My family is moving out of their home of almost 20 years next month. As you can imagine, there are a lot of memories stored in various corners of that house. We moved in right before I went away to college when my siblings were still small. Since then, I’ve lived here on and off many times. This was the house I lived in during my early years in recovery from anorexia. It was also in this house where I finally surrendered and spent a summer checked into an in-patient rehab clinic for people with eating disorders.
When I left for the in-patient rehab program I thought I’d leave from it fully recovered. What I quickly discovered was that rehab was only the beginning of a lifelong journey.
Applying the same principles as the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book, I began to see my disease as an addiction.
My eating disorder was an escape; something I felt I couldn’t live without, which mades it quite similar to an alcohol or drug addiction.
While I lived in the eating disorder clinic, I attended my first meeting and began working the 12 steps. I ate my first meal abstaining from restrictive behaviors and developed the nutritionist-monitored meal plan that I still follow today.
I returned home with fierce determination and will to maintain my recovery. To this day, I have never worked so hard at anything in my life. The same shear willpower I had used to starve myself while maintaining a full time job, a music career and a grueling workout routine was now being applied to my recovery. Only it was a million times harder and scarier to overcome the disorder than it was to live in the tiny world where I lived with my disease.
Looking through my old journals and letters in our dusty garage, I realized that I wasn’t the person I thought I was that first year of recovery. At the time, I felt vulnerable, broken, hurt and afraid, like a baby bird first learning to fly. What I see my former self as now is a brave 23 year old woman with fierce determination, clarity, and willingness to dig deep in order to heal wounds she had spent a lifetime trying to cover up through starvation, addiction and denial.
Although I am now almost 13 years abstinent from restrictive food behavior, my recovery is still far from perfect.
In reading through my old journals, I found that I have a lot to learn from the woman I was 12 years ago. I relied so heavily on my tools and protected my abstinence from food restriction by any means necessary. The stakes were so high for me that I was willing to let go of anything that didn’t serve my recovery. We can all learn a lot from someone with that level of surrender and determination.
Here’s my take away from my younger self:
1. Ask for help. From the right people.
Although they loved and supported me as best they could, I knew that my family and friends could only help me to a certain extent. They were not addicts or in recovery from an eating disorder. It would have been unfair of me to expect them to understand and relate to everything I was experiencing at the time. Expecting them to do so would only be setting myself up for disappointment.
One of the greatest tools available in a 12 step recovery program is community. Through this I had a whole network of people whom I called daily and were going through exactly the same thing that I was.
Our shared experience allowed us to lean less heavily on our friends and family. We’re more able to be there for them without every single conversation being about our disease.
Along with my community, my strongest anchors were my therapist and my sponsor. I consulted them before making any big decisions and they held me accountable to my daily recovery. The experience and wisdom these people shared with me were priceless. My old journals are filled with daily gratitude lists of these people’s names.
2. Develop a routine
Having structure was so helpful during my early days and still is. I remember in my first weeks in rehab hearing the phrase, “you have to plan your life around your recovery” over and over. I was resistant to it at first and came up with every excuse in the world. However, I quickly learned that I couldn’t let anything stand in my way.
Once I made the decision to plan my life around my recovery, I had to set myself up for success and that started with planning ahead and sticking to a routine.
Having a strong bond with my sponsor to hold me accountable was key. Here are just some of the things I planned around on a daily and weekly basis.
- I ate according to the meal plan prescribed by my nutritionist and never skipped anything, Planning ahead was my highest priority.
- Praying before every meal and asking my higher power to take away my discomfort was essential. I gave thanks for the food I had in front of me and asked for the willingness to eat it.
- Attending at least three 12-step meetings per week was non-negotiable.
- Every morning I called my sponsor and told her my meals for the day and that I was done exercising for the day. This happened every single day for over 7 years.
- My sponsor and I met weekly and worked the 12-steps. When we got through all 12, we’d do them again.
- For the first year, I wrote down all my meals for the next day every night before going to sleep. Talk about planning ahead! I was so terrified of food back then that having a plan really took the anxiety out of making food choices. I already knew what I was going to eat before every meal and didn’t have to think about it on the spot.
3. Let go of resentment and embrace forgiveness
For me, the most powerful of the 12-steps was the 4th. When my sponsor and I, “made a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves,” I dug deep. She had me free-write about every person and situation I felt had wronged me. I found 8 old journals filled with just that alone! I was in so much deep pain that I hadn’t faced and was just carrying around with me. No wonder I buried it all in my disease! I had no tools yet for coping with any of it and didn’t even have a language for my feelings. As painful as it was to write it all out, it liberated me to let go and forgive. I had to recognize that I was still holding onto resentment before I could forgive.
4. Face fears
Because of the 12-step program, I was well aware of my fears like never before. I knew how much they had controlled me in the past and how toxic they were to my recovery.
Developing a daily practice of writing down my fears every night and asking my higher power to take care of them was essential.
I called this “turning it over.” It was so liberating and so necessary. Back then, I was afraid of everything. Every meal, people leaving or not loving me, judgement, financial fears, chemistry homework, getting in trouble at work, you name it. The lists were long and many things stayed on them for weeks. Finally, as I kept turning them over again and again, the fears eventually subsided.
Looking through my old notebooks and journals taught me a lot. I had entire notebooks filled with my writing about one single breakup or class I was afraid of failing. I’d put the same person’s name on my fears list for a whole year. And you know what? I don’t even remember some of these people now! Reading a lot of it was like reading someone else’s story. I am so far past most of those things that had been so consuming to me back then. Of course, some of these situations still make me feel a slight twinge of pain, but my life has gone on.
Although I’ve always know intellectually that time heals all wounds, it’s nice to have proof of it once in awhile.
The compassion I feel for my younger self is so deep. Every single bite of food was terrifying; I felt uncomfortable in my body all the time. But somehow I was able to get through it without slipping back into my disease. As new to the 12-step program and recovery as I was back then, my younger self clearly knew what she was doing whether I was aware of it or not.
And you probably do too, warrior.