— The Empowering Gift of Recovery
by Kerrie Baldwin
I am so very honored to present to you our first guest post on this site today. Kerrie was an active member of this site's community in its early days.
While I run this site dedicated to providing the best scientific information we have so far on how to recover from eating disorders, science is not a search for the truth but rather a practice of inquiry.
Far too many scientists dismiss those who seek first-person (anecdotal) experience as ignorant and unschooled. Sadly, they have transformed their practice of inquiry into a faith-based revelation of Truth—as unattainable through scientific practice as is embracing “Suzy said it worked”.
Most certainly, scientifically amassed data can reveal all manner of errors in thought and expectations. But to overlook that human beings are designed to watch and learn from other human beings may deprive us of something all the clinical trials in the world will be unable to match: the highly expedient, efficient but not always accurate human mind.
And now, Sweet Surrender: The Empowering Gift of Recovery by Kerrie Baldwin…
Three weeks into recovery, I stopped weighing myself. My extreme hunger was driving me to eat about 5,000 calories every day, and for each of those days my weight was increasing by one pound. I reassured myself that the initial expansion was mostly necessary water retention, but my body felt out of control as semiweekly I tiptoed onto the scale, waiting for the gain to stop, as the new jeans I bought days earlier were already snug. I was terrified as my weight swiftly approached, and would blast past, what I recalled as my natural size from my early twenties, before I began restricting. I had to stop looking at where the needle pointed; I couldn’t stand to witness how fat I was becoming.
I consoled myself by rereading and internalizing Gwyneth’s fundamental post, Phases of Recovery from an Eating Disorder, and I promised myself that the water would release in a few months, the soreness in my muscles and skin would abate, the exhaustion would lift. Every single day I ate robustly and lay motionless as much as one possibly can with three young children. I was as steadfast in recovery as I had been in anorexia, and I was patient, holding my breath for it all to be over, for my body to deflate to recognizable proportions. I purchased only minimal interim clothing because this phase—I bargained with myself—was surely only very temporary. But once I had endured for six months, I wanted my reward, especially after noting members here who had begun recovery later than I, some of whom had mini-relapses in the process, already without physical symptoms and free of restrictive compulsions. I repeatedly reminded myself that I was not a teenager who had starved for a year or two; my body was repairing a full decade of damage.
Still, it all seemed so unfair—the swelling and pain, which had shifted from my muscles to my joints and bones, were not improving, and sometimes worsening. I consulted a recommended eating disorders specialist two hours away. She ran seemingly gallons of bloodwork, asked endless questions, and palpated my swollen feet and calves, but she concluded there was nothing wrong, this was all fairly normal, and I was likely facing another six months of those symptoms. Her words flat-out shattered me. On the torrentially teary drive home, I considered the road back to my starting weight, how it might be easier than continuing forward. But then I listed what, in addition to the edema and throbs in my limbs, I would ditch if I returned to restriction: my mornings writing my recovery memoir, which would be moot and replaced by time on my exercise machines; the respect and support of dozens of friends and family members in whom I had confided about my condition and recovery; eventually my marriage, which was already rocky; a long life, once I truly decimated my body and mind with starvation; and the most precious thing, the armor against my three children developing horrifying eating disorders of their own. That altogether sweeping loss was unequivocally far worse than additional months of aches, swelling, and exhaustion. And so I chose to press on. I bought more clothing that was comfortable and flattering, and I picked out a sparkly ring that fit the finger onto which I could no longer jam my wedding bands. After dancing with the temptation of relapse, I apprehended that the maddening frustration of recovery resided not in the physical slog of it, or the mental work to uncover deep sources of anguish, but in the waiting, the waiting to live. I had been losing patience—that noble, brave face which had ferried me through the first six months—not because I lacked willpower but because I was outgrowing it, and it was holding me back.
[Ed. Difficult to identify original creator of image at right so link is currently to earliest version found on the web. Please contact site owner if further attribution corrections should be made.]
Somewhere on the internet I encountered the image you see above. I gasped and laughed with recognition. The specialist had pulled the finish line, from what I believed should have been just a few steps away, out into the black distance, revealing my assumption that a certain investment of dedicated eating and rest over time would result in a comparable and measurable output of recovery. I assumed the plot on the left, the steady rise of x=y.
That thinking was a vestige of the core conditional of anorexia, if I eat x, then I will weigh y. When my body had been partially shut down during restriction, the relationship between calories and weight was clear and dependable, but once my systems were roused by recovery, those easy calculations went out the window. No matter how far above my minimum I ate on any day, or any string of days, my size and shape did not change; I did not restrict, but I read about many community members undereating and being shocked and disheartened that they did not lose weight. If I were to continue in recovery, I needed to release not only the obvious numbers—calories, weight, months in recovery, number of menstrual cycles—but also the underlying insistence that my body could be calculated, forecasted. I needed to release the notions of control and results. I couldn’t wait any longer for the y of recovery to happen, for the swelling and pain to diminish and fat redistribution to occur, in order to be happy. I had to move past patience and swim in her darker sister, surrender.
Similar to how I had capitulated to hunger, effortlessly eating above my minimum each day, I took a second plunge of trust, surrendering each day to how my body looked and felt as well as the convolutedness and longevity of my recovery process. There will likely never be a morning when I find that overnight my body has returned to recognizable proportions and I leap with joy that recovery is finally, blessedly finished, but I can hold in my heart the day when I was certain that I would rather inhabit this aching, swollen body for the rest of my life than suffer even one more day—no matter how thin—in the dungeon of restriction. My arm extended long enough to grab that brass ring of mental remission after I relinquished my expectations of recovery. I beheld that happiness was not a far-off reward; it was right here for the taking, if I let the process wend as it may and I continue to surrender to my life and all of who I am. This is not a forfeit; it is an embrace.
I had already been introduced to this mystery by Kristin Neff’s Self Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, highly recommended by Gwyneth,which demonstrated that I in fact curtail my potential when I lash myself with the self-criticism I had been convinced was necessary for success. I found that aspect of self-compassion counterintuitive and awkward, but as I incorporated it I noticed my general anxiety dissipate and my satisfaction grow. Surrender was simply the next step: unclenching my stranglehold not only on myself but also on external forces that could never be controlled, anyway. Surrender is a daily choice to live at the intersection of what life could be—where I welcome every aspect of my body, mind, and soul and act accordingly, genuinely—and what life just plain is. Here, in paradox, is where the possibility, wholeness, freedom, and happiness lie. I did not foresee this lesson. I did not expect recovery to teach me how to live.
I now have seventeen months of healing under my belt, with lingering aches, swelling, and a body shape that I accept as me for now. At some incalculable point—months, maybe years, in the future—I may catch my reflection in a store window and realize that without paying much attention, while living my life, it had all cohered into a gratifying resonance: my appearance; the liberty and painlessness of movement; my ever-growing, authentic soul. In the meantime, because of my lengthy recovery process and the emotional and interpersonal upheaval resulting from my awakening from anorexia, my world might seem a mess, but I don’t regret a thing. I’m alive and content in it—a state I doubted I would ever achieve. But in fact the peace and vitality were in me all along; I simply needed to surrender to them, to embrace surrender itself.