The Recovery Fallacy

I’ve been doing alright recently. Following my meal plan, doing what I’m advised to and for the most part, buying in to it.

When my symptoms were at their worst I was constantly evaluating how I felt like they fell short of the “sick-enough” mark that would finally mean I was worthy of recovery or that I truly had a “real” illness. Now I find I’m doing much of the same, but with my recovery process. Somewhere I feel like there’s clinical documentation of what overcoming mental illness should look like and as a result, I’m always invalidating my own experience.

However, all of this likely stems from my unreliable core beliefs, which don’t necessarily change the moment you start making changes to your eating. My self-doubt tells me I’m not worth getting better if my diagnostic criteria don’t exactly line up. My eating disorder tells me I never had a problem to begin with so I shouldn’t bother trying to change. My insecurity tells me I shouldn’t be doing this “well”. I try to distance myself from these thoughts and recognize that they aren’t necessarily truths in order to accept that, in and of themselves, they likely represent the fact that I still have some healing to do after all.

I think my personal insecurities and core beliefs led me to internalize societal stigma that’s rooted in misconceptions about mental illness. Rarely does a patient present clinically in the exact way the diagnostic manual has tried to encapsulate symptomatology. Illnesses of the mind are so complex and unique that process of trying to categorize them is constantly changing and it remains that the primary goal of doing so is to streamline clinical communication and try to make treatment easier. If you are suffering, regardless of the boxes you check, you are worthy of getting help.

So, before I let my eating disorder use my recent improvement as an excuse to say I never had a problem in the first place, let me acknowledge that if leaving behind an eating disorder (or any struggle) meant you never had one in the first place, there would be no such thing as “problems” to begin with.

My therapist told me that rather than thinking that I don’t have an eating disorder, I could consider the fact that maybe I also have other attributes that help me with my recovery.

There has been a lot of mental illness, disease, and addiction in my family, but there has consequently also been lots of over-coming of it. Maybe in the same way I was predisposed to be sick, I might also cary a predisposition to get well again.

Maybe I didn’t deserve to have bad things happen to me anymore than I might “deserve” the eye colour I got – maybe its just the way things worked out. Maybe as part of this inheritance I also got some of the things that have made my family so successful and resilient. Maybe I didn’t… The former definitely instils more hope, but ultimately I guess it doesn’t really matter, because regardless of what qualities I may or may not have “inherited”, it doesn’t change the fact that I’m taking things day-by-day and that I’ll inevitably find out soon enough.

In my recovery from rather debilitating mental illness I’m slowly discovering more and more about myself, but in addition to uncovering traits I might have already had, I believe this process also involves an awful lot of construction of skills that I need to work healthily with said traits. Recovery asks me not to completely redefine who I am, but to work within the bounds set out by my temperament and to recognize how I can embrace the aspects of my personality that make me “myself” in a positive way.

For instance, left-unchecked, I tend to let my perfectionism and anxiety take control -which I’ve experienced can be incredibly harmful. However, teasing apart the maladaptive roots they may have in trauma or illness from those origins that might always have been a part of who I am, allows me to appreciate the constructive parts of these aspects of myself that, with the right coping mechanisms, I can learn to embrace in a healthier way.

Many people, myself included, find recovery from illness especially scary because it feels like you’re surrendering part of your identity, if not the entire thing. This was something I really struggled with before seeking treatment, and still occasionally do, but I keep reminding myself that my struggles and my identity are separable. My identity is not my illness. I exist beyond it. My illness might influence my identity, but my identity also affects my illness. The process of untangling them is unbearable sometimes.

It almost feels like playing Jenga – where each little piece I pull out, has the potential to send The Tower toppling down. Yet, with each move I make, each urge I fight, and each session I attend, I’m surprised to see that I’m still in fact, standing. (Okay so maybe Jenga wasn’t the right analogy after all, because the game eventually ends when everything falls apart… but I can only hope that this isn’t the case for things in my life.)

For as long as I can remember I have been a “worrier” and an anxious person, and to a certain degree this might always be true, but I think it will also probably be true that I will consequently always be caring and conscientious. My social anxiety might amplify my nerves and shyness and even with tools to manage it, I will probably remain a softer-spoken, more introverted person than many.

I guess the point of this process isn’t to entirely change who I am, but to gently shape who I am becoming – to realize that I can be simultaneously changing and still remain my true self. To acknowledge that growth doesn’t invalidate where I used to be, nor will it limit where I can go, in fact I think it does the opposite. The task at hand feels a little less daunting when I realizing that recovery isn’t a complete re-write (but instead a gradual process of making attentive little edits). However, this does little to simplify the process of trying to embrace the ever-changing story in its entirety regardless of what stage it’s at in the process.

 

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