3 Essential Steps to My Recovery: A Leap of Faith to Freedom
By Kirsten Müller-Daubermann (formerly Kirsten Haglund)
Freedom. It sounds enticing, thrilling even, but also terrifying. Recovery from an eating disorder means freedom – from bondage, from restriction, from lies, from obsession, and from despair. But the road there is fraught with difficulty, challenges and potholes, and it takes a tremendous amount of courage and perseverance to discover the freedom that lies on the other side of an eating disorder.
But freedom is messy, and that is why for those battling ED it can be a frightening prospect. Outside the rules and regulations of the illness, one must make room for nuance, for gray areas, for “not-knowing,” and uncertainty. One must risk making decisions and being wrong, trying and failing, being vulnerable, and operating without all of the facts. That is the part of freedom that we’re not sure, when we are sick, that we can handle. Too much freedom could be a curse, not a blessing. Better to stay safe, better to not budge, better to not risk it.
However, recovery comes when we realize, and I realized, the illusion of control I thought I had while in my eating disorder was an absolute fiction. I had in fact surrendered control to an illness that could kill me. I realized, about 6 months into outpatient treatment for anorexia, in a flash, I wanted freedom and all that came with it, even the scary parts, because I wanted to live. There were dreams I forgot I had that stirred in deep places in my soul: to travel the world, to get an education, to learn another language, to have a meaningful and loving relationship, to be involved in causes greater than myself. The turning point in my recovery journey came when it became abundantly clear I could not realize those dreams, and simultaneously be struggling with an eating disorder. It was time to choose: the illusion of control and safety, or freedom and all that came with it – the challenges and the abundant joys. That day, I decided to jump.
Take a Leap of Faith
I found the essential factor in getting started was deciding to have faith; to believe life in recovery was going to be better than life in the eating disorder. There are so many unknowns about what giving up the “rules” of the eating disorder will mean – how your body, emotions, and mind will “feel,” how relationships might change, what sacrifices you might have to make – there is no denying there is uncertainty. However, I had to weigh the evidence and the facts: the way I was coping with my emotional dysregulation, stress, and severe anxiety was literally going to kill me if I continued to let it control me. Anorexia was not delivering on any of its promises. It was making me thinner, but not happier, not healthier, not more at peace. It was making my life visibly and uncontrovertibly worse. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I decided to believe, even if I hadn’t experience it yet, freedom from ED was better than the half-life I was living, enslaved to the eating disorder. I decided to trust my treatment team and the stories of freedom I heard from others and take a leap of faith into the unknown.
Remove Yourself from Toxic Situations
On the most difficult days of pursuing recovery, it takes tremendous strength and perseverance to continue to hold on to that initial faith and dedication. I found I had to relieve some of the external pressures I was facing in order to stay strong and fully commit to my recovery and rebuilding my health. I had to find the toxic situations creating the boiling cauldron of triggers in my life and extract myself from them. While ballet was my first love, and I love it still, I realized I could no longer pursue it professionally and try to recover at the same time. It was not only a love, but an all-consuming obsession, and since a young age had shaped my entire mindset, the way I viewed myself and the world, my worth and value, and not in a positive way. In order to re-train my brain, I had to remove myself from the pressure to succeed in that world, and learn new skills, discover new talents, and release myself from the pressure to look and act a certain way. This was excruciatingly painful at first, but when I discovered I did have other loves and abilities, that joy and excitement quickly replaced the pain of saying goodbye to my dream of becoming a professional ballet dancer. And oh, the joy of no longer spending hours in front of a mirror everyday looking at myself in leotard and tights! I started to get more involved in the choir and musical theater programs at my school, seriously pursuing a college education, reading more history, political, and philosophy books and creative writing. I found out I was actually good at things other than ballet, giving me proof I had worth outside of that realm. Removing myself from what was for me, a toxic situation, helped create a safer and healthier environment in which my recovery would not be unnecessarily hindered, and I could truly maximize the strength I was building to persevere.
Learn How to Fail Well
Through hard work with my therapist and nutritionist, I discovered perfectionism and people-pleasing was at the heart of many of my eating disordered behaviors. I was terrified of failure, of displeasing those around me, of being too much, taking up too much space, and of just generally bothering others in any conceivable way. I thought being perfect, and perfection’s pursuit, would mollify those fears. Instead, it made them worse. I slowly began to rewire my brain, to accept perfection was impossible. Even if I did everything “right,” as a human being I would still fail, mess up, say or do the wrong thing, and disappoint people. That is a part of being human. I had to learn I could not control what others thought of me, or how I was perceived, which was a revelation. Instead of fearing failure and imperfection, I had to learn to accept it, and chose how I would handle it when it happened. Recovery means discovering how to fail well: to accept imperfections in myself and others with grace, and rather than follow the error with punishment, ask myself instead, “how can I learn and grow as a result of this?” I reframed my mindset from one where failure was the ultimate evil, to one where failure was an opportunity to learn and change for the better. This was humbling and hard work, but the very best training for my adult life I could have received. When we live in fear of failure, we remain stagnant or digress. When we choose to learn from our setbacks, we move forward with incredible speed and find wholeness.
Starting the journey to recovery is an opportunity; at times a frightening one, but worth the risk, worth the leap of faith. Standing here on the other side of the gap, I can tell you now it was worth it. Life on the other side of an eating disorder exists, and it is more beautiful and fulfilling than perhaps you can imagine right now. I want to encourage you to hold on to that small flame of hope flickering inside you, the small voice whispering a promise that life holds something more for you than sickness, despair, and decay. Recovery is real and it is worth it. Release the fear and join me and so many others in the exhilaration of freedom.
About the author:
Kirsten Müller-Daubermann (formerly Kirsten Haglund) is an international speaker, mental health advocate and digital media strategist. Through her media and communications company, En Pointe, she works with a diverse group of clients in both the profit and non-profit sectors increasing social engagement and scalability, social listening, communications training, spokesperson work increasing brand awareness. She also proudly serves as Community Relations Specialist for Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, Founder of the Kirsten Haglund Foundation, produces a podcast for getAbstract and is an indoor cycling coach at SparkCycle Zurich. Her Op-Eds on politics, culture and non-profit advocacy have appeared in the New York Daily News, Forbes.com, Huff Post and in industry journals. She served as Miss America 2008 and graduated from Emory University with a B.A. in Political Science. She is currently based in Zürich, Switzerland