Waiting for the lightbulb

Many of the recovery stories I read when I was first diagnosed with anorexia usually featured an epiphany for the now-healthy person. Usually, it went something like: "I saw a photo of myself and saw how bad I looked. I realized I was killing myself. So I started eating again."

If only...

My problem wasn't that I didn't know the damage I was doing--I could recognize it on a cognitive level, even if it didn't always have the same emotional impact--it was that I didn't really care. So my treatment stays came and went, and I went through the motions, but I was waiting for that Come to Jesus moment when everything would click and I could move forward with recovery. I said many of the Right Things, those profound statements that therapists just totally eat up- "I'm recovering for myself now!" "I'm listening to my body!" "Anorexia really isn't about food!" And so on. Part of me wanted to believe them, and a part of me probably did, but I was completely and utterly full of crap. In reality, I was still waiting for the lightbulb moment, that hallowed clarity, to see the meaning behind my behaviors and start the meaningful work of recovery.

Needless to say, I've never had an epiphany. My thinking has evolved over the years, sure, and I've certainly have some realizations, but no holy-crap-anorexia--is-stupid moments. Those moments are nice, and I'm not saying they aren't important if they happen, but they're often not the basis of a lasting recovery. I realized that anorexia often created more problems that it solved quite a few years ago, but that never meant I couldn't still be scared to eat.

I've stopped waiting for these sudden jolts of clarity and understanding. Perhaps my most important revelation is that recovery is based in the dogged repetition of recovery behaviors and not any masterful realizations. For so long, these recovery behaviors felt awful. I wanted to crawl out of my skin- I would even rake my nails up and down my stomach and legs because the feeling was so intense. Talking about my feelings, asking for help, drinking the Ensure, none of this felt normal or natural, and it definitely didn't seem to help. I didn't understand what I was supposed to be working toward. What was recovery anyway? And if anorexia made me feel better, how freaking bad could it be?

But I am learning that recovery behaviors can become more natural, just like learning a foreign language. When I first started to speak Spanish, I no doubt sounded like a demented gringo. After several years, I couldn't exactly speak like a native, but I didn't sound like a little girl playing dress-up in someone else's language. I eat. Day in and day out. I try to relax. I try to get to sleep at a normal hour. I talk to friends. I blog. These have created my recovery much more so than any mind-blowing realization.

There are no recovery shortcuts, no miracle elixirs, just the healing tincture of time and practice.

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Kim said...

Thank you for posting about this. I feel like one of the main questions people ask is, "What was the moment when you decided to recover?" THE moment? There was no THE moment. There have been several moments. I have epiphanies all the time, but nothing that makes me just kick anorexia to the curb. I'm always reluctant to tell people that I don't have a moment. I feel like I'm supposed to. It's the writerly thing to do. It makes for a good story. But, alas, I have no moment. Recovery has been so gradual for me. I thought it would be according to a to-do list, something very concrete and managed. But, in reality, progress is made in small ways, usually not recognized as "progress." Like you said so perfectly, "recovery is based in the dogged repetition of recovery behaviors and not any masterful realizations." That is so true. I used to wait for the grand revelation too, and I just don't think it works like that. I wish it did. That would be much more fulfilling. For me, recovery has been rather anticlimactic and mundane, when you get down to the nuts and bolts.

Lou Lou said...

Creo que mi momento de lucidez llegó hace unas semanas. antes de esto yo quería sentirse mejor y recuperarse, pero todavía permanecen anoréxica. Su blog fue realmente el primero que me encontré, el día que strted mi blog fue el día que decidí conseguir el bienestar.
Thank you for sharing

Eno On said...

Thank you for your honesty and insight. It's refreshing to say the least. Something that I will draw upon when I even think to put that pressure on myself to just get it, just do it. There isn't a click for me. I'd rather express that than play along. Again, THANK YOU for sharing. It is appreciated.

Angela E. Lackey said...

I have had several light bulb moments. Too bad the bulb burnt out, the epiphany ended and anorexia didn't leave.

I remember seeing pictures of me when I was in Haiti two years ago, at my lowest weight. I cried and asked my husband, "Do I look like that?" I agreed to see Dr. Sackeyfio and go into Beaumont and ate my food like a good girl. I wrote in my journal that I was going to do the two-week IP and "put it all behind me." I started restricting again the day I was discharged. And now it's 2010, almost three years later.

I'm waiting for another epiphany, an eye-opening moment that will slap me out of my current monthlong relapse that's leading me toward a sixth stay on the ninth floor. But no amount of shock value, pictures, knowing that anorexia kills clicks with me.

The epiphanies, the revelations, the dramatic realizations work better in the movies, but feel false in real life.

Rachel said...

Thank you so much for this statement: "recovery is based in the dogged repetition of recovery behaviors and not any masterful realizations." I, too, have been sitting around waiting for the day that I would wake up and suddenly never engage in ED behaviors again. That sentence made me realize that recovery isn't about a sudden change in thinking or behavior, but rather waking up every day and engaging in recovery behaviors. For some reason, that has made the idea of recovery much more attainable in my mind.

Carrie Arnold said...

Lou Lou,

Thanks for the (inadvertent) self-esteem boost because I could understand your comments without the help of Google Translator! I've only had to use my Spanish a handful of times since I graduated high school almost 12 years ago now, and it's always nice to remember that my vocabulary hasn't completely gone to pot.

Katie said...

