The Surprising Truth: Your Brain is Also in Recovery

brain in recovery - image of a wall with graffiti picture of the profile of a women's face gazing up in black and white, with a picture of superman in color on the side of her face

When I set out to recover from my eating disorder, I was excited to get all this time back for hobbies and passions. Time that used to be spent exercising, food prepping, calorie counting, and mirror checking. It could now be used to write short stories, research for my future grad school plans, or sit down with a nice book. I was excited to be able to focus my brain once again. But like most things in recovery, it gets worse before it gets better.

My first few months were spent not doing my usual disordered behaviors. AND not doing any of the things I wanted to do. It felt like I was wasting so much time. Why didn’t I just do the things I’d been missing all these years? I finally had the time. Too much of it, even.

I certainly tried to sit down with a blank document or a book. But I just didn’t have the focus for it. It felt like an unbelievable amount of work to perceive coherent sentences, let alone create them. It wasn’t a new feeling, but it was frustrating nonetheless.

My expectations were ahead of my mind. Having the time for your passions doesn’t equate to having the ability to focus on them. I was overlooking the obvious: my brain was in recovery, too.

Hungry brain in recovery

Your brain needs the carbohydrate equivalent of at least eight slices of bread a day to function fully. You’ve probably heard this or a similar expression if you come from a background of restriction. That number doesn’t even take into consideration how many carbohydrates you need to keep your body moving.

Though I wasn’t tracking any of my macronutrients in early recovery, I can say with some confidence that I probably wasn’t getting an adequate amount for both my mind and body every day. And I’m guessing that if I was, my body was probably feeling like it had a right to steal a few from my brain to divert toward restoring my periods, boosting my immune system, or packing on some extra fuel for a rainy day.

All this to say—my brain was still very hungry in early recovery. It wasn’t ready to take on the backlog of passion projects I had for it. So I had to practice the thing I’m terrible at: being patient.

Impatience and self-loathing

While my body was busying itself with all its important restoration work, my brain decided to—for lack of a better term—f$#* off. I was useless at anything involving critical thinking, creative problem solving, or something as simple as remembering where I’d left my keys.

Occasionally, my brain would return only to start panicking and ranting at my body for how much it had changed. The anxiety I felt about my body and how to control it got notably worse. I wasn’t experiencing the euphoria and freedom of recovery I’d read about. And I didn’t feel energized, buoyant, or able to override the feelings of doubt.

Instead, I had all the same feelings of self-loathing and fears of losing control. Only this time, they were co-occurring with the return to the body that had traumatized me in the first place.

I wish I could say that I pushed ahead with trust in the process. But I didn’t. I pushed ahead with bitterness and impatience.

Welcome back, brain

I doubt I have to explain to anyone here how self-loathing, body fixation, and fear of losing control are classic symptoms of eating disorders. That’s not to say that I was in quasi-recovery and still intentionally restricting. I just hadn’t gotten far enough into recovery to be nourishing my brain, too. Again, that whole I-have-to-be-patient thing.

About five months into recovery, I woke up with a writing idea. It had been years since an idea had struck me with such intention and urgency. I was late logging in for work that morning because my brain kept rattling off sentences I needed to get down before they could escape.

During work, I felt focused (or as focused as you can be while working from home during a pandemic). I felt like I could get all my tasks done for the day. And I didn’t take breaks every few minutes to distract my foggy brain with fluff.

I logged out of work and genuinely collapsed into tears when I processed how present my mind had felt all day. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized how suppressed my mind had been. I cried for the easy tasks that felt so insurmountable to my starved brain. For the hard tasks I never attempted because my brain had nothing to give. For the years I spent believing I’d somehow gotten dumber in adulthood.

My brain’s recovery is ongoing

It doesn’t get sharper every day. It still lags the day after a long bike commute, even if my body doesn’t.

But on a typical day, I can get through my job with ease and still have brain power left for my own projects. I rediscover all these cool things that my mind was capable of. And I remember how intelligent I am. And most importantly, I trust that recovery is working and that it’s 100% worth it.

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