"As food worked its way into my psyche and my body, my numb, petrified emotions sought refuge deep within. Then slowly, slowly, parts of me began to dissolve, and pain filtered in like drip coffee. I was told to sit with the pain, the deep, infected pain that I had stored for years. Pain that was confusing. Pain that was elusive. I was told just to sit with it as though it were a sick pet. There were no bandages, ointments, stitches, or morphine to ease the pain. Had I undergone surgery for broken bones, I would have been told to lie in bed, recover, doctor’s orders, and people would have sashayed in to visit and sit by my bedside and spoil me with gifts and hold my hand and wipe my brow. But there I was, suddenly sober in the real world without my fix, without my starvation." — Excerpt from Being Ana: A Memoir of Anorexia Nervosa
That was seventeen years ago. Those were the early days of my recovery, when I had taken only my first few baby steps away from my eating disorder: I had admitted that I had a problem and needed help; I sought help from an eating disorder psychologist; I joined an eating disorder support group; I went to see a specialized dietician and I started following the anorexic’s recovery bible a.k.a. a meal plan.
And then what? Then I was suddenly "in recovery." Within weeks I went from being a newly self-confessed anorexic to being an "anorexic in recovery." But what does this mean for someone on the tail end of a decade-long eating disorder where being Ana (a nickname for anorexia in the eating disorder community) was my entire identity? What it meant was that what followed in the many years to come was not pretty, orderly, and quantifiable. It wasn’t spelled out in black and white like the calories on the food labels that dictated my anorexic life. When someone says “I’m in recovery,” what they usually mean is that they are going through hell. But even to hell there are many tiers.
The first tier is numbness. This is not a bad one. My psychologist back then had told me that the numbness is the body’s brilliant self-defense mechanism so as not to bombard itself with a swarm of overwhelming emotions that have been in hiding for the entire duration of the eating disorder. This tier can last weeks or months. And it’s great because you feel nothing. You’re going through the motions of daily life without feeling.
Then in tier two comes the pain. This is when the person "in recovery" realizes there is a very dark force working behind the scenes that is only now revealing itself and wonders why nobody warned them that all the ugliness, all the dirt, all the shame, all the secrets, all the lies, all the guilt — all of it — a volcano of buried emotions would suddenly explode and keep spewing…for years.
This is when you wish you had never started recovery, but it’s too late, because the floodgates are open. This is when people in recovery experience the highest rates of relapse. It feels safer to turn to the familiar world of starvation than to face your emotional demons. Then, if you do manage to find the courage, again, to return from a relapse and pick up where you left off and do the work — individual therapy, group therapy, support groups, self-help books, twelve steps, divine invocations, positive affirmations, love bubbles, regressive therapy, healing shame therapy, cognitive therapy, polarity therapy, art therapy, drama therapy, Bach flower essences, kinesiology — you can, eventually, get to the other side.
And contrary to what you might think when you begin recovery (although you’re likely not thinking straight, let alone into the future) what awaits you, on the other side, is life. Your life. Real life. A life that you alone need to fill. From scratch. There are no unicorns riding unicycles at the end of your recovery rainbow rooting for you. But there is, in my experience, an end to active recovery. It’s when you stop counting the days, the weeks, the months, the years; you stop totaling your recovery time, and you start just living.
It’s the end of active recovery that marks the beginning of tier three — life. It’s when, like a lone commuter in a busy, mega city of millions of commuters, you are suddenly swept up by the rushing sea of humans, and you just blend into the relentless pace of ordinary life. It’s then that you realize you are on the other side of recovery. You are you without an eating disorder, without the "in recovery" label, just going through the struggles of life. Simply, miraculously, alive.