I am always stumped when people ask me what made me decide to try to recover as well, particularly since this time recovery was my choice rather than something I was forced into. But I've come to the conclusion that it doesn't really matter. I learned a long time ago that knowing the reasons I hung on to my eating disordered behaviours didn't make a difference to my motivation to stop using them, so theoretically - whilst I am aware of several things which helped me in the early stages of recovery - knowing every detail of how I did eventually start to change is not as important as staying in recovery behaviourally! I have no idea if that sentence made sense, it was a bit convoluted. I seem to remember learning that recovery didn't depend on light bulb moments was quite an epiphany in itself for me.

Abby said...

Echoing the sentiments of the others here, thank you for posting this, as it's pretty much just what I needed to hear today. For me, even though I'm (once again) in the early stages of recovery, it's never been a logical "aha" thing. I know exactly what I'm supposed to say and supposed to do, and I know that while this is comfortable, it's not healthy, but when the anxiety builds up...all logic and "aha" get thrown on the treadmill.

This will sound mean, but I always thought that people with that "aha" moment, the second their thoughts just magically shifted, were never "really" as anxious or disordered as me. I thought that if something could be fixed so easily, it must not be that bad.

Of course I know that's unfair, but I agree with your point so much more. There won't be a morning I wake up and be happy about not exercising, sitting around or drinking a damn Ensure. The key will be to feel those feelings and fears and do the steps for recovery anyway, knowing that it will get easier and hoping that new (healthier) behaviors can replace the old.

CG said...

Thanks so much for this, Carrie. What an important point...for so many people, EDs start out as behaviors, that become habits, that become overpowering addictions...I'd like to think the reverse can happen as well, with recovery behaviors. xoxo

Cammy said...

I've felt like this too. I've had a few moments of major, major reality check, but nothing I could nail down as a turning point. For me, the "fake it til you make it" approach, while not ideal, has sometimes been the best option. I've often been shocked at how I "used to live" during very bad relapses, because at the time, I knew it wasn't normal, but it honestly didn't feel anywhere near as dangerous as it was. Just like you said, forcing yourself to do what you know you "should" can gradually get easier as it becomes the norm over time, as long as it's coupled with looking back and processing everything, to avoid falling into the same traps again.

Telstaar said...

I really liked this post, I agree that its often so true. When I became fully recovered time one (and I do believe I was fully recovered), I don't have a date or whatever in my head... just kinda a period of time. I get asked now when I was recovered and when I started to relapse and really, its all a bit grey! Like I (usually) remember what recovery was like and that well, I actually didn't need to say that I was recovered or in recovery... because it was just a non-issue!

I agree with Kim and so many others that often there are just so many moments. The thing is, that really this illness is just so darn irrational most of the time (although completely logical from within the illness) that it actually seems rather ILLOGICAL that someone would have an epiphany moment and automatically work towards recovery because it feels almost like saying that if we just feed the individual logic, eventually she'll change her behaviours! That just sooo isn't how it works.

I'm very thankful for my T (who isn't ed trained at all and is learning and practicing on me) who has the attitude of doing the work and waiting for my brain to catch up. She tells me continually that I don't have to always understand or be perfect or even WANT recovery, but she keeps encouraging me to keep going to the appts and trying to do the tasks set and doing the work and then hopefully one day my brain will catch up... and if not hopefully there will be enough new neural pathways that it won't matter so much!!!

:) xoxo

Anonymous said...

I am a lot like you are. I never had and still haven't had "the moment" or the calling from God. I suffered this repeat dream at one point in whcih i am SURE i was with my guardian angel and if it wasn't a sign enough to stop messing around then there never was one. but as far as looks, pictures, glimpses...none of it phased me. i knew i was ungodly thin. i don't think i ever would have had an epiphany or moment because i started recovery(again) because i was forced. i had no choice. now, i am simply pissed to no end with anorexia and plan to bash it for the last time this go

Kate said...

Thank you for this. I understand exactly what you mean. Exactly. I would read book after book and went through a number of counselors just because I thought something that somebody might say would do the trick. But my goodness, it never happened! If only your message could be the one that sells!

theemptynutjar said...

There is no "aha" moment....and those that claim to feel it have very different experiences I feel...maybe some kind of experience where their feelings of "darkness" are really not as in-depth as others...but I guess everyone is different and has their own path.

I Hate to Weight said...

i have never had an a-ha moment that was real. i too have mouthed lots of statements that sounded terrific and got my therapists beaming.

but no, it's been the daily, hourly work. and the realization that life changes and fluctuates. moods change and fluctuate.

dealing with it all the moment seems to help. remembering that i can deal with it in the moment seems to really help

A:) said...

For me, I guess I had a point where I decided to seek help. But I don't know if that counts as a lightbulb. . .

I was losing weight rapidly and I wanted to go to university and that was due to happen within a month. I realized that if I kept losing, I would not be going that year. AND I would probably end up in treatment. . .

But it wasn't like everything was fine after this. I came to my dietican wanting to maintain my weight and not sure if I acutally wanted to recover completely. I just wanted to find a better quality of life so I could attend school.

Through, as you said, dogged repetition of recovery behaviours, I have gained 21 lbs in 18 months. I guess for me there was REASON to change, but there was no magic lightbulb that made everything easy. I don't believe anyone can snap out of AN.

I never intended to "recover" completely and I still don't. I just decided I would see where the weight gain would take me and treat recovery as an experiment, as I had seen so much of what AN could do. So far, this has left me more stable than I have been in years and I am constantly reevaluating the process.

Does this make any sense?


Angela E. Lackey said...

To A :)

That makes perfect sense. In fact, your words have inspired me to think and write about it, as I too realize I never intended to recovery fully. I wanted (want?) to be well enough to do the things I want to do, but not completely well. I never really thought of it that way before, but I realize my behaviors over the past few years has totally been with that attitude in the back of my mind.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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