Trauma and recovery

One of my readers shared this quote from Grey's Anatomy in the comments section the other day, and it just rang so true for me that I had to share it here:

After a trauma your body is at its most vulnerable.
Response time is critical so you’re suddenly surrounded by people; doctors, nurses, specialists, technicians.
Surgery is a team sport; everyone pushing for the finish line, putting you back together again.
But surgery is a trauma in and of itself.
And once it’s over the real healing begins.
We call it recovery.

Recovery is NOT a team sport.
It’s a solitary distance run.
It’s long, and it’s exhausting, and it’s lonely as hell.

The length of your recovery is determined by the extent of your injuries.
And it’s not always successful.
No matter how hard we work at it, some wounds might never fully heal.
You might have to adjust to a whole new way of living.
Things may have changed too radically to ever go back to what they were.
You might not even recognize yourself.
It’s like you haven’t recovered anything at all.
You’re a whole new person…
With a whole new life.

Yes, this.
Many people speak of the link between trauma and eating disorders, but it's much less often that people speak of an eating disorder as a trauma in and of itself.  Sure, it might not be traumatic in the same way as being raped is, but it's still traumatic.  An eating disorder destroys your life, it destroys your sense of self.  Recovery forces you to face your wounds.  To stare down that is which the most painful.  This isn't something you survive unchanged.

There's not a lot I can recover from my pre-ED life because I don't have much left.  I'm not so much recovering as recreating a life.  You can't unchange things, no matter how hard you try.  But a new life is waiting out there, too.  It's hard to find the balance between allowing myself to mourn what is lost but also save my energy for finding out what else is out there.  I do worry that it will be more of the same and my life will wind up as some sort of collossal disaster.  In the meantime, though, there's trauma and recovery.


Dawn said...

wow, so true. And don't say that ED is not traumatic like rape. Having spent 6 years of my childhood being violently sexually abused and having been attacked a couple of times as a teenager, I can speak from both sides of the issue.

The biggest difference is that the healing from ED is taking longer. Every single day I have to look food in the face and make a decision. I haven't had to look my abusers or attackers in the eye in many years.

Both are extremely traumatic. Both have irrevocably altered my life. Both have left me looking to recover what was left in the ashes and recreate a life outside of the trauma.

I like looking at ED like surgery though. It helps me give myself grace that recovering isn't easy or quick. Thanks.

flaweddesign said...

there is nothing pre-ED that i want back. i was 15. i want new life.

Charlotte UK said...


I remain convinced that many sufferers and their families suffer from PTS and in some cases, this turns into a disorder. Caring for someone with an ed is enough of a trauma, so what it is like for the actual sufferer is almost incomprehensible.

I went to a conference yesterday and heard from a recovered anorexic (30 years and 20 IP admissions). She described it as being in an abusive relationship, where she valued her anorexia but not her personna as an anorexic and that she found it very hard to "defect" from her illness. All these words (which are a direct quote) sound like "trauma" words to me.

Don't underestimate the trauma. All you who are suffering and/or recovering deserve as much (if not more) sympathy, empathy and understanding as any other trauma sufferer.


Katie said...

Like Dawn I can speak from both sides, having been a survivor of rape and an eating disorder. There are certainly some similarities, and I have a few friends who went through post-traumatic stress symptoms during recovery from their eating disorders too, particularly those who had severe medical complications. Flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance of situations which would trigger those, and so on. Post traumatic stress disorder requires that a person has been through a situation in which they suffered, witnessed or anticipated injury or death, and experienced horror and helplessness in response to this. You can develop post traumatic stress disorder in response to other serious illnesses, so eating disorders seem to fit the bill pretty well. Weirdly, I and many people seem to use eating disordered behaviours as a way of coping with or escaping from other traumas. I certainly didn't feel like I was re-traumatising myself until I started to recover and discovered the sheer extent of the anxiety waiting for me.

Eight years since I was raped and I have virtually recovered from it. Two years on from the beginning of my recovery from anorexia and I am living independently, have just got a new job, my health is much better (there are some after effects), and my mental state is far more stable. My personality has undergone a complete reorganisation. I see myself in a totally different light. I could give almost the same description for my more gradual recovery from PTSD.

Cathy said...

Like Dawn and Katie, I see it from both sides. I was molested and raped as a child (and I will also add that it was not by anyone in my family). That trauma contributed to my general confusion about people and my fear of 'the world', and so it probably played some role in the development of my AN.

But AN itself was a (sort of)trauma, as you, Carrie, and Charlotte describe. Actually, the traumatic part was trying to change; not the AN itself. I am sure my mother has a form of PTSD in association with my AN. She spent years blaming herself erroneously for my AN and sometimes she just 'clams up' when I mention 'the past'.

I have thought long and hard as to what caused my AN. I don't think it was one single thing but a combination of many things.

Recovery from AN does mean creating a new life, and sometimes it's damn hard. My biggest difficulty is coping with change, of any sort, but given that this difficulty preceded the onset of my AN, I know it's 'part of me' that I have to learn to manage successfully and healthfully.

Angela Elain Gambrel said...

As someone who developed anorexia later in life (at age 42), there is so much I want back. I miss the person I used to be. Yes, I did struggle with depression and anxiety even before AN, but not in the same way or at the same level of intensity.

I miss the life before. But I am afraid I will never be the same person again. AN has changed me like any trauma would have done, and I'm beginning to realize I can't go back and be who I was before AN. I have to find the parts that are still there and then recreate the rest of my life.

Cammy said...

