In Their Eyes

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The start of something new can be both scary and exciting. Recovery fits that description perfectly. It comes with the fear of letting go of what has kept you safe for so long, fear of not knowing who you’ll be without your sick identity and a lengthy list of other fears. However, recovery can also be exciting in unexpected ways. You’re giving yourself a chance at living the life you never thought you’d be around (or wanted) to live. There are many firsts in recovery; first challenge snack and meal, first grocery shopping trip, first sober celebration, first time in a bathing suit, first Christmas dinner and so much more. The first year of recovery is chalk full of celebration, pride, love, hope and applause from both oneself and loved ones. The accolades from others are encouraging and motivation to keep fighting to reach the next milestone. In a way, finally being able to make those around you proud after years of what felt like unrelenting disappointment becomes your newest addiction.

So what happens when that first year of recovery ends and it seems to feel as if there’s no more firsts or any more milestones to reach? No more external acknowledgement, validation or motivation? When it seems those around you have come to believe and assume all is well and that the struggles recovery presents have come to an end? When there is nobody watching your every move because you have regained trust throughout your first year of success? When your body portrays health, but your mind begs to differ behind closed doors?

I’d like to say that by the second year of recovery I know what I’m doing, things are easier and I feel confident in my ability and knowledge of skills that have gotten me to this point. However, in all actuality I’m finding this new phase of recovery is proving to be more challenging and lonely than I could have anticipated. I believe this to be an effect of the questions asked above. There is no more look of pride from others when you eat a slice of pizza; it’s still scary, that voice still screams, but you’ve learned how to do it anyway. Nobody recognizes the battle with each bite because you’ve had time to practice, so in their eyes you’re better now. There is no more checking in, or making sure you’ve had all your meals, snacks and no alcohol because loved ones trust you again, so in their eyes you’re better. There is no more respect for your meal times, the importance of them tends to get lost along the way and becomes seemingly irrelevant to those around you because you are past those early stages of recovery, so in their eyes you’re better. There is no more visible depiction of sickness; the sparkle in your eyes has returned, the scars have faded, your sharp edges have softened, you smile and laugh, so in their eyes you’re better.

There comes a point in your journey when you can experience recovery fatigue. I can best describe this feeling as wanting to be in recovery yet exhausted from the daily effort it requires. Simply put, just not wanting to work for it anymore – you’re tired, emotionally, mentally and physically. However this doesn’t equate to relapse or giving up. For myself, it relates to wanting to be normal, to move on from a life consumed by recovery. Why can’t this come naturally, why isn’t this easy by now? The first year of recovery or life after treatment, you live and breathe recovery; psychologists, psychiatrists, dieticians, social workers, support groups, meetings – your whole day is centred around staying on track. To your loved ones and professionals it seems like an acceptable and reasonable thing to do. It makes sense to put your life on hold and focus all your energy into recovery, otherwise you’d never achieve it. Although sooner than later support groups come to an end, therapy appointments get farther apart, there are no monthly chips to receive at meetings so you stop going and the list goes on. Due to all of this, in their eyes you’re better.

IMG_1288So, how does recovery fatigue and appearing better in their eyes relate and effect one another? From my experience so far, the farther along I am in recovery the harder it is to find the ability to reach out, ask for support and vocalize my needs. Why you may ask? Well, I tend to resort to two cognitive distortions in my thinking patterns. The first being mind-reading; being strong in recovery is hard, so if I’m honest in the moment or ask for support, I fear others will view me as weak or attention-seeking, become annoyed and abandon me – in their eyes I should be better now. The second distortion my brain defaults to is black and white thinking; it’s all or nothing, I like to win or quit, not rest. Therefore if I ask for support I believe others will assume I’ve relapsed, so I might as well just do that and start from the beginning again. That way it will justify my need for support, because right now I’m not as sick as I once was, so in their eyes I’m better.

Even with that explanation I still fear writing this article will portray a sense of seeking attention and assumptions of relapse which is not nearly the case. In reality I’m writing this to express the loneliness felt in recovery when your physical appearance no longer matches your mental state. I’ve spent the majority of my life mapping my emotions out on my body through means of restriction, purging and self-harm, or numbing my emotions with the use of drugs and alcohol. Those are no longer options or behaviours in my life, therefore in their eyes I am better. The havoc and chaos within becomes hidden and ultimately forgotten by others as they no longer see a visual representation of pain. If my body is healthy, my mind must be as well, right? I so wish that was the case. 

As the second year of my recovery trudges on and the initial pride, support and structure fades away, I find myself with extra time on my hands. It’s a daunting and shameful feeling in a way. On average, full recovery takes 5-7 years and the average person struggles to understand that. The fight isn’t over when you are discharged from treatment. The fight isn’t over after you’ve reached each milestone in that first year. The fight isn’t over when you pick up your one year medallion at a meeting. The fight isn’t over when therapy appointments dwindle down. The fight isn’t over when there are assumptions and expectations in their eyes that you’re better now. News flash, the fight is never over. In knowing that, the future at times can seem quite daunting. So then where does the shame come from? Perhaps it stems from the fact that in their eyes I should be better, I should be working, I should be doing this and I should be doing that. In all honesty, just because I have more time on my hands during this phase of recovery, does not mean I should be expected to function the way someone without a mental illness can. 

