Recovery and mental health go hand in hand. I know, because I took the long, hard way to understanding this concept. Sure you can have one without the other. I know that, too. But it’s when I have both that my life really takes off – not to great heights or things, necessarily, rather to great contentment, peace and serenity.
But as I head into my 34th year of recovery from eating disorders – bulimia and anorexia – and find myself mid-way through my 11th year of recovery from secondhand drinking, I’ve made an appointment to meet with my former therapist — the one I last saw in 2006. I realize I’m in need of a mental health tune-up. Something’s not quite right, and I can’t figure it out, in spite of all my growth and recovery.
Life Before Recovery From Eating Disorders
For those who don’t know my story, Thanksgiving is the day I quietly celebrate my sobriety from bulimia. It was around Halloween 1981 (I’d recently turned 28) when I chanced to read a small column piece in Newsweek magazine that talked about a woman who’d been eating huge quantities of food and then throwing it up — for seven years. The column went on to call this behavior, bulimarexia. I’d never heard the term but just reading that someone else was doing what I’d been doing for the prior 11 years, and that she’d stopped, dropped me to my knees.
I write, “quietly celebrate,” because back in the day eating disorders where not talked about, although I was able to tell my parents after reading that article. In fact their search for help only turned up one doctor who was treating eating disorders. He treated them as a phobia — in my case, a fear of getting fat, he explained.
And so he referred me to a group of other phobics — people afraid of spiders, leaving their homes, heights, flying, closed spaces…. There was only two of “us” – one anorexic and myself. I must say I was relieved to finally meet someone else who was doing what I had done 11 years previously, before I started bingeing and purging — someone who spent their days and nights trying not to eat. By the time I was down to 95 pounds, my daily food intake topped out at one can of shrimp with catsup and lots and lots of carrots. For some reason, I decided I wanted to eat more than I didn’t want to eat, but once I started eating, it wasn’t long before I was eating way too much of anything and everything. It started out occasionally and then moved to more days than not until I was eventually bingeing and purging up to four times a day by the end.
But it was the self-loathing; the constant verbal self-flagellation as to the weak, worthless, pathetic piece of shit I was; the guilt; the shame; the ugly volley of ping-pong ball style thoughts about why I didn’t stop that left any moments of inactivity or reflection in shards; and the endless, broken promises to self, “this is the last time, really,” that were in such contrast to the highly successful, senior executive businesswoman, the shroud of myself people saw, the one who gave Oscar worthy performances as Lisa, that nice girl who _____________ (fill in the blank – is my boss, lives in apartment 74, is my daughter, dates that guy, is so much fun to go dancing with, spoke at our conference, wrote that article, is such a good friend, …). [Picture leaving your office and walking several buildings down the street, entering that building, taking the elevator to