I definitely understand what you said about not trying to go back to the pre-ED life, but just to build something new and move forwards. that's exactly the boat I'm in. I really like this analogy, I think that it really hits the nail on the head.

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Anonymous said...

This is an excellent post- and very true. Recocery, for me, is the loneliest place in the world. To try and stay constantly aware and conciously eating, I am forced to think in a solitary state of mind...however, this *is* the recovery for me- learning to me alone with myself and being happy this way. Most ED's use their disease as their comfort, or partner or friend. When it is taken away, they are alone...

What I am trying to say is, while traumatic and lonely it may be, I have recently started to understand that resulting from the trauma and accepting the loneliness leads to the ultimate happiness or that new life.

Again, great post! xo

hm said...

Ever heard of Stockholm syndrome??? That psychological phenomenon where the victim of a kidnapping becomes attached to their captor, defends them, sometimes even long after being freed.

A person can become attached like a baby to what/whoever is in charge of administering that person's basic needs- food, shelter, safety, life.

When I was abused as a child (NOT family), I saw my abuser as my best friend. I dissociated from the nightmare of it and attached to him powerfully, b/c he was in charge of whether or not I was safe. When I was dating an abusive young man as a teen, I did the same thing. I got shaken, beaten, screamed at almost daily- but I wasn't afraid at all. That part was all pretend. A nightmare hiding behind the closet door of dissociation. I lived life outside of the closet- happy, A-student, oblivious to my own pain and destruction- attached completely to the boy who held my safety in his hands.

It is interesting to hear this conversation b/c just last week I told my therapist- "I feel about my ED exactly like I did when I was dating xxx, and exactly like I did during stuff when I was little- It's like it doesn't exist- it's all pretend- I can't FIX it b/c it doesn't matter and it's not really there- some part of me can sense there's a nightmare behind the door but as long as I don't open it, I'm not afraid and it doesn't matter."

The nightmare, in this case, is not a person who touches and torments a little girl or beats and terrorizes a woman, but instead an ED that starves and tortures me, abuses me, puts my very life in danger daily as I struggle to drive without losing focus, get through my day without falling over. My ED is in charge of my most basic of needs- food, safety, LIFE. Because it holds those things in its hands, I am attached to it like a baby, and dissociated from how it tortures me.

Damn dissociation- It so sweetly disguises a person's hurts and allows them to live outside of them- but it also keeps them from escaping torture.

If I had spoken up as a child or a teen, you better believe my father would have kicked some major ass. I could have been protected- I WOULD have been protected- But I was dissociated and silent- and stuck in a state of psychological attachment to the people who tortured me. I thought they were good to me- and the nightmare was just pretend. It didn't exist. YOU CAN'T FIX WHAT DOESN'T EXIST.

And so it is with my ED. Breaking away from an abusive situation is psychologically excruciating, b/c it forces you to rip yourself up and out of that blissful dissociated state and throw yourself directly into the nightmare. The mind wants to preserve itself, and so it clings to the abuse, disguising it as comfort and goodness- lying, soothing, preserving. Keeping me sane. And keeping me from escaping.

Jennifer said...

Carrie, I am a different person than I was before bulimia/anorexia entered my life. And, actually, I am glad of that fact because over the years I've discovered that life has so much more to offer than I thought it did either pre-b/a or during b/a.

I encourage you to step away from "worry" because the future negative possibilities are fantasies, not realities and as I heard this morning, the future does hold possibilities, many of them positive.

And, yes, an ED is a trauma, for sure. I love the quote you began your post with this time. We continue to heal, I think, as well as to change and grow.

Anonymous said...

totally something i would have never thought about. as someone who has been through what is clinically thought of as "trauma," i would probably call the ED even more traumatic. definitely something i will be thinking about more. great ideas!

A:) said...

I have no desire to go back to the insecure, passive, fearful girl I was before the ED. I honestly don't remember at time when I didn't want to be someone else, compare myself to others or hate my body -- which is odd considering I never got any negative messaging from family. . .

However, what do want to recover of myself and have started to recover is my love for learning, my passion for acquiring knowledge, my enthusiasm and sharp/dry sense of humour, my funky sense of style (slowly returning admidst bad body image sweat pants days. . .)

Has anyone read a Stroke of Insight? It is about a neuroscientist from Harvard who is recovering from a stroke which temporarily wipes out most of her left hemisphere function. She has to learn basic basic skills again but also parts of her personality that were left hemisphere dominated. After her stroke, as she worked to regain function, she actively CHOSE the parts of her that she wanted back. For example: she decided she did not want to be as self critical and hard-working/obsessive as she had been pre-stroke.

Her example is obviously more extreme as her stroke was severe and the temporary loss of function actually seemed to "reset" her personality to some extent -- but the point is that perhaps we can choose what we reclaim and what we do not. . . What is important and what is not. . .

I think that is why it is important to talk about the type of person we were before the eating disorder and explore what led up to it. Not to find causes or assign blame, but to look at our personalities, interactions, etc. and assess what was working for us vs. what was not.


Amber Rochelle said...

So glad you liked the quote. I found it very applicable to my life, and thought others may too.

Anonymous said...

I have never thought about it in that way, but it is so true! We really are never the same person ever again. I think being truly recovered is dealing with what we have, and finding the positives in our experiences :)

I always love the way you think!


emma said...

Hi Carrie

I agree - recovery isn't going back to what you were. Partly there may be physical issues, but also because you're a different person. And that can be really good - it's frightening but then, there was something in that past life that drove you to the eating disorder in the first place.

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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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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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