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When life feels like a balancing act between diagnoses and symptoms, recovery does not happen easily or quickly. I need your patience, The battle can feel never-ending and exhaustion can takes its toll on my progress. I need your forgiveness. It’s difficult for others to understand the complexities of recovery or even recognize the struggle without physical evidence. I need your compassion. We try our best to be our best for our loved ones while we recover; strong, independent, fearless, happy and determined. Our illnesses have likely made us feel like a burden to our loved ones during our sickness, so we don’t want our recovery to feel the same. Asking for support is scary, taking up time and space is scary, being vulnerable and honest is scary. But nothing is as scary as not feeling comfortable to do so, because in their eyes you’re better.

The Shame of the Struggle

When I first got out of residential treatment a year ago, I used to write – a lot. I wanted to scream recovery at the top of my lungs. I was so proud of all the hard work I had been doing and how much joy recovery brought me that I wanted everyone, suffering or not, to know that recovery was possible. My instagram stories were chalked full of recovery rants, realizations, motivation and opinions. I flooded my facebook page with inspiring quotes, educational articles, statistics and anything mental health related. I had (and still do have) so much I wanted to share with the world about recovery, but lately the shame of stumbling my way through this journey has kept me silent.

Why is shame so powerful? Why once you give it an inch does it take a mile? Why does shame follow imperfection? Why do we let shame silence our voice?

I’ve been told recovery is not linear, and that phrase has been drilled into my brain for years now, yet somehow I thought I would be the exception; that I would be the first one to do recovery perfectly. In previous efforts towards recovery I would start off incredibly strong once leaving treatment without faltering – cue the black and white thinking. As soon as a slip occurred I would be upset, and ultimately ashamed of myself. In that moment I would instantly decide to throw in the towel and let myself relapse. If I couldn’t do it right, I wasn’t doing it at all.

This time around is very different. So here I am admitting struggle, and of being imperfect in my recovery. Acknowledging this is hard for me. I pride myself as being the strong one, in control (as many of us with eating disorders try to be), and as someone who is always okay. In the name of keeping up appearances, my social media presence declined to hide my imperfect recovery, conversations with friends and family were limited and surface level, and the shame of my struggle consequently silenced me. I didn’t want to let anyone in or to know that I wasn’t okay and struggling to hang on to my recovery that I had worked so hard for. I wish so bad that transparency and honesty came easy in recovery, but they don’t. Well, not for me at least.

It takes a great deal of courage to admit you’re not okay, that things are hard again and you’re scared. Perhaps it’s out of fear that others will be disappointed or upset with you, or maybe you’re comfortable in your struggle as you welcome the warm arms of your eating disorder creeping back in to keep you safe. Whatever it is, silence seems to be the answer.

When I first noticed my stories and posts straying away from mental illness and recovery topics I initially told myself it was because I was moving on with my life, getting back into the swing of things without my eating disorder. I had a job, friends, goals, commitments, appointments, clients and the reality of every day life. Of course recovery was still a priority for me, I just no longer felt the need to let the world know about it – for all I knew, I was fine. Little did I know, that in sharing my recovery journey with others I was in turn keeping myself accountable. Therefore, without being vocal I lost the accountability that I had set up for myself. Which sooner than later turned into secrecy fuelled by shame.

According to Brené Brown, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” The majority of my life I have spent seeking acceptance paired with a burning desire to belong. Therefore it makes sense, that when my recovery is on shaky ground and not going as well as it could be, I consider myself flawed, unworthy and living in fear that those closest to me will abandon me, so I stay silent. Shockingly enough however, I am incredibly worthy, despite my flaws.

At times it is challenging to believe this and counter the thought that if I’m honest with loved ones they will be disappointed and give up on me. Although throughout my recovery I have been doing things differently than before which now needs to include overcoming the shame of struggling. Admitting that what once came easy not too long ago, is now difficult again (I’m still trying to figure out why, how or where I went wrong) is not easy. I learned in treatment that secrets keep us sick. As hard as it is to be vulnerable and honest at times, I have come to realize it is crucial to keep myself from spiralling back down into the grips of hell with my eating disorder. Consequently, I told on myself to my treatment team and with their help I am gradually putting myself back together again. This process of speaking honestly about where I’m at is new territory for me, yet relieving to no longer have to carry around the burden, loneliness and shame that my struggle brought me. Brené Brown also states that “shame cannot survive being spoken” and I feel that on a deep level.

Recovery is messy – it’s hard – it’s painful – it’s exhausting and it’s scary. I’m slowly learning and accepting that bumps in the road are normal, setbacks can lead to comebacks and falling doesn’t make you weak, it’s in the picking yourself back up that makes you strong. If I could give one piece of advice when you find yourself living in silence under the cloud of shame, it is to find your voice and fight for your damn life.

DiSPLACED

My whole life I felt as though I was on the outside looking in, as though I didn’t belong. I’m sure you felt that way too. The thing is, you did belong – you belonged with me, and maybe together we wouldn’t have felt so alone in this world. I hoped maybe you and I could be displaced together. Maybe together, we would be okay.

Unfortunately, you weren’t okay. I let you down, I failed you and there was nothing I could do to save you. When I lost you, I was in disbelief. I wanted to be numb, and did all I could to avoid facing the pain and empty void left in my heart. I didn’t know I wanted you until I lost you – I hated myself for that. Over the past few years, I have felt your presence in my life grow. I feel more connected to you each day, and though I never got to meet you or hold you in my arms, you are my baby and I am your mommy. It’s been difficult to wrap my head around the title of mother. Sometimes I feel I don’t deserve it because you aren’t here with me today. Except you did exist, you were real and there is proof of your life inside me.

