I have over 2,300 photos on my phone.
It’s completely overloaded. I haven’t been able to upgrade the software in months because it is too full of photos. (At least a third of which are probably my cat…)
I suppose I’m like many other millennials when it comes to the photo obsession. Or maybe it’s just that I land solidly in the visual learner category. Regardless, these photos are the way that I recall my day to day life.
To a casual onlooker, many of them probably seem mundane — the picture of me and my cousin on the roof of my building, or the selfie of me at Barnes & Noble behind a pile of Eastern spirituality books.
To me, though, those photos trigger a thousand memories and feelings. That was the day I told my cousin I had an eating disorder. And that was the day that I finally realized that no effort of my own would save me from this sickness — that I needed help.
And yet, in the middle of these 2,300 photos there is a gap. No photos appear between January 28 and March 8 of last year. It is as if my life came to a grinding halt for those 40 days. The paradox of these missing photos is striking to me, because despite the lack of photographic evidence, these were the most significant, non-mundane 40 days of my life. These are the days I was in residential treatment.
I don’t need photos to recall in striking detail what those 40 days were like. The subtleties are still fresh — like the smell of the community room, the miles of snow-covered trees I could see from the upstairs window, the quiet of the back lawn on the first sunny, 40-degree day mid-February.
Still, their absence makes me think of a truth that isn’t told enough in treatment — the truth about the middle ground.
I’m done with treatment — so why aren’t I recovered?
We all know what it’s like to be sick with our eating disorders. And we all hear in treatment about the wonderful life that supposedly awaits us in recovery. Too often, though, the hard work that separates illness and recovery gets glossed over. We aren’t told what to expect after leaving treatment, when we have to work on our recoveries without the 24/7 support of a treatment facility.
Recently, this topic came up in my outpatient support group. A young woman said that she desperately did not want to relapse, but she was still struggling with eating disorder thoughts. Surely, this couldn’t be what recovery is, she said. She wanted to know what more she had to do to “get there.”
One by one, the other girls chimed in with their own frustrations about being “not there yet” — not regressing, but not thriving. After a while, a relieved laughter began to pass through the group. I’m not the only one struggling with this! We’re all in the same boat!
Tina Klaus, a blogger I admire very much, wrote in a post last summer: “Eating disorder treatment gets you out of the woods and puts you on a track, but it drops you off at the edge of recovery with the least amount of support and a set of unrealistic expectations.”
Tina says this is a kind of no man’s land in recovery It’s the place you find yourself in after leaving treatment, when you have an arsenal of coping skills and a memorized list of affirmations, only to realize that these are fragile armor against a deathly persistent enemy. This is the time when following the meal plan has become second nature, but relaxing from it threatens to cause massive problems. This is the period you tell yourself and others how much you appreciate the health and vigor of your new “recovered” body, but looking at it in the mirror still ignites the old panic.
This, my friends, is the middle ground.
The middle ground
No one moves from an eating disorder directly into recovery (really — no one). Life is not as simple as a set of “before” and “after” pictures. There is a grey area in between that’s so enormously confusing that no image could neatly depict it. There will be months, perhaps years, when you feel as if you still “aren’t there yet” in recovery. It’s frustrating and exhausting and makes you wonder why you have to work so hard at something allegedly so positive.
But keep this in mind: You aren’t alone. All of us (yes, ALL of us) have to walk through this middle ground as we work on recovery. Struggle and relapse are part of the process, and experiencing either of them does not mean that you aren’t getting better. As long as you still WANT to recover, then you are recovering.
We in the eating disorder community need to talk more about this phase of recovery. It’s important to be honest with people that this place, this middle ground, exists. Otherwise, they are in danger of getting tangled in the vicious disappointment that lines the path.
So hang in there. Yes, the frustration you’re feeling is 100% normal. No, it does not mean that recovery is out of reach for you. Yes, the eating disorder will still be around for some time, even after treatment ends. No, that doesn’t mean you still have to listen to it.
Yes, you can do this.
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