A day like yesterday, December 27th, 2 years ago, I made the decision that turned out to be a new beginning in my life, a rebirth, a radical change that subverted all the basis of mi world view until then: I chose to start recovery after 11 years with anorexia nervosa.
I knew a couple of things about the way before me because I had been reading some blogs. But experiencing it has been very different. It’s not the same to read about the deafening screams, the excruciating pain or the suffocating darkness than to feel them. It’s not the same either to read about the personal transformation, the blossoming and the conquest of truth and freedom than to live them.
This series of 3 posts isn’t intended to be a compendium of everything I’ve lived during the past 2 years. I just want to offer some rough outlines of part of the discoveries I’ve made and ponder what has helped me move forward and what has held me back. Hoping that someone, when she finishes reading it, has more conviction to undertake or continue the way of recovery and figures out what her next steps must be.
The turning point in my recovery was understanding that God was in favor of it
Of course, I suspected that when I chose to start it in the first place. But it was going to take me a long time to remove the false beliefs that were so deeply rooted in me and determined my world view. I was lucid enough to decide early that I needed a spiritual director to guide me through this, and had the grace to find the ideal person. But, no matter how convinced I was after each of our meetings that recovery was the way through which God wanted me to give Him glory… Immediately the confusion came back.
Because I didn’t feel like that. I felt guilt and remorse. That I was selfish and had given up the hard path of sacrifice to surrender to the pleasures of the flesh. I was disgusted with myself. I had contaminated myself with those worldly things —food— I had promised to avoid. And that took me even further away from God… how could I turn to Him to ask Him for help with something that deep down I thought was a betrayal to Him? It would be like asking Him for help to steal or murder. And the whole Bible and most saint’s texts were pointing me in the same direction, the one I had become used to find in them.
What saved me was the conviction that, above everything, obedience was the safest way to give glory to God. Even if in the end the one I had chosen (anorexia) was objectively better, if I renounced it because of obedience I wouldn’t be making a mistake. But, despite everything, this obviously entailed a huge spiritual tension. That made the first months of recovery absolutely horrible and miserable.
Only when, with time, I started to see by myself, and not just because others were telling me, that indeed recovery was from God, that the voice of anorexia was the voice of the evil one, and that He wanted to rescue me and save me from that deathly abyss, everything became much easier. Which doesn’t mean easy. Just possible. If God was really by my side, if He wasn’t turning His back on me because I had betrayed Him, but now I was on His way, then I could walk safely through it without constantly looking back. I could celebrate the challenges overcome without the shadow of doubting if I was celebrating a shameful act. Then, no matter how long it might take me, no matter how many obstacles I might find in the way, no matter how many times I might fall… victory was guaranteed.
Enjoying food is good. Being happy is good. Choosing what you like is good
As I’ve mentioned, I used to feel very guilty when I ate; but, above all, when I enjoyed what I ate. I could go as far as to accept that I had to gain weight, but then it should be a duty to be fulfilled with abnegation, without finding delight in it, which seemed to me would turn it into a selfish desire. Because then, deep down, I wouldn’t be doing it to give glory to God, but out of gluttony. Was the solution then to gain weight only by eating bland food I didn’t enjoy? (In fact, that was exactly what someone suggested to me).
The mindset shift was understanding that I gave glory to God not only by gaining the weight I needed, but appreciating His gifts, giving Him thanks because He allowed us to satisfy our need of food with delight, finding Him in every bite. The good things of the world, including a yummy taste, can lead us to God.
But accepting that about food made me want to “compensate” for it in other areas of my life. Like, ok, have your delight in food, but at least have the good grace to never ever ask for anything else. You’ve given up a great sacrifice, let’s see how you make up for it. I thought that being happy consisted merely in the satisfaction for having fulfilled a duty, even if I didn’t like it at all. What’s more, if I liked it even just a little, it was very likely bad and I was choosing it out of selfishness and not because it was really God’s will. That’s why I thought I was happy when I was anorexic. As I always say, what happened was that my horizons of happiness were very limited.
God and our desires
I learnt to see that God’s will for my life matches the deepest desires of my heart, since it’s Him who has placed them there. That there doesn’t have to be a dichotomy when one lives in grace and has an intimate and honest relationship with the Lord. That when one sees a good way and a bad way, the logical thing is to choose the good one, and you’ll find the cross there, but not the heavy yoke of the evil, which are different things. That the Lord is looking forward to giving us good things, and isn’t happy that we suffer.
That doesn’t mean we’re always going to be cheery, or that we don’t have to make renounces and sacrifices; but it does mean that we must not choose systematically and/or in fundamental choices in life whatever causes us the most rejection because we believe that would be the most perfect thing. We can like something that’s bad, or not like something that’s good, but those cases are pretty well delimited in the commandments.
What’s not true is that, if we like something, then it’s not good. The more we grow in a life of grace and virtue, the more similar what we like and what’s good will be. We shouldn’t discard our personal preferences when discerning, God has created us with preferences towards certain things not so as to we have to put up with them and suppress them, but so as to, orienting them well, we discover what we’re called to do. He wants us to be happy.
I still struggle to grasp this; when I want something, when I like something, I tend to think that then surely it’s not what God wants. It’s a wound that I’m healing little by little, as I get to know better the Heart of Jesus.
You’re going to feel trapped in your own mind. Or expelled from it
Those were my two more common states of mind in the beginning of recovery. Many times I felt trapped, locked up, there were too many voices, very loud screams, noisy alarms, everything against me, and I couldn’t escape, get out of there, stop listening. I couldn’t block the thoughts that tormented me because they didn’t come like from outside, but they were inside, 24×7, non-stop. And you can’t run away because you can get out of your own mind.
But there was something even worse, and it was, sometimes —when I had the most serious panic attacks— feeling like I was indeed on the brink of getting out of my own mind. Being expelled, letting my last voice fade and the thoughts take all control. Like ceasing to exist, or at least entering into a lethargy until something or someone was able to wake me again. It never finally happened, the thin thread of my sanity wasn’t broken, but I was utterly frightened at some episodes.
The problem is that, during all the time I’d been actively engaging in the eating disorder, I had let the thoughts enter, proliferate, take the seats of honor and assume the government. Because I thought they were me. With recovery, I discovered I wasn’t them, and now I had to reconquer the stronghold of my mind. But it can be done. At some point, the tables were turned and I saw I was inside, and they were the ones trying to attack to get in. They’re difficult to hold back, and sometimes they’ve won the assaults (before, often; now, seldom). But having to be the one who attacks is not the same as being the one who only needs to defend the stronghold. Taking control is not the same as just protecting it.
The mind recovers following the body
Usually, the mind goes far behind the body in a recovery process. The weight goes up, but you aren’t getting better internally. That makes you want to stop, because you just feel worse and worse every day, seeing your body getting out of hand. But, in the end, the physical recovery drags the mental recovery. They go together, and keeping on with the first one makes possible for the second one to start getting better, and with time, to catch up.
Because there’s a part of the mind that’s physical. The brain suffers the effects of malnutrition, you can’t think well when you don’t feed it enough. I with anorexia believed that I could, that I was more intelligent than other people because I didn’t have fat interfering with my mental functions, but that was just another trap to keep me hooked up. The brain consumes approximately 20% of the calories we eat, so it’s very affected when those are too low.
When we think of the tissues that needs to be repaired with recovery, we always come up with things like the heart, the bones or the gut, all of which are very important, but we overlook the brain. And, if the other organs can’t function optimally until they aren’t repaired, why do we expect the brain to do so?
Many of our thoughts, including body dysmorphia, will improve drastically or disappear once our brain is more recovered. Therefore, don’t fall into the trap of waiting until the mind is better to resume physical recovery thinking that, if not, you won’t be able to cope with more physical changes. Trust the process.
The series will continue for two more Fridays, with other non-related posts on Tuesdays so it doesn’t get too dense. Until then, I encourage you not to wait and start recovery today! Below, you can download my guide “10 challenges to get you started on ED recovery”. I hope it helps you to take the first steps on this hard, awesome, painful and beautiful way.