Sadly, have I feared the opinions of those around me when I grieve you, ashamed almost, because in their eyes I shouldn’t be upset because I was never lucky enough to meet you. In a way that hurts more. To the rest of the world you weren’t real, but to me, and to your daddy, you were a true miracle. On this three year anniversary of losing you, I want you to know that I am allowing myself to grieve you, miss you and love you more than ever. I am honouring your memory in my own special way; I bought you socks – one pink and one blue. You have a bedtime book, a teddy bear, an angel figurine and the letter J, all placed in a box with a bow that has the words “Twinkle twinkle little star, do you know how loved you are” on the top. Daddy and I are planting forget-me-not flowers for you this weekend when he comes to visit. Did you know that we’ve gotten together each year during the week lost you? The three of us will always be connected, we have doves in your memory forever inked on our skin.

img_2603In case you’ve been wondering why you aren’t here with mommy and daddy, I’ll tell you. You are what they call an ectopic pregnancy and unfortunately, I think many people dismiss them much more than they do with miscarriages. I suppose it’s because they don’t understand them or what the difference is. An ectopic baby is still a baby, until it isn’t, just like you. However, not only did we lose you, our precious baby, but for some of us, we have lost a real physical part of our body and nearly died in the process. You see darling, sometimes I wish I would’ve died during surgery so I could have joined you in the sky that day. Truth be told I almost did. There was a rupture inside of mommy, and there was a significant amount of internal bleeding. Please know I don’t blame you for growing so big that my body was no longer able to carry you, because you got to be with me a little bit longer and I’m grateful for that. I carried you in my fallopian tube, and unfortunately that is why you didn’t make it earth side. When this happens, like I told you earlier it is labelled as an ectopic pregnancy rather than a miscarriage. Ectopic means to be displaced or not to belong, but my sweet angel, you do belong and there will always be a special place for you in my heart – and I know there is one in daddy’s too.

Despite losing you and the other physical losses, we have lost the happiness of what your new life would’ve brought us. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of you. You would be two and half right now, and I know you’d have the sassiness of mommy and the goofiness of your daddy. I picture you playing in the living room, holding my hand on the way to the park and giving you goodnight kisses. I constantly wonder who you would’ve been, and so many ‘what-ifs’ run through my head every day. What if you were here, would mommy and daddy still be together? What if you were here, what would mommy’s life be like today? What if you were here, would the hole mommy has felt inside her entire life be filled? These are questions I will never know the answers to.

Baby J, I want you to know that although I couldn’t save you – you saved me. You changed my life in more ways than you could imagine. You opened my eyes in a way that nobody img_2604else ever could have. Because of you, mommy found the courage to confront and fight her demons. Throughout my journey towards a healthier and happier life, I know it is you that has been watching over me, guiding me and giving me the strength to keep going. Others may dismiss your existence, and doctors may say you were never meant to belong in this world, so I will belong for the both of us. Thank you my sweet angel, I hope mommy can make you proud. I love you so much, I always will and you will never be forgotten – this I promise you.

 

The Art of Being Fearless

What would you do if you weren’t afraid? Would you climb the tallest, rockiest mountain? Would you jump out of a plane with blind faith hoping your parachute opens? Maybe you would learn how to surf in shark infested waters. Who knows, the possibilities are endless. So, what if I told you that is what recovery is like? Climbing, and sometimes stumbling up a mountain. Jumping out of a safe, familiar environment not knowing if you’ll survive on your own. Learning how to safely stand on your own two feet instead of falling off, back into dangerous territory that can kill you.

Like many, imagining a life without my eating disorder was a difficult concept to fathom. What would I do? Who would I be?  All I knew was the overwhelming fear of the unknown. I was diagnosed in 2003 and spent more than half of my life in the grips of an eating disorder. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter why or how I developed this illness – everyones story is different and at the same time hauntingly familiar. My eating disorder influenced, and ruined every aspect of my life. The smart, kind, funny, creative and loving girl I used to be spiralled into a manipulative, self-centred and controlling liar. Every relationship in my life had been damaged as I pushed those who loved me further and further away to be alone with my illness. My eating disorder stole my motivation, connection, goals and dreams I once had for my life and replaced them all with the desire to die.

Eating disorders are often paired with other mood and anxiety disorders and roughly 50% of those living with an eating disorder also abuse drugs and/or alcohol. Lucky for me, I fit into all those categories and I like to think of myself as somewhat of a triple threat. I live with bipolar disorder and am still learning how to navigate my way through this diagnosis. In addition I am proud to say that today I am 421 days sober from drugs and alcohol. I knew when I began my recovery journey, that I had to tackle it all. My eating disorder and addictions were intertwined in a messy web of self-destruction, and without recovery in both aspects, my life would return to a game of symptom whack-a-mole between them.

I wanted nothing more than for this illness to kill me, and by all means, when I look back  at everything that has happened, it should have. Yet somehow, I am still here. That concept baffles me and I always questioned why. I have been a firm believer my whole life that everything happens for a reason and nothing is a coincidence. So after all this time, and years of self-destructive behaviours, maybe I was in fact, supposed to be here. Maybe I was meant to be alive. Despite having a difficult time wrapping my head around the whole idea, I decided to stop devoting my time and energy into dying and instead put that drive and focus into living.

