3 Essential Steps to My Recovery
By Linda Shanti McCabe, PsyD
So, I’d love to start with HERE’S THE THING to do for your recovery and you will be:
- A) all better
- B) Be able to move on with your non-eating-disordered life
But if you’ve started this recovery journey, you probably already know there’s not one “thing.” In fact, if someone tells you there is one thing, then my advice (which I can offer here, because I am writing this from the perspective as a recovered/recovering person, not as a Psychologist in which case I could not offer you advice), would probably be to run away quickly. Because, most likely, they are marketing something.
Recovery, in my experience is many things. Some of these things include practicing good self-care, being messier, and enlisting three kinds of support. Read on to hear more about these three essential steps.
- Practice regular and consistent self-care
Recovery is about building a new sense of regularity and structure. If you didn’t use to eat breakfast, then recovery will be having breakfast every day. Does it need to be exactly the same time every day? No. Try to practice being consistent, but flexible. Recovery is flexible; eating disorders are rigid. If you used to binge on ice-cream for dinner, recovery will include making yourself dinner every night. And sitting down. At the table. Maybe even with a candle. If you used to eat lunch at your desk at work (and, therefore, you pretty much missed it because you were sucked into a screen and then you looked down and your sandwich and an entire bag of chips were gone), then recovery may need to include leaving your desk for lunch.
When I first got into recovery for my eating disorder 20 years ago, recovery meant starting the day with writing. This was a practice I learned from a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron in which you write three pages long hand every morning, first thing upon arising. I still do this, 20 years later. This is my “moving meditation” practice in which I drain my brain of all the worries, fears, hopes, feelings, and visions. Have I written every morning for the past twenty years? Of course not. When I was pregnant, I was often too nauseous. And in early motherhood, writing was often in the car, my “new office space,” parked with sleeping baby napping in the back. But, I kept writing. And when I wasn’t writing, I said to myself (with a large dose of compassion): “I know when the pain of not writing becomes greater than the discomfort of writing, I will write again.” Because the whole point of writing (for me) is to practice developing a more compassionate relationship with myself: NOT learn new ways to beat up on myself. Writing was – and is – a way for me to process the messiness of life.
- Lower the Bar and Allow Being Messy.
Life is messy. One common trait of people who develop eating disorders is we tend to be a teeny tiny bit perfectionistic. I say this with kindness. If you struggle with perfectionism, I’m with you. It is so hard to fall short of where-you-think-you-should-be. I remember one time when my little one was in preschool; we were supposed to bring in family pictures before the start of school for a project. For weeks, I received email reminders about this. Finally, FINALLY, I brought in the photos to put in my little one’s cubby, convinced that I was the WORST BAD MOM EVER and the last one to bring them in. Guess how many other people had brought them in before me? Three. Three out of sixty-four families had brought in their photos. I cannot tell you how relieved I was to re-enter the great imperfect family of humans from which I thought I had been separate. Please! Whatever you think you should be doing or should have been doing, lower the bar. I tell my clients:
Instead of setting the bar high, and failing to reach it, thereby confirming what a piece of sh*t you are, why not try setting the bar low and leaping over it? Keep building evidence that
In order to do this work of challenging your perfectionism, isolation, and self-defeating thoughts, it helps to not do it alone. This relates to the last essential step I have to share.
- Make three friends:
One further-along than you, one in the same place, and one behind you.
Isolation is part of the disease of an eating disorder. People with eating disorders often think “I’ll make friends/date/get a new job/learn to dance/wear a bathing suit/go skiing/participate in life/do-the-thing-I-really-want-to-do-but can’t-let-myself-because-I-hate-my-body-and-myself, AFTER I get better.” And when they say, “get better,” they often mean “have a different body” or “be perfect.” News flash: that will never happen. Getting better has nothing to do with the size of your body. You have a body and it is imperfect, as are you. When I got into eating disorder recovery, I did a 12-step program. My first 12-step sponsor told me:
“The size of your body is not your business.”
“What?” I thought. (Actually, if I’m being honest, what I really thought was “WTF?!”)
However, I didn’t say this out loud because I knew my way of crazy living was not working. So, I thought I should at least consider what she was saying because she had: a) sanity with food, b) peace with her imperfect body, and c) the ability to live life without an eating disorder. But it still didn’t make sense to me.
So anyway, she was my person-that-was-further-along-than me. She was who I went to when I wanted guidance on what to do (or not to do) in recovery. She told me I need to focus on feeling my feelings, not using disordered food behaviors to avoid them, and showing up for life no matter what I was feeling or what my body looked or felt like. So, I did.
When I was overwhelmed or just generally a hot mess, I went to someone in the same boat as me. For me, this was someone else in my support group. Friends that are in a similar place as you are the ones who can say “I get it.” Hopefully, they won’t try to fix it, because they are fighting the same battle as you. Hopefully, they will know the best medicine is to make empathic noises and not try and fix something that doesn’t need to – and can’t – be fixed. Having a friend next to you, just going through it with you, can help. Support helped remind me there was nothing wrong with me if I was feeling bad (aka ashamed, sad, mad, afraid). There is nothing wrong with you. You have uncomfortable feelings. In recovery, you will most likely have more of them. Having a friend beside you experiencing these feelings can ease the weight of those feelings.
Finally, and last but not least, help someone behind you. In the beginning you might not be able to do this. You might need to just hang onto your own life raft. That’s ok. Just keep breathing for a while. But don’t stay there forever. In my twenty years of recovery experience, the people who survive and thrive in long term recovery find a way to help others. Start small. Say “hi” to someone in your support group that joined a few weeks or months after you. When you have your sea legs even a little bit, cheer someone else on. That’s how we get to keep this recovery thing. You can’t keep it unless you give it away. Be the further-along person for someone else. Remember: don’t try and fix them. Just let them know you’re here. There are so many of us who have survived and thrived in eating disorder recovery. Become one of us! I can honestly say recovering from an eating disorder is one of the greatest gifts of my life. That was not the plan. I did not, as an 8-year-old, aspire to being someone-who-recovered-from-an-eating-disorder as what I wanted to be when I grew up. I did, however, want to be a writer. (See how this works? Look at this! I’m writing!) So — Trust you will get back to – or become in the first place – the person you are supposed to be on this earth. Keep eating your breakfast. Keep showing up for regular, consistent, self-care. Lower the bar. Make three friends. You got this. Or you don’t got this, but you WILL get this. Keep going, friend. There are many of us on the road further ahead looking back and calling you forward. Listen for the call. And then turn around and send it behind you. No one gets there alone.
About the Author:
Dr Linda Shanti (“Recovery mama”) holds a doctorate in Clinical Psychology and is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in the state of California. She is a therapist that believes “you can’t keep it unless you give it away, but you can’t give it away unless you have it.” Her book, The Recovery Mama Guide to Your Eating Disorder Recovery During pregnancy and Postpartum (Jessica Kingsley Publishers) is available on amazon.
You can learn more about her at: DrLindaShanti.com or follow along for inspiration on Facebook: RecoveryMama or Instagram: @DrLindaShanti