8 Lessons I Learned During My First Summer in Eating Disorder 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 also alive to live it and I was loving absolutely every moment of it. 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. Colors 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 color. This summer, I was able to see all the 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 its hot rays upon my skin since I’m no longer experiencing a bone-chilling cold. I’ve seen rainbows more frequently, and the colors are exceedingly vibrant each time.
2. Bathing suits and 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 my body — the body I worked so hard for in recovery 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 disorder. 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 saw 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. Every day, I had the privilege of being reminded I’m exactly where I need to be, doing what I need to do and 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 OK alone.
I was never able to be OK 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 molding 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 OK 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 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 flavor 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 behaviors. I’m sure I did a few other things; however, my memory fails me — perhaps because I was so deeply entrenched in my disorder. This summer I went to amusement parks, zoos, beaches, theaters, 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 tiny, 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 boot camp 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 unattainable thinness.
7. I can cope with emotions.
As long as I can remember, emotions have 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 emotions, or any emotion. I thought if I allowed myself to experience being sad, anxious, angry, ashamed, guilty or even happy, I wouldn’t be OK and 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 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 OK. 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 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 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 OK — that’s what makes this life beautiful.
Follow this journey on the author’s blog.
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash