Three Essential Steps to My Recovery
By Betsy Brenner
Although my eating disorder did not become full blown until my late 40’s, the seeds were planted long beforehand. The most important contributing factor to my developing anorexia in mid-life was 40 years of internalizing any and all difficult emotions and feelings. From my parents’ divorce at age 7, to the complicated grief from my parents’ devastating cancer deaths, and everything in-between, these life experiences triggered anxiety, depression, and ultimately an eating disorder. In my 40’s, my eating disorder surfaced in response to significant stress in important relationships and it was fueled by my return to competitive tennis. ED came to my “rescue” when adult-onset asthma made me feel out of control and I was unable to exercise.
Listening to ED reduced anxiety, numbed difficult emotions, and eased my intense fear of gaining weight which developed after my return to tennis. Tennis brought friendships and my coaching job, but it was also a return to my coping mechanism I had relied upon as a child and young adult. Both ED and tennis made me feel in control. ED helped when tennis couldn’t, when chronic asthma led to periods of inactivity and increased anxiety. I listened to ED and he made me feel good about myself. I listened to ED and he made me feel in control. In recovery I learned it was ED who was in control, not me. I used tennis more and more as an emotional outlet, just as I had in high school and college. It reduced stress, anxiety, made me feel thin, and was an escape from confronting and expressing my feelings.
My recovery was all outpatient, consisting of regular appointments with a dietician and a therapist, while continuing my daily life as a mom, wife, bereavement group facilitator, and high school tennis coach. My recovery process took many years, but it was so worth it. I am now healthy in mind, body, and spirit, and able to be truly present and experience life without being consumed by thoughts about food and exercise. I am able to cope with life’s challenges in healthier ways. The three essential keys for my recovery were: vulnerability, connection and support, and learning to appreciate my body for what it can do when it is healthy.
I grew up with no opportunity to express my feelings. I thought being strong meant always being positive and unemotional. I strived for perfection in school and on the tennis court to feel my mom’s love and earn her approval. I felt guilty for even thinking any negative thoughts. In recovery, I learned from my dietician what it meant to be vulnerable. She made me feel comfortable so that eventually I was able to let my guard down and start getting in touch with all that was locked inside. We shared quotes about recovery and about life. One of the most meaningful quotes for my recovery was:
You don’t have to be positive all the time. It’s perfectly okay to feel sad, angry, annoyed, frustrated, scared or anxious. Having feelings doesn’t make you a negative person, it makes you human.
To believe this would require I undo everything that had been ingrained in me from a young age. I literally needed permission to feel. Recovery required vulnerability, which I had always equated with weakness, but it was essential I get in touch with all the feelings I had internalized through so many challenging times in my life. With the skill and compassion of my dietician and therapist, I was able to do this. I needed to feel safe and gradually unravel the layers and layers of suppressed emotions. Week after week, month after month, year after year…
The fact that tears flow so freely now, shows there is no longer an eating disorder there to numb all those difficult emotions. Both my dietician and therapist taught me that my eating disorder was not about food. Restriction and over exercise were the symptoms. Vulnerability allowed me to dig deep and get to the root of what lay beneath the surface. I learned not only to be vulnerable, but also to recognize I had needs of my own. It was not only okay to meet my needs, but it was necessary for recovery. In recovery, I found my voice and vulnerability has allowed me to discover my authentic self.
Connection and Support
I would have benefited greatly from a higher level of care where I could have made my recovery my highest priority. I was not, however, willing to disrupt my family life and fortunately, I was medically stable. My recovery may have taken longer, but with support and true connection, recovery was possible with an outpatient team. My recovery journey took me places I did not know I needed to go. My dietician not only helped me with meal plans and weight restoration, but also taught me about the importance of self-care. I learned so much about myself and about life. In this safe space where I could let my guard down, I could be honest about my eating disorder, my emotions, and life’s challenge. I learned so much about nutrition and how to nourish not only my body, but also my mind and spirit. She always knew exactly what to say to me to help me stay on track or get back on track. “Do the next right thing” she would say, giving me the encouragement and support I needed. She believed in me through all the ups and downs and never gave up on me. Her support and professional guidance were with me every step of the way.
From my therapist, I learned so much about how the difficult experiences in my life had shaped me. I had a safe space where I could talk about my complicated relationships with my parents and their untimely cancer deaths. She helped me understand how my eating disorder developed as a way to cope with all the unspoken feelings and suppressed emotions. The compassion and expertise of my professional support was essential to my recovery. Recovery is not linear and they helped me keep moving forward towards becoming my healthiest self. With their support, I was able to recognize and acknowledge any setbacks along the way and get back on track.
Authentic connection with friends who understood was also important to my recovery. Eating disorders can be very isolating illnesses and at times, I definitely felt alone and unable to talk about what I was going through, except with my professional support. As my recovery progressed, I was eventually able to confide in a few close friends about my eating disorder. The reality was that there was generally little to no understanding of this illness that was consuming me. The connection with a couple of very close friends, with whom I could be my authentic and vulnerable self, was so meaningful as I went about my daily life.
In my current work in peer support and co-leading support groups, I commonly hear that everyone struggling needs someone who “gets it.” Having that someone lessons that feeling of isolation, so common with eating disorders and other mental illnesses. The support of my professional team and the connection with my closest of friends was essential to my recovery and finding my way along this long, difficult journey. Being able to share the struggles, emotions, small victories, and everything else along the way helped me to feel cared for and understood.
Finally, the third essential contributing factor to my recovery from an eating disorder in mid-life was learning to focus on and appreciate what my body could do, rather than simply focus on its appearance, consumed by thoughts about food and exercise. One of the most difficult experiences of my life was the most important chapter in my recovery and gave me a whole new level of appreciation for what my body can do when I am healthy.
About three years ago, I had a total abdominal hysterectomy because of an ovarian tumor which thankfully turned out to be benign. This experience with major surgery and a cancer scare reinforced my commitment to self-care, not only for my body, but also for my mind and spirit. During the 2½ months of recovering from surgery, I had no choice but to rest. I had to nurture my body with rest and nourish my body with food. This experience was a powerful reminder that you only have one body, so you need to take care of it. I had survived major invasive surgery and would do everything I needed to do to be able to heal and resume my life. Never before had I felt such a deep appreciation for good health. This experience strengthened my eating disorder recovery, because out of the healing process came a fierce determination to be as strong and healthy as possible, in body, in mind, and in spirit.
To conclude, I have learned through my recovery journey that we are never too old to be a work in progress. Inspirational quotes have also guided my recovery and the one that best reaffirms what I have learned in recovery is:
You fall, you rise, you make mistakes, you live, you learn. You are human, not perfect. You have been hurt, but you are alive to breathe, to think, to enjoy, and to chase the things you love. Sometimes there is sadness in your journey, but there is also lots of beauty. We must keep putting one foot in front of the other, even when we hurt, for we will never know what is waiting for us just around the bend.
My task now is to remain strong in recovery and use healthy coping mechanisms for life’s challenges and difficult emotions. My recovery gets stronger each and every time I nourish and nurture my body, mind, and spirit, fuel my exercise properly, and take care of my own needs. I need to be with people with whom I can be my authentic self, and I need to connect with those who understand what recovery is all about. My voice is what matters, not ED’s, and every time I share my story, it empowers me and strengthens my recovery.
About the author:
Betsy lives in Barrington, Rhode Island, with her husband and 17-year-old twins. Her eldest child, 26, is married and lives in Washington, DC. Though a lawyer by education, Betsy has been coaching high school tennis for many years and also facilitates a long-standing bereavement group in her community. She has written her recovery story from an eating disorder in mid-life and has had the privilege of sharing her story at treatment centers in New England. This empowering experience has fueled her passion for helping those who are struggling through mentoring, peer support and co-leading support groups. Betsy loves the ocean, plays tennis competitively and collects inspirational quotes and sea glass.