As I climbed into my dad’s truck I slid the seat forward. Adjusting the mirror I noticed my heart was racing. Carefully I put the truck in reverse and checked behind me twice before slowly pressing my foot on the gas pedal. A wave of anxiety washed over me while I backed into the crowded parking lot. Chuckling to myself, I realized driving had not brought this much anxiety in years. I typically rush in and out of my car multiple times a day without thinking twice. But it was raining outside and I was driving someone else’s vehicle. Suddenly the skill of driving seemed harder. Less natural. And more scary. And it dawned on me…. lately recovery felt the same way.
So I dug deeper.
When I learned to drive there were so many things to focus on. Both hands on the wheel in the correct position; maintain the appropriate distance between cars, keep my foot pressed on the gas at a level speed without jerking the car forward awkwardly; signal before turning; slow down at an intersection; don’t go too slowly; stay between the lines…. the underlying anxiety that at any moment I could crash smothered me like a suffocating blanket on the hottest day in July.
Beginning The Recovery Journey
It was just like the anxiety I carried through the day as I fought to swallow and sit with bites of food that added up to entire meals. Three times a day, plus snacks, it often felt like too much to handle. Many times I wanted to stop trying. I literally needed help to learn how to eat again.
Just like with driving, I had to practice eating. Meal group after meal group I practiced, before I could exhale a little. It took doing what I was terrified of over and over aging to become slightly less afraid in the driver seat. Years of experience driving which included many bumps (literally) built up until one day I was driving without hyper-focusing on every single step.
Just like driving, learning how to recover felt impossible sometimes
Simply deciding what to eat, putting food together, and actually preparing were steps that each took an enormous amount of attention and commitment. Much like turning the key, shifting the gear, and pressing the acceleration, these challenges felt almost impossible at first. They required diligence and practice to become less awkward and more automatic. It took doing them over and over again before they began to feel a little less scary and a little more natural.
And these steps were just the beginning. Bringing a fork to my mouth, EATING the food, and sitting with the discomfort in my body was similar to driving down the road with a stomach full of anxiety.
In the beginning, merging onto a highway while accelerating 55 miles per hour brought my heart rate up as quickly as a single tablespoon of peanut butter on my plate could. They both paralyzed me with terror. But somewhere along the way, after practice and time, I became more comfortable in the driver’s seat.
Likewise, a day came when I noticed I had not obsessed about food or using symptoms all day long.
No longer having to push myself painstakingly at every single meal, I tasted the freedom of recovery (along with all of the foods I had been missing). As I continued driving down the road in my dad’s truck, I settled into the seat and began to feel more comfortable and less anxious. I sang along to the radio and felt a lightness. The rain and novelty of driving someone else’s vehicle initially required a higher level of diligence and caution. Although I had not forgotten all of the steps involved in driving, I slowed them down and paid closer attention to avoid any careless mistakes.
This didn’t mean I had forgotten how to drive. It didn’t mean I am a horrible driver, that I will never be able to drive, or that I haven’t been driving well enough. I did not get angry at myself for slowing down and paying closer attention. In fact, it made sense.
Recovery from an ED
And yet- when I find myself suddenly struggling with food and recovery, I immediately jump to criticizing myself. Anytime I notice urges, my thoughts become obsessive, the desire to shrink myself rushes back. I immediately react with fear. Frantically questioning if I have made any progress at all, I fear I am falling into the dark abyss of the disorder yet again. Giving up becomes a tempting option.
But just like driving, there are times when recovery requires more attention and diligence.
When I go through a loss, when I am feeling hurt or alone, or when I am coping with change, it only makes sense that recovery is more difficult to maintain. If I am having a hard time, eating feels less familiar. I may need to spend more time focusing on nourishing my body. I may have to go slower.
Reaching out for support may be a good option. And just like with driving, if I am struggling it does NOT mean that I have relapsed. It does not mean that I can’t do this. It just means I need a little care, a little more attention, and a lot more self compassion at this moment. Because the rain will stop, the sun will come up , and I will eventually either get back into my familiar car or this car will become familiar.