick to shut this truth out, pulling me away from my heart and back to my head. My heart is screaming in isolation and my head reminds me why I stopped eating and dismisses the concerns or words of anyone who has gotten too close.

Many layers to peel back to be free

Here, in this moment, I must question if my addictions are my friend, my family or foe?

There are many layers to peel back before I can feel free. There are days when I am convinced everything is too much to cope with. Between these moments, I want to laugh at my naivety that believed the eating disorder was about food.

My logic has become faulty, likely from malnutrition, and when the expectation of “recovery” is thrown my way, my critics laugh out loud. You see, to recover means to return to a state of “normal”, in essence, get better.

How can I fight with “recovery” as the incentive when the word, by definition, means I am not acceptable the way I am? When it infers that I need to be better, do better, act better, feel better? Each mistake I make, each stumble and fall, is a reminder I have not managed to get it right. I am not better. I have not found the elusive “recovery”.

My small and wounded child within feels devastated; the word has pierced her heart.

Then my petulant teenage-self steps in to ward off the pain with anger and feelings of rejection.

“No point, don’t try, leave me alone … I don’t need to be better for you”.

Before I can find my true source of self, I must accept the many forms that my addictions have shaped. While I argue with myself and the world that I am fine, I can see my addictions have morphed into denial, overthinking, avoidance, self-harm, shame, and protection, (to name a few) in the hope of protecting my eating disorder, which has always guarded my heart.

Underneath all of these, I am told, lie the feelings that I desperately try to keep away.

In striving for “recovery”, so far never reaching the goal, I have become too scared to move in case I bump into a coping mechanism and expose it to whoever is in the room. My mind has taught me to desert my heart.

Absorbed in the effort of trying to protect myself from pain, my life seems no longer worth living. I keep fretting, and wondering, what if this is the best I can do? What if my better is not good enough? What if I never reach “recovery”?

The cost of using addictions to deny my feelings will kill me

Rather than continue to fight away the emotions within that I seem to have lost access to, I have had to strip back my life to enable me to admit that the way I have been living will kill me. Right now, the decay is seeping from the inside out and only in this moment do I start to understand the cost of denying my feelings and how this is harming me.

After years of thinking, instead of permitting and addressing feelings, I have been forced to acknowledge I am out of control. As I face one layer of addiction, another seeps out beside it. Yet I am not ready to let go. I do not understand why and perhaps this is part of the recovery work I cannot find. I am trying to understand something that makes no sense right now. Sometimes it just is, and I intend to learn to accept this, even while hating it, and feel my way to the other side.

My career was an addiction I needed to leave to stay alive and now I am at home, and my children are grown, I am careful not to abandon myself by micromanaging them. This said, I am left with me. Only by acknowledging that I cannot tolerate spending time with me, can my true healing begin.

Possibly, I will never reconcile the hurt I have endured.

Perhaps, as I spend time with myself and go to therapy, the memories and traumas being uncovered will continue to burrow into my soul. Perhaps there will be no end to the pain that I can no longer deny. With all of this unknown, I may never ”recover”. Perhaps the pain has become intertwined with my very being and this is who I am now.

Do not tell me I am doing ‘recovery’ wrong; I need to meet my fears, feel, and integrate them

Intensive therapy is something many people will not try as they worry about being immersed and lost in the memories and grief without an end in sight.

But with time (and ample pain sitting with nowhere to go and nowhere to be) and support from an incredible team, I am learning to move out of my head. I am learning to sense what is taking place in my body, irrespective of the feelings that will rise.

Darkness has become my friend. This time I am not hiding in my head, despite the dread of hurt, loss, betrayal and fear all floating, waiting to be met. I know with each step there is a danger my heart will bump into them, after years of avoidance. But they are there. They have always been there and, without showing them the respect they deserve, my head will continue to shut off access to my feelings and my addictions will remain in control.

All the happy hunters will be quick to tell me that happiness, joy, peace, and love will be waiting to be found as well. But I have spent a lifetime denying the pain and now it is being revealed, I will not walk away. The fears are mine, they hurt, and while I hope I am strong enough to keep feeling them, I do not want anyone to take them from me. Do not tell me I am doing “recovery” wrong or try to placate me, so that I appear better for you.

I need to meet my fears, truly feel, and integrate them instead of trying to analyse them. Maybe once I have faced them, and felt them, they will become part of me rather than be shadows in the dark. I will not sugarcoat how I feel for others with platitudes. This is my version of “recovery”. This is the place where true healing will happen.

While I refuse to feel, I will not recover; the answers are in my heart and body, not my mind

Perhaps if I had recognised and been able to hold my emotions, I might have felt compassion for the eating disorder, workaholism, depression, anxiety, control, overthinking or perfectionism I used. Instead, I berated myself as I believed my behaviours were the only way to hold my pain at bay.

When a scab starts to form there is always an indelible stain.

Criticism, perceived or otherwise, is my kryptonite and while I continue to fail at “recovery”, layers of my many addictions swoop in to protect my heart and soul. Thinking keeps me from feeling and while I refuse to feel, I will never recover. The answers lie within my heart and my body. Not my mind.

By developing trust in my feelings, I am starting to ‘heal’

Alongside the stains of my addictions, I am left with me. I have started to tolerate spending time with me.

While my head tells me I need to “recover”, the developing trust of my feelings is leading me to a word I far prefer. I am spending time with all of me, not just my head, and I am not avoiding my heart.

I am starting to “heal”.

 

About Karen Louise

As a mother of four children, I have, until recently worked full time in a high-profile job. As a high functioning professional and mother with a diagnosis of a severe and enduring eating disorder, life has continued to throw many challenges my way. Now, at a crossroad in my life, I want to live authentically, with purpose. Writing allows me to give voice to the battles that lie within.

As I continue working towards recovery, I am faced with the reality that nothing changes if nothing changes.

I hope my skills and hard-won experience will help me move in a direction of eating disorder and trauma recovery and allow me to create change, in not only myself, but also in eating disorder advocacy and eating disorder education.

All articles by Karen Louise

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