First things first, it was not easy and it did not happen overnight. I had been to treatment centres in the past and the thought and shame I had about going back consumed me. Will it be worth it, hell, am I even worth it? What if I relapse again? How will this time be any different? Making the choice to save my life was gruelling. I knew in order to recover that I would have to leave my behaviours and substance abuse in the past. However, in order for this time to be different, I knew I also had to leave my entire life behind. Some people call it the geographical cure, and I admit, I do believe that to be a part of my success. In previous efforts of recovery I always believed I had been doing it for myself, only to return to the same place, surrounded by the same people and would then fall back into the same patterns. Nothing I ever did was truly for me, as I was always seeking the acceptance and love of others. This time, somewhere deep down inside, by acknowledging what changes needed to happen, I knew that I was doing it for myself, and if I was going to be doing it alone, then so be it.  After all, feeling alone was all I knew. If this was going to work, then I had to be accountable to myself. I remember having clear visions of my future success and wanting nothing more than to make them a reality, I just didn’t know how or where to start.

Throughout my stay and beyond the safety of treatment doors, finding motivation to keep going through those hopeless times faired much more difficult than I anticipated. I knew that once I left treatment things would not be all sunshine and rainbows, but I never expected it to be as hard as it was and sometimes still is. I had this idea of what I wanted my recovery to look like, and that would be perfect. I wanted to be flawless in my journey. I wanted to be able to say that everything has been going well and that recovery gets easier each day. But that would be a lie.

Recovery has been the most difficult, exhausting and profound experience. There have been incredible highs and devastating lows. Moments of utter confusion where I find myself wondering if this was all worth it, and feel as though I am always waiting for relapse to rear its ugly head again. There are still days when getting out of bed and following my meal plan seems impossible. There are times I still cry when I see the number on the scale, and thats okay.  I didn’t get sick overnight and I’m not going to get better overnight. Recovery is a process, and it takes time. I’m not perfect and slips are going to happen, and I’m learning thats okay too. What makes this time around different is that I don’t let my slips define me. I don’t give them the power to knock me down. I’m learning how to stand back up. I’m learning that this isn’t a black and white journey and I’m starting to accept the shades of grey in between.

With that said, when people ask me what recovery is like, the first thing that comes to my mind is smiling. I know how to do that again, the real, genuine smile that shines through your eyes. I have been lucky enough to be surrounded by an incredible support system throughout this journey. From my family and friends back home, the professionals I worked with during treatment, the amazing outpatient team I have created for myself and the fierce group of amazing friends I’ve made along the way.

A key aspect that has gotten me to where I am is hope. I would not have started this journey if there had not been a small grain of hope within me in my darkest days. Over the course of recovery that hope, motivation and willingness wavered more than a few times. When this happened, when motivation and willingness were lost and everything seemed hopeless, I had to continuously remind myself of why I began. Over time that tiny grain of hope has slowly evolved into a shiny pearl, with a couple scratches along the way. Through attending AA and NA meetings, I’ve acquired a few slogans that I translate into my eating disorder recovery. Just for today. Just for today I will follow my meal plan. Just for today I wont engage in behaviours. Just for today I will make the next right choice for my recovery. I am still learning how to navigate this bumpy road, but all I can do in this moment, is to take it one day at a time.

Treatment got me back on my feet, but I had to do the work. Recovery is more than just eating and going to appointments. It’s about what you do in-between each meal and therapy session. For me, I had to put my life on hold and make recovery my full time job, because thats what it is. I’ve had to be patient with myself, trust the process and be fearlessly honest with my team, both in and outside of treatment. In doing this I’ve been able to strengthen relationships, set goals and manage my urges, thoughts and emotions.

I read somewhere that with addictions you can lock the tiger up in the cage and throw away the key. However, with eating disorders, you have to learn how to open that cage multiple times a day and feed it. Thankfully, I have learned and continue to learn valuable lessons and skills that make opening that cage not as scary. They are by no means easy to do, but they are possible. When I find myself struggling, I do my best to find self-compassion. I have overcome a lot of rocky patches climbing this mountain in order to get where I am now. I have to tell myself that it’s okay to stop and enjoy the view, as long as I eventually keep going. I didn’t come this far to only come this far.     //    As hard as it is somedays I need to trust in myself and sometimes I have to fake it till I make it, despite feeling as though I don’t deserve recovery, happiness or love. It’s okay to allow myself to believe that I am deserving, and for me, thats progress – opening myself up to the idea of being loved, being accepted and being worthy. In part by others, but more importantly by myself. It’s about jumping out of the safety of my eating disorder, and trusting that I do in-fact, have the ability to open my own parachute and land safely. I have learned to sit and ride the wave of every uncomfortable feeling, good and bad, without allowing those negative thoughts and behaviours pulling me back into the depths of the dark ocean.

Recovery has brought me so many incredible gifts, and even on the hardest days, they are still so much better than the best day with my eating disorder. I used to always feel empty and alone in this world, and now I don’t. I am never alone because I am willing to accept the love and support from my loyal friends and family. I am never alone, because I have met so many inspiring warriors fighting along side me that have made this journey easier and helped me learn to laugh again. I am never alone because I have found myself. I am so grateful to be present and sober in my life to be able to feel every terrifying, exhilarating and imperfect moment. Recovery has been the hardest and best choice I have ever made. Through all the ups and downs, I have learned I am strong, I am resilient and I am enough. Nobody’s recovery is perfect, but everybody’s recovery is possible.

