How to cope with hopelessness in recovery « Eating Disorders Explained

This reader has had a long, hard, painful battle with anorexia, and at this point in her journey (as we all must and do at some point – and sometimes at many points – along the way) is questioning whether recovery is worth it. I have been there too – and that is why I have decided to share some “tough love” with her that my own mentor shared with me when I was standing in her shoes. HUGS to her for the challenging place she is in – and HUGS for the courage it will take her to KEEP FIGHTING.

Q. I hope you don’t mind me writing, but I’ve been reading Beating Ana and i have been studying the MentorCONNECT website as well as doing random google searches on eating disorder recovery, treatments, etc., etc., etc. and one thing always pops into my mind: i have been living (existing, rather) with this eating disorder (anorexia nervosa) for the past EIGHTEEN years.  i never hear about anyone who has dealt with an ed for that long, nevermind someone dealing with an ed for that long and recovering.  i am trying to stay hopeful, but it’s so difficult for me to imagine changing my routines, etc.

I am seeing my nutritionist tomorrow and for the first time ever, she is just going to hand me a meal plan (from the beginning, it has just been baby steps here and there–certain goals to achieve, etc.).  i feel like, in my mid-30′s, my time is running out and like your book says repeatedly, “recovery is not an option.”  although i have been stable medically for a few years now, i know that mentally, this is taking a toll on me.  it is isolating me from relationships, keeping me from enjoying my family, i just went through a breakup, etc.  still, when i look at others’ lives, i can’t help but feel miserable about the waste my life has become.

i don’t really know why i am writing to you, other than to ask for some advice/suggestions.   i can’t see myself wavering from my routine (my foods).  like i said in my post on MC, they are not necessarily “anorexic-friendly” foods either- i am a carb addict, for example, and my diet tends to consist mostly of certain “safe” foods.  i have a doctor’s appt. in mid-October and she will determine at that point whether or not to “force” me into treatment.

i don’t know.  i am just in such a bad place right now.  i just feel like i have had this ed for so long that it’s going to take a LONG time to overcome it and it’s going to be extra difficult.  i feel like by the time i do overcome it, i will be in my 40′s, still single, and looking for work.  i just wish so much that my parents had gotten me help much sooner.

A. While you do have a valid reason for seeing the glass-half-empty perspective when it comes to your illness, one of the things my own 2 decade long recovery battle taught me is that I can also choose to see it as glass-half-full.

I hear from women who have been struggling for 30 years – in fact, I have just had an email from a woman who is 68 and has had her eating disorder for most of her life! Yet she is still fighting – still learning – still not giving up.

Life is literally what we make of it. I don’t hear you arguing yourself out of recovering, I hear you asking why it has to take so long, be so difficult, cost so much, etc. This is a question I hear every day, and the answer is “because it does”. If you had cancer, the loss of a child, an auto-immune disease, another form of mental illness, if your spouse or parent had terminal illness and you were their caretaker, if you lost your job and no one else would hire you because the economy was so bad, if some country decided they hated you just because of your race or religious preference and went to war against you, if your spouse left you for someone else….there are infinite permutations in which life hands us heartbreakingly difficult situations that are also our greatest motivators and teachers. My mentors taught me that “everybody has something” and not to assume my lot in life is more difficult or hopeless or less fair than others’ is. We ALL have something – that is what it means to be human, to live.

And we cannot – absolutely cannot – look at the lives of others and assume we would be happier or better off in their shoes. Plus this is a useless exercise and a waste of perfectly good energy and time, since we cannot be in their shoes even if we would be better off!

This is not to sound harsh although when my mentors first shared this with me I took it that way. So you’ve been struggling for 18 years – will recovery – freedom – be worth it to you even if it takes 30 or 50 or 60? If you were a woman fighting to get the vote, or a black american fighting for freedom from slavery, would any amount of sacrifice be worth it for even a minute of freedom – especially if you believed it was possible if you just never gave up?

It is also not productive to continue ruminating on “what ifs” from the past. My folks never got me help – I still got better. They didn’t know – I didn’t come with a manual – and that is part of why I started my public work, because eating disorders are not well understood and it is not anyone’s fault but it IS everyone’s responsibility to speak out and change that. I have some close friends who have lost their children to eating disorders who DID get their kids help early enough and they still didn’t make it. I know others who, like myself, were never offered the chance for professional help, or received it only later in their recovery work, and they did survive. Again, so much of recovery is about choice and perseverance and creativity and personal effort – we can’t change yesterday in our own life, let alone in anyone else’s, so at some point we just need to let it go and focus on what we can do now, in our own life, TODAY.

Great rewards require GREAT sacrifices and hardship. There are many, many, many women and men who have passed away from their eating disorders to give us this chance to learn and grow and actually get better. We honor their memory and our own chance to leave a legacy by continuing to fight, no matter who doesn’t understand, no matter how much it costs us, no matter how long it takes or how much we have to lose to gain the one thing every human being deserves – freedom to live safe in our own skin.

It is your choice – you know that – I know that – but your attitude is going to determine how far you get and whether you choose to take the support that is available and make the most of it, or choose to continue to catalogue your losses and talk yourself out of recovering instead.

So my suggestion is that, every time the Ed voice starts to tell you why recovery just isn’t worth it, you sit right down and list out all the reasons why it IS worth it. Every time the Ed voice reminds you how much fighting for recovery has cost you, sit right down and say, “No, Ed, that is what YOU have cost me, and because of that I am going to hunt you to the ends of the earth and blast you until you’re not even a memory in my mind!” Every time Ed says “but look at how old you’ll be when you finally get to recovery” sit right down and say “And I will never feel better, look younger, or do more good than when YOU are out of my life for good!”

I am turning 40 this year. I am still single – never married, no kids. I work for an organization (MentorCONNECT) that pays me zero salary (and sometimes costs me money!) and requires most of my waking hours each week to manage. I live in a one bedroom apartment with my pet birds and fish, pretty much live paycheck to paycheck as a freelance writer, drive a 5 year old Toyota, and there are days that weighs on me, because I am human and I have dreams I have realized, and others I haven’t yet. But even the toughest days today do not weigh on me nearly as much as Ed used to weigh on me. And I have never, EVER been happier or more at home in my own skin in my life! I have great friends now instead of Ed. I have a very close, loving relationship with my family today that I never had when I was with Ed. I have work that I LOVE, and so what if it took me half my lifetime to get there and the pay (at this point at least) isn’t exactly what I hoped for. I have the chance to work with the most amazing group of women and men I have ever met to leave a legacy to help thousands….maybe millions. Choosing recovery gave me a precious, unique, rare, and wonderful life and all the possibility in the world. I have friends that are making lots of money, are married, etc, and are very happy. And I have friends that are making lots of money, are married, etc, and are miserable. I have friends that are single and making lots of money and are very happy. And I have friends that are single and are not doing well financially and are very happy.

I have learned in every way I can imagine that life is what we make of it, and quality of life is all in our attitude. Cultivating gratitude, accepting that big rewards come with big self-effort, giving ourselves the same grace we’d give a friend on life’s tough days and celebrating with ourselves on fun happy days – that is what makes life in our own skin feel worth waking up for each day. And it is also all a choice. So while I will continue to assert that recovery is not optional, CHOOSING to recover always is.

So what I would encourage you to do now is to think – really think – take all the time you need and examine all of your options from every possible angle, and then choose well. And once you’ve made your choice, work hard daily to keep choosing. Do whatever it takes. Save the world – starting with YOU. And then, no matter what happens, when you meet your own eyes in the mirror, you will feel that pride when you see a HERO staring back at you. I believe you can do it – do you?