I was viciously inhaling toilet water through a feeding tube when I realized, hey, maybe this whole “recovery thing” is going to be a lot harder than I thought.
Let me backtrack.
I had been in quasi-recovery many a time before. I did most of my work entirely outpatient, bouncing from therapist to therapist, being semi-honest and telling half-truths about how well I was doing. Sometimes, a smile and a “Great, how are you?” meant “I haven’t eaten since last night, and I ran eight miles this afternoon!” I have to give myself credit; I became a fantastic liar.
But the reality of the situation was that I was harboring this big, scary secret, and I didn’t even know how big or scary it was myself. I didn’t know that my body was facing permanent physical damage, my mind was becoming too under-nourished to make rational decisions or maintain high grades, and my relationships were suffering because I just couldn’t admit that I really had a problem.
For years and years, I was descending right before every doctor and nutritionist and psychologist’s eyes. And here’s the thing: I liked it.
My eating disorder was never about being skinny. Truth is, I have no actual desire to weigh less. It took many forms over the years, but it all boiled down to one thing: distraction. It takes work, energy, and focus to sustain life under the umbrella of an ED. When I felt lonely, I didn’t think about how lonely I felt– I thought about calories. And when I felt worthless, I didn’t think about how worthless I felt– I thought about calories. And when I felt something indescribable, I didn’t have to think about how to describe it. My eating disorder made me numb.
We all have our crosses to carry in the face of adversity. And while for some, that is alcohol, or drugs, or cleaning, or reading, or lashing out at the size of others’ crosses, for me, it was anorexia.
And recovery has taught me a very important lesson about life: no matter how hard you try not to feel, the feelings are never going to go away completely. You can bury them, sure, but you can’t kill them. Emotions always remain alive, perhaps because they are the one thing that separates human life from death. Life itself is the process of feeling, of addressing, and of adapting.
When you try to tuck your fiery feelings away in a nice little cabinet, pretty soon the whole house is going to burn down, and that’s a fact.
What if instead, we embraced every emotion in whole? What if we took those little sparks that make our hearts thump just a beat off rhythm and we allowed them to grow into flames? Perhaps, then, we could truly live. For life is the good and the bad, the black and the white, the rock and the hard place; life exists not only in beauty, but in breakage, too.
To only feel positive emotions is to only be half alive.
Letting in the negative can be overwhelming, though… and not only overwhelming, but ridiculously difficult. We’re beings designed in the name of survival, of self-protection, and every instinct shouts to run when things get difficult. Choosing to run away instead of running directly towards is exactly how we find ourselves getting hung up in those nasty habits.
I learned these lessons the hard way; in fact, they splashed me right in the face. I had been given a feeding tube because I just couldn’t bring myself to eat on my own. I was too scared of the things that had been hurting me, and I couldn’t seem to see that my eating disorder was hurting me, too. It was my primary protector. But after my first meal was pumped in a chilly chocolate stream down my NG, my stomach was too shrunken to handle it… and I promptly threw it up, tube and all.
Mildly traumatized from the experience, I recognized that there was no possible easy way out anymore. The one thing that had kept me from hurting was now, in turn, hurting me even more. I had to pick myself up and run right into the things that I was avoiding: my father’s diagnosis, my fears for the future, the memories of an abusive relationship that were causing me to capsize.
I had to eat.
And, directly, eating meant feeling.
At first, it was scary. It hurt. Every bite felt like a sword in my abdomen. I spent nights lying awake in bed with acid reflux and painful bloating and all of the other physical disasters that accompany the refeeding process. I was seriously struggling.
But I was easing my body back to life.
And with the life came the emotion.
The memories, the flashbacks, the self-doubt… they bounced right back and showed no mercy.
In my commitment to life, I was also committing to every. Single. Feeling.
I don’t regret it. Because I am getting the good emotions, too. I am getting sunlight on my face and grass between my toes, chai tea lattes and intentional, riveting relationships, late night karaoke with new friends and endless giggles with the kids who I babysit. Plans for a future that just three months ago, no one was sure that I would have.
These are the joy, the excitement, the heat, the expression, the relief, the belly laughs. These are the good existing prominently because I am allowing the bad to do the same.
So here is my question to you: what is your cross?
I know that the ache it creates in your shoulders is welcome, because it takes away from the ache he put in your heart, or the burdens she put on your mind, or the nails you are still stabbing into your soul.
But hear me when I say this: just because you are carrying that cross does not mean you have to nail yourself to it.
You can set it down anytime.
You are free to go.
And hey, yeah, if you do, you’re going to start feeling again.
But if you don’t, your shoulders are going to collapse.
So breathe in the bad. Breathe in the pain. Breathe in the breakage.
Let it in.
Live once more.