What I Learned During My First Holiday Season In Recovery

  1. It’s Not Bone-Chilling Cold

Living with an eating disorder brings with it an unbearable cold. For many years my body was unable to keep itself warm and regulated in the summer months, let alone the colder ones. I had always dreaded the dark and chilly days of winter. I would drape layer upon layer of clothing each time I left the house and nothing would suffice. Being inside wasn’t any easier. The thermostat would constantly be set at what others would call ‘sweltering temperatures’ and even then, my hands were ice and my body shivering. I would try my best to erase the continuous chill in hopes that alcohol could warm me up, but it was never successful. Nothing was able to comfort me from that bone-chilling cold.

This year is vastly different. My body is now in a place that is able to sustain warmth. My blood circulates properly and I have a healthy amount of fat cushioning my bones to protect me from the elements. I have found myself numerous times venturing outside in nothing but a light jacket or sweater in what are supposed to be winter months. My wardrobe has greatly expanded and activities now seem unlimited. Sometimes it feels as though I’m experiencing a whole new season. As any winter, there are still cold days and I have to remind myself that it’s not just me experiencing them – that’s a true reflection on the weather and I am grateful that I am alive to feel it. I sometimes find myself waiting for that relentless and unbearable cold to return, but it hasn’t and I don’t plan on letting it.

2. Having People To Shop For Is A Blessing

I have always enjoyed shopping for others, and as I spiralled more and more into my eating disorder and addictions, that enjoyment faded. Perhaps it was because I felt as though I no longer had anyone left in my life I could shop for. Who would want to spend the holidays with an alcoholic? They’d likely just toss it to the side or into the trash because it would remind them of the girl with the eating disorder. It wouldn’t bring joy to anyone because it came from the sick, lost and dying girl. Perhaps my gift-giving passion began to falter because all I cared to spend my money on was drugs, alcohol and food that would later end up in the toilet. I was self-centred in my thinking and would rather forget about the holidays altogether with my unhealthy coping strategies. Either way, in the past, this time of year always loomed over me. I would spend hours questioning my existence, my sense of belonging and the burden I believed I brought to the lives of those I loved.

Being in recovery for the first time since I was 10 during this holiday season has been so much fun. I spent the weeks between Halloween and Christmas carefully planning, shopping and making gifts for the incredible people I have in my life. I’ve heard it said that giving is the best feeling in the world, and now I can confidently agree. I had never truly experienced the joy that came with it until this year. As I was out in the hustle and bustle of the holiday season it dawned on me what a blessing it is to have people in your life to shop for during this time. I was overwhelmed with happiness thinking of all the special relationships I have in my life today that I would not have if I did not choose recovery. Even more exciting than the planning and effort that went into each gift, was the expression on their faces as they opened them. The time and thought dedicated to each one had truly shined through. As I no longer spend my time and money centred around my addiction and eating disorder, I was able to show my loved ones just how much they mean to me. Something I was unable to do during my struggle, as I constantly pushed people away trying to isolate myself completely. Now, I know Christmas is not about the presents under the tree, but instead about the people around the tree, and this year I’m beyond grateful that I have people around the tree to give to.

3. I Enjoy Eggnog

The holiday season is very much known for indulging in both food and alcohol. In previous years, I refused to enjoy the snack trays and appetizers set out at parties or even sit down for Christmas dinner with family. Instead I filled my stomach with alcohol and spent my time at whatever establishment was open when I needed to escape.

A well-known holiday favourite of course is egg-nog. Throughout the course of my illness this drink terrified me to my core, and I steered clear of any offerings. Even if it was an alcoholic version of the drink, I would not allow myself to taste a sip, paralyzed by fear of extra calories. I spent the majority of my life telling myself and others that I simply did not enjoy the taste. Being in recovery for the holidays this year, I wanted to re-test that disordered assumption. Therefore one of the goals I made over the holidays was to try eggnog. To my surprise, I enjoyed it. I will admit thoughts of calories still swirled in my mind as I enjoyed the thick and creamy beverage, but I liked it nonetheless. I did not let it impact or dictate the rest of my evening, and more importantly, my meal plan. It is normal to indulge a little over the holidays and I refused to let my eating disorder take control and ruin yet another Christmas. This year I was able to sit down with my family for dinner without a tense and strained conversation. The humour and love in our home had returned.

I wish I could say that I made it through the holidays without an eating disordered thought, or craving for alcohol, but I did not. Even though I am in recovery, I still struggle with thoughts and urges from time to time. The only difference this year is that I did not act on them. Some days were harder than others, but through it all I learned that the holidays can be fun without alcohol and that enjoying the specialty treats, like eggnog, is okay (and delicious!)

4. My Ability To Accept Love (and Gifts)

The month of December is a very busy, exciting and celebratory time in my life. Aside from Christmas, I also have the joy of celebrating my birthday and sober anniversary. My first year in recovery being mere days after my birthday, I decided to celebrate turning another year older and my success by paying tribute to all my hard work surrounded by my loved ones. Up until my 28th birthday, I was convinced I would be part of the “27 club”. In the past I had never wanted to make my birthday a big deal. Partially because I felt I didn’t deserve to be celebrated and partially because I was scared of the shame I would feel, if and when, nobody showed up; I felt as though someone like me, who felt was such a burden with my eating disorder and addiction didn’t deserve to feel loved or be celebrated. Over the course of my recovery, that mindset has changed. I deserved to be loved then, just as I much deserve it now. I only wish I knew that back then.

As friends and family flooded in and gathered around the table I was overwhelmed with a sense of love and pride. I was swarmed with tight hugs, warm comments, thoughtful cards and precious gifts. A part of me still felt undeserving of these acts and the love being shown, however I’ve learned to combat those negative thoughts and accept reality for what it is. Therefore, I allowed myself to embrace it all. The love I felt in the room that day was something I had never experienced before and it’s all because I was open to accepting it. Had that love been there all along? Maybe, I’ll never truly know. All I do know, is that in the moment, everything I had ever wanted was surrounding me.

