Yesterday kicked off Eating Disorder Awareness Week. With my last post already bringing awareness to why I, among others, came to suffer with eating disorders, I wanted to dedicate this one to what it means to be recovered. There is a lot of ambiguity around the topic, yet it is certainly one that needs to be discussed – keeping those who have recovered in the conversation.
I feel as though there is an idealized form of recovery, filled with sunshine, flower crowns, and no desire to look in the mirror because you know your inner beauty radiates to the rest of the world.
If, of course, that is you or the goal you wish to achieve, then I support you entirely.
But that is not my recovery. And I feel as though it may not be for many people.
For me, recovery is living with all its uncertainties: the good days and the bad ones, the progress and the setbacks, hating the illness then wishing it still consumed me.
There were days I spent heaving over a toilet bowl and skipping meals, begging my body to let me feel empty again. I realize I cannot starve myself as I used to be able to, which is the most dreadful feeling of weakness that you can imagine.
The symptoms of depression and anxiety have not completely disappeared. Sometimes I am possessed with an overwhelming feeling of sadness that I simply cannot shake, and I excessively worry about the most insignificant and irrational things.
My decisions can be reckless at times. Perhaps it is because I enjoy lacking control, teetering on the edge of losing everything for a good story, and then indulging in the feeling of invincibility when nothing terrible happens. Or maybe I enjoy the feeling of regret and the ache of heartbreak, for reasons I don’t understand.
There are days I can’t stand to look in the mirror. I tug at the fat on my stomach, missing being as tiny as I once was. I’ll consider myself a failure for gaining so much of the weight back, since all of the pain I went through was for nothing.
Have I lost twenty-five pounds in the past two years because I am making healthier choices? Or is it because I couldn’t stand the sight of myself in my prom photos? Will I become addicted to losing weight again? Does that terrify me or excite me?
And with that, I ask myself, have I recovered? Even though I am no longer physically dying, has my mentality simply shifted to other means of destructiveness?
But then, looking at this alone, I fail to recognize the immense amount progress I have made.
My good days outnumber the bad by far. I am happy. I do not fake painful smiles and laughs anymore, but genuinely enjoy living. I have an amazing group of friends, I’m enjoying my education, I’m involved in my community, and have high hopes for my future; all are things I could not say six years ago.
I’ve learned to manage my stressors. Yoga and running help bring me a sense of calmness, while allowing me to feel connected to something bigger. Often on the days I feel incredibly sad, I’m overtired and need a long nap plus a cup of tea. But I have also realized that it is okay just to embrace the sadness, knowing it soon will pass.
Perhaps I will never be able to love myself completely in a society that profits on self-hatred. Yet that will never stop me from trying.
Every slip I make is not a failure but simply part of the journey. And the further I continue on it, the more I realize, there is no definitive point where I can say I have “recovered.” Having had an eating disorder will always affect me, in one way or another. Not because I allow it to, but because it is a part of my past that influenced who I am today.
But those influences are not always negative. I have learned from my struggles the importance of caring for my mental health. I appreciate people for their unique beauty, knowing that there is no standard of perfection. Finally, I know that anyone can be fighting their own internal battle, and to always treat them with respect and kindness.
If you are recovering or recovered from an eating disorder, I ask you to no longer see yourself working towards a goal. Instead, consider this a journey to bettering your well-being, which will continue for the rest of your life. Appreciate this very moment you are living in, and slowly work on finding balance. Know that even though you no longer classify yourself as having an eating disorder, your struggles are just as real: you deserve help when you need it. Seek to find happiness, but do not despair on the days you can’t: it will come to you soon enough.
There are moments when I stand in the sunshine, tilt my head up to the sky, and realize how happy I am to be alive. There are no flower crowns and I never know how long those blissful moments will last, but I cherish them all the same. Maybe tomorrow will not be as bright of a day, but I plan to make the most of it anyways.
This is my recovery.
Stephanie Bertolo is an Arts & Science student at McMaster University. A strong advocate for youth health and wellness, she is a founding member of the Young Canadians Roundtable on Health, a volunteer at McMaster’s Children’s Hospital, and a subcommittee member of COPE: a student mental health initiative. Other than studying and volunteering, she spends her time baking, spending hours in used bookstores and coffee shops, and finding herself on enthralling adventures. For three years, she suffered from anorexia and orthorexia nervosa, and is still coming to terms with life as someone who has ‘recovered’.