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My Theory About Recovery

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I have a theory.

My theory is that every human being in this world is, or will at some point in their life, be in recovery from something. Everyone recovers. Recovery is that thing we do when something, anything, has knocked us down. Sometimes recovery is just catching our balance after tripping over a tree root, and other times it’s learning to walk again after a terrible accident. Sometimes recovery is rebuilding our life after disease has riddled our body. Sometimes recovery is rebuilding our life after disease has destroyed our brains.

Unfortunately, only those of us who recover from physical disease, divorce, death of a loved one or like maladies are permitted the badge of Courage and Bravery. Those of us who struggle with diseases of the mind are most often marginalized, judged, distanced and dismissed. We scare people. This makes telling anyone about being in recovery shameful, forgetting the actual importance and work of recovering.

I have spent the last nine years learning how to flip the script of shame and stigma associated with mental illness by increasingly and carefully sharing my story, all while trudging the road of recovery. I have fought so hard for my own recovery precisely because people with mental illness are so often denied the respect and support they deserve due to their illness. It hasn’t been perfect, least of all pretty, but it has and continues to be worth it.

In 2007, in the midst of my then 13 year battle with an eating disorder, I felt the full weight of the stigma, the fear (from others and of myself), the disappointment of failed recovery attempts and I gave up fighting. There was no hope in my heart for health, healing or recovery. When I awoke from the week-long coma my suicide attempt induced, I was angry at the breath in my lungs; it only meant the torture of my mental illness would continue.

For a short time, the torment did continue. Within a few months of leaving the hospital, I found myself in a long-term treatment facility for my eating disorder. The first few months there were worse than the disorder itself. Yet, when poor insurance practices threatened to take away my very last chance at a life of meaning, something banal within me rose up and I began to really fight. This was the beginning of my recovery.

I have lived nine years longer than I had wanted or expected to live, and I am more grateful than I believed was possible for a person to feel. I could write for days about the beauty and grace I have experienced and been able to offer, about the incredible people in my life who have stood alongside me as I fought with myself to get out of my own way, the hurdles I have climbed, the joy I have felt, the minds I have opened by simply being the face of this thing so many people fear. Yet, I find it more appropriate to reflect on my commitment to recover, the real work of overcoming; the choice-after-choice process of returning to health and the lessons and growth those decisions have brought me. I have learned so much from the journey.

collage of pictures of the author

Recovery, like life, is a process, meaning the road will not be straight, flat or smooth.

This is one of those lessons a person has to learn the hard way, multiple times. Each time we face recovery, no matter what it is from, new lessons are learned. And when we do not fully learn all we are meant to in our attempts, we are knocked down again, somehow, and must again return to the mindful practice of recovery.

The past is rarely as relevant as we choose to believe.

Who of us does not have a past? Who doesn’t have some embarrassing memory of behaving badly, or of the person they used to be? Of course, we all learn from those experiences, they are necessary teachers. The danger of the past, though, comes when we allow it to tag along behind us like a toy duck on a string, quacking its way into our present endeavors. That silly duck belongs back at the Pond of Our Past. What happened, happened. We cannot alter or change our past truths, and so much suffering is born out of the relentless pursuit to do so.  Our history can and does inform our future, but in this, the present moment, our past doesn’t need to exist. In this moment, we just are. Here is where we get to choose. So, in the words of Elsa – let it go.

Scars are signs of survival and hope for others.

The evidence of what a person has been through is often left behind in the form of a scar. Some of us have our scars on the outside for anyone to see. Just by looking at us, others know we have a story to tell, that we’ve been through something arduous and come out in victory. Others have scars hidden deeply away that only the most intimate of friends or family are allowed to see. Both types of scars have given me the opportunity to tell my story to others, and in so doing, to learn about myself. My scars have offered proof of my story, but more importantly, hope for others walking similar paths. The full redemption my scars may offer has yet to come to fruition, as I’m still busy with this business of living. It is entirely possible that none of us will ever know the far-reaching effects of the scars we let others see. Do not shame yourself or others because of their scars: Embrace the honor of being allowed to know and celebrate the victories of each and every one.

Your story will be your most powerful influence and profound gift.

Last November, I chose to leave the field of marketing and pursue my dream of becoming a therapist. I started applying to grad schools and studying for the GRE. By pure chance, I came across a job posting for a Peer Specialist position in a behavioral health care company. I had never heard the title before, but come to find out that the main requirement for this job is that you have your own lived experience with a mental illness. What? For too many years my diagnoses were a reason for being mistreated, judged, ostracized and “fixed.” Now it’s a means to fulfilling my dream! Turns out, much of the mental health field is moving to a Peer Based model and I happen to be lucky enough to be a part of that shift. I work with people with persistent and serious mental illnesses, who are in various stages of recovery. As I continue in my own, I guide others through their recovery by sharing parts of my experience and story at strategic times. My job is to tell my story — the whole truth of it. My story is where the power to change is drawn from by others. Your story can change someone else. The risk of vulnerability is worth the chance of honest connection. Pretending to be perfect with the perfect life will never bring you the connection and intimacy you desire – there is a definitive cost to faking it. So my question to you is, will you risk it?

A lot of people will shame you for your story, but the worst one will be yourself.

The word “stigma” means “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” Usually, disgrace will come from people outside of us, and it often does. This stigma is painful and dangerous, keeping many people caged in their fear of judgment and exposure. However, more lethal than the stigma of others towards us are the stigmas we hold against ourselves. Members of my own family and select friends, as well as doctors along the way, have been so loudly convinced I would never be anything worthwhile that I internalized those beliefs and discounted my own value. Every time I had a slip in behaviors or gave into destructive urges, I echoed the words of my doubters to myself.  “Personal stigma” a fellow Peer Specialist calls it.

I venture to believe the best weapon against stigma, both towards myself and from others, is for us to tell our stories over and over until we no longer have breath.

You are in charge of your life.

There is no magic formula, no “right way” and definitely no Perfect Path in this life. There is only you and the choices you make. You get out of life what you put into it, and your life becomes what you make it to be. There is great freedom in this, because all of the choices are yours. And so are all the consequences. So you don’t owe anything to anyone.

Your parents, your religion even, at times, your friends will try to convince you they know what is best for you. Take caution: No one else is going to walk out your life or its consequences for you. Best that you make the decisions that support your values, dreams and heart. Build what you want, not what others deem worthwhile.

You define your own success.

Unfortunately, we all have a picture in our heads of how life is “supposed” to be. We’re meant to graduate high school, go to college, get married, buy the house, have kids, have a career, retire, play with the grandkids and die peacefully in our sleep at 98 years old.

I mean, that’s how it all happened for you, right?

Success is an individual pursuit and can only be measured as such. What is a victory for one is not for another. Each of our lives have different challenges that we must face and each us comes to those obstacles with different skills and abilities. Therefore, comparison of my life to yours as to which is more successful is mutually exclusive.

You define your own success. You need to define your own success. Don’t allow anyone outside of yourself to define your achievements.  

Other people are allowed to have their own opinions and experiences of you, and you’ll recognize your own growth when you can listen to these and not feel compelled to agree, immediately change or defend yourself.

I spent a good deal of my life altering myself at the mere hint of annoyance or dissatisfaction from anyone I came into contact with. I literally became whoever people told me to be just so I could have friends and feel loved. When I grew tired of that and started to like myself, I felt I had to defend who I was to those who took issue with my personality or world view — out of fear I was actually wrong in finding something of worth in myself. It took time for me to realize that just because someone didn’t like some aspect of me, it didn’t mean there was something wrong with me. Additionally, it took time to understand that people are entitled to their opinions and experiences of me, just as I am of them. I reached the deepest depths of peace when I understood that this entitlement, nor the content contained therein, were my responsibility. Similarly, no one can change anyone else except himself or herself. The mission of influential people in my life to alter me was unfair and I am truly sorry to myself for allowing their opinions to matter so much.

The next time you feel someone pushing you to take their advice or to “be like so and so,” remind yourself that who you are is already Perfectly You. Don’t change for anyone — except yourself.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

Originally published: September 23, 2016
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