5. Anxiety & Triggers Are Still (Very) Real

The holidays can be a stressful time of year for anyone, not just those who live with mental illness, although that does (in my opinion) make it that much harder. This year I went into the holidays determined to make it my best one yet, as it would be my first Christmas in recovery and I wanted to prove that all my hard work has paid off. Turns out, the expectations I had for myself were set too high, and they were ultimately unrealistic. In my mind, I had convinced myself that I was far enough along in my recovery that fear foods and calorie counting wouldn’t get the best of me and that I could handle whatever came way. I believed that I could cope with being around those who were using my drug of choice. I thought that the drunken behaviour and words of others wouldn’t effect me or trigger flashbacks to my previous self. Turns out, I was wrong.

I have just over one year clean and sober under my belt, and have been committed to recovery from my eating disorder for the same length of time. I learned very quickly that the addiction and eating disorder do not care. There is no time limit, or finish line – they are relentless. To be honest, I already knew this, and perhaps was in a bit of denial. Or maybe I just hadn’t been exposed to the situations and triggers that I encountered during my time home. Either way, anxiety is still real, regardless of how far along you may be in your journey. It can still effect how you react and handle events in your life, expected or unexpected. I am not as invincible to reality as I once thought. Some meals were extremely overwhelming and I caught myself counting the calories or justifying and minimizing my portions. Some days I hated not being able to calm my nerves with a drink. However, I got through each day.

My holidays weren’t perfect – from from it actually. Looking back, I’m happy that they weren’t. I’m grateful I was put in uncomfortable, unfamiliar and triggering situations. I’m glad my emotions were all over the place and my anxiety sky-high at times. Rather than sailing through on smooth seas, I learned how to navigate my recovery over rough waters I hadn’t yet been through.

6. I Can Survive

With the holidays now over, I have been able to take some time to step back and reflect. And guess what? I survived, I’m here to write about it. My body didn’t spontaneously combust because I indulged in some holiday treats. My heart didn’t explode from what felt like paralyzing anxiety. I didn’t miss out on, or not have fun at gatherings because I’m sober, quite the opposite actually.

I had my reservations about what the holidays in recovery would look like and what they would entail. This was a whole new territory for me, my recovery and my life. Despite some moments being terribly difficult and challenging my recovery, others were incredibly powerful and I learned more about myself, my strength and my ability each time. The skills I have learned and have been practicing over the past year helped me stay afloat as I used them more than ever during this high pressure, high stress time. I continued to label my anxiety, and all my emotions for what they were, why they were there and what they were telling me. I acknowledged my triggers and rerouted my automatic thoughts. I took time to incorporate some much needed self-care into each day.  Overall I survived, and most importantly I learned that I can bounce back from a tidal wave of emotions and slippery behaviours that I once  was convinced would be the death of me.

The holidays no longer need to be a time of year to avoid or fear anymore. With recovery, they can be enjoyed, experienced and appreciated. It is by no means easy, but it is possible – just like recovery.

Suicidal Ideation in Recovery

Why is that when one door closes another door opens? Usually this cliche phrase is intended to shed a positive light on something that otherwise would be viewed as upsetting or negative. In turn, the new door opening would lead to wonderful new opportunities. However, what if that closing door is very much a good thing, and the other door opening leads into a dark, scary room with what appears to have only one way out? For me, this is what recovery has been like.

Before any assumptions are made, I am incredibly grateful for my recovery and proud of my successes, big and small. Remaining mainly symptom/behaviour free from my eating disorder as well as continued sobriety is a huge accomplishment, and I am not ashamed to boast about it. With that being said, my addiction and eating disorder held a purpose in my life. They are what I leaned on, they were my crutch for over fifteen years. Counting calories, binging, purging, and body-checking all distracted me from my own mind and disconnected me from reality. I didn’t have to acknowledge my emotions or thoughts because all my time and energy was put into being symptomatic. Drinking and drugging ironically, drowned out, and at the same time, amplified, the self-destructive voices and numbed the pain and loneliness I had felt for so long. I was carefree, confident and seemingly happier when I was intoxicated.

It would make sense then, that by exterminating these behaviours, my thoughts, emotions and self-destructive nature would no longer have an outlet in recovery. Of course I’ve learned skills and new ways to cope with all of these negative forces, however that doesn’t lessen their presence or the impact they have on me. In a sense, the door has closed on my eating disorder and addictive behaviours, yet opened another one that I’ve tried for so long to keep locked through those previous coping strategies. This new door leads me into a part of myself that I have been endlessly ashamed of from a very young age. Perhaps the fact that recovery is more or less going well for me overall, that in turn increases the shame and brings into focus what is behind this next door.

I have struggled with suicidal ideation for as long as I can remember. It was there before my eating disorder became an active part of my life and before I found the comfort that drugs and alcohol brought. I wish I could say that on a subconscious level they were my version of a slow suicide. However, it wasn’t on a subconscious level. I knew what I was doing, and why I was doing it – I wanted to die so badly, but I didn’t have the courage to take my own life. Every day in my disorder I fantasized about having a heart attack as I hunched over the toilet, or my pulse beating so slowly in the night that I wouldn’t wake up the next day – and I did. I secretly hoped that I would overdose on whatever drug I could get my hands on – and I didn’t. Over the course of my illness and addictions, there has been multiple attempts to take my own life. One landing me in a critical cardiac care unit, but the majority of them went unnoticed, and I have kept quiet about, until now. Death didn’t scare me, and in-fact, I welcomed it.

So why then, now that I’m stable in my recovery, do I still struggle with suicidal ideation? Isn’t recovery supposed to be about building a life worth living? Aren’t I supposed to be getting happier and healthier?  Why am I still consumed with intrusive self-harm and suicidal thoughts? When I originally acknowledged what was going on inside, I was extremely angry. I felt as though all my hard work and progress was for nothing. I had set an expectation for myself that recovery was supposed to make me feel hopeful about the future. Hell, in my eyes it was supposed to make me finally want, and see a future for myself. Therefore, when I was flooded with these thoughts and ideations about suicide again I was left feeling confused and defeated.

My therapists have helped me put the pieces together to make sense of it, and most of all, validate the way I’ve been thinking and feeling. For over half of my life I have been destroying my body and engaging in behaviours as a sort of safety net protecting me from my own thoughts. Now that I am succeeding in recovery, I am petrified to relapse as I have done time and time again. Quite frankly, I’m exhausted. I don’t know what life is like in long-term recovery, and a part of me is waiting for the other shoe to drop until relapse rears it’s ugly head again. I’ve made it non-negotiable with myself that relapse is not an option this time. This time, suicidal ideation aside, is ironically, where I get my life back. Clearly, I could have another relapse in me, but I assure you I do not have another recovery in me. Which is why I’ve come to figure my struggle with suicidal ideation is so much stronger in this recovery than previous efforts. I don’t want to go through the isolation, agony and heartache of another relapse, nor do I wish to put my loved ones through that pain again. So as twisted as it may seem, my fear of relapse and fear of the future is what has brought back this original safety blanket of suicidal ideation. I wont have to go through another relapse again, or explore the terrifying unknown of the future if I end it all.

Now don’t get me wrong, I do believe in myself and my recovery, the future is just a hard concept to fathom right now, and knowing that there is a way out if I so choose it, comforts me. I don’t want to die, I just don’t know how to live in a world without my eating disorder and addiction. Thinking about dying, planning how I would, and envisioning it proves to be a great distraction when I don’t allow myself to listen to the eating disorder voices in my head or give in to cravings.

As much as I wish recovery came with endless happiness, I’m aware that’s not the case and in fact very far from the truth. A considerable difference I’ve come to realize throughout my journey is that I have the power to acknowledge these thoughts for what they are. I can label them and be honest about them with myself, my team and my loved ones. Over the past year, I have experienced both incredible highs and devastating lows. In that time I have proven to myself that I am able to keep myself safe during the darkest of times, and that thoughts and moods do shift. One thing that has really helped keep me here during these scary times was to continuously tell myself “Wait until tomorrow to end your life” and then when tomorrow comes, telling myself that again, and kept repeating that phrase everyday until the thoughts and urges pass – and they will. Even during the good times, thoughts of suicide still (and likely always will) quietly linger in the back of my mind, however I have learned through years of DBT (dialectical behavioural therapy) that two things can be true at once – I can be stable in my recovery and still struggle with suicidal ideation.

8 Things I Learned During My First Summer In Recovery

I can say without hesitation that Summer 2018 was the best summer of my life. Not only was I fresh out of a nearly six month inpatient program, I was alive to live it and I was loving absolutely every moment of it. With Fall quickly approaching, I thought I would take some time to reflect back on a few things I have learned about myself, recovery and life these past few months.

1. Colours Are Brighter
When I was living in my eating disorder the world around me was grey. I was unable to appreciate the beauty surrounding me, let alone notice it. Living in recovery brings with it a world full of colour. This summer I was able to see all different shades of green during a peaceful highway drive to my hometown. I can now appreciate the beauty and calmness of water and notice all the hues of blue within it. The sun is brighter now and I can feel it’s hot rays upon my skin since I’m no longer suffering from a bone-chilling cold. I’ve seen rainbows more frequently, and the colours are exceedingly vibrant each time.

2. Bathing Suits & Shorts Aren’t Scary
I always believed that once I was weight-restored I would never feel comfortable exposing so much of myself to the world through summer clothing. I was convinced I would forever be uncomfortable and ashamed in my own skin. There are still days when I struggle with my body image and catch myself hiding my body behind oversized clothing, but those days aren’t as common anymore. I’ve learned that my body, the body I worked so hard in recovery for and never knew I wanted, should be celebrated. Celebrated despite my scars, despite my stretch marks, and despite what my eating disorder screams at me to believe. I wore shorts because it was weather appropriate and spent more time in a bathing suit this summer than I have in the past 16 years of living in my disease. Was it difficult to do at times? Absolutely. However the more shorts and bathing suits I wore, the less terrifying they became. By the end of the summer I was able to flaunt the curves recovery gave me with pride.

3. Butterflies Are Beautiful
Now that I’m no longer wrapped up in constant thoughts about food, drinking, drugging, or self-pity and criticism, I have the ability to notice the world around me and be present in my own life. I’ve read that seeing a butterfly can represent one of two things – it is a sign from a loved one that their spirit lives on and is close by you. It is also known as a sign of personal transformation and growth, guiding and showing you that you are on the right path in life. Throughout the summer I have seen a butterfly nearly every day. Perhaps they have always been there in previous years, however this year is different, because I noticed them. I took the time to acknowledge their presence and appreciate their beauty and meaning. Everyday I had the privilege of being reminded that I’m exactly where I need to be, doing what I need to do and that I am never alone in my journey. That is something I would have never had the opportunity to realize when I was sick, and for that I am grateful.

4. I Am Okay Alone
I was never able to be okay being alone with myself and my thoughts in the past. If I was alone, I was self-destructive. If I was around others, I was self-destructive.   My entire life was based around self-destruction. I had lost all hope and truly did not care if I lived or died. And to be honest, most of the time I prayed my eating disorder or addictions would take my life. I’ve since learned how to keep myself safe when I’m alone, and furthermore, how to enjoy my time alone. Now that I’m living in a new city with fewer familiar faces it has become easier to prioritize myself. I am not constantly drawn to high-risk situations or feel the need to fill my time pleasing and meeting the needs of others. I have time to create new habits and routines for myself. I can explore my interests rather than trying to fill a never-ending desire to belong by moulding myself into what I think others will accept of me. In prioritizing myself, I no longer feel this incessant need to self-destruct. Rather, I aspire to improve my sense of self and well-being each day. I have realized being alone, that it truly is just me, my choices and my actions that will determine my recovery and life. Nobody is here or going to save me other than myself and that is okay, because I can.

5. Ice Cream Tastes Good
I’ve heard about the wonders of ice cream for the better part of 27 years. Break up with your boyfriend? Ice cream. Too hot outside? Ice cream. It’s your birthday? Ice cream. It seemed as though ice cream was this magical food that was suitable for every occasion and made everything better.  My eating disorder never let me experience the joy ice cream brought. All I knew about it was that it was cold going in, and still cold when I threw it up minutes later. I never got to truly taste or enjoy ice cream until this summer. And let me tell you, that stuff is good! There is something special about eating ice cream in recovery that brings an overwhelming sense of pride that the rest of the world will never understand. For me, eating ice cream represents moments of celebration, happiness and connection – things I never thought I deserved or was worthy of when I was sick. Yes, I still have moments of anxiety when it comes to picking a flavour or deciding if I want a cup or a cone (and if so, what kind of cone). However, when I eat ice cream in recovery now, it’s as though I am finally allowing myself to be happy – I am deserving of all good things, including ice cream, and that’s what makes it taste even better.

6. Strong Is Better Than Skinny
Last summer I worked, was intoxicated or engaging in eating disorder behaviours. I’m sure I did a few other things, however my memory fails me – perhaps because I was so deeply entrenched in my disease. This summer I went to amusement parks, zoos, beaches, theatres, animal farms, conservation areas and cottages, bowling alleys, arcades, sports games, trampoline arenas, on canoe and bike rides and so much more. My body is strong again – my thighs are no longer the size of my calves, my organs are functioning properly, my lungs aren’t heavy and my heart now beats at a strong and steady pace – I can walk, I can talk, I can live again. The strength I’ve gained from recovery is more than any gym membership or bootcamp could offer. I have legs that allow me to go wherever I want. I have arms that let me embrace my loved ones. I don’t have a six-pack or toned thighs, nor do I need them. For the first time in my life, my mind, body and soul are strong. I am alive, I am living, and that is so much better than constantly chasing an unattainable thinness.

7. I Can Cope With Emotions
As long as I can remember, emotions have always been scary for me – good or bad. I didn’t know how to properly deal with them, and would turn to my eating disorder and addiction to numb out or avoid feeling such strong, or any emotion. I thought that if I allowed myself to experience being sad, anxious, angry, ashamed, guilty or even happy, that I wouldn’t be okay, and that those feelings would never end. If I experienced them, I would be stuck feeling that way forever and out of control. This summer in recovery I have come to realize that I can cope with these emotions. I can handle and deal with them in a healthy manner, and they don’t in-fact last forever. The summer has brought with it many tough situations and difficult emotions, and I managed to get through each and every single one of them without being symptomatic. I tackled each one head on, used every skill I needed to and I survived. I am still scared of emotions, but now I know I can handle them and be okay. I embrace them, I feel them and then I’m able to let them go.

8. Being Sober Is Fun
Had you asked me a year ago if I thought I would be able to have fun being sober, I would have made you hold my drink while I laughed. People used to ask me where “Fun Sarah” was every time they saw me without a drink because I was painfully withdrawn and quiet. Drinking and drugging helped me escape the torture chamber between my ears and silenced my mind. I was free of emotion, disordered thoughts, judgment and fear. I could be an uncensored version of myself. With nine months free of drugs and alcohol under my belt, I’ve come to realize how much more enjoyable my life is. Sobriety has given me a better sense of self, and ability to discover who I am without trying to live up to the expectations of others. I have fun on my own terms, and do what I want rather than following the crowd – I am creating my own path. I have an innate ability to turn a mundane activity into a complete adventure. I am alive and thriving in each and every moment. My laughter is louder and more genuine and my smiles are sincere. I have had countless new and exciting experiences while living clean and sober that I otherwise would have missed out on or forgotten the next day. I have been asked on multiple occasions if I miss drinking and using, and I can honestly say that I do not. My relationships have an open, honest and trusting nature to them now, I have more money in my pocket, my mind is clear and body is strong. I can finally be who I am meant to be without hiding behind a cloud of smoke or blurry vision – and who I am is fun to be.

I have learned more in recovery than any school could teach and look forward to continued progress, growth and learning. Recovery is not linear, not every day is a good day and that’s okay – that’s what makes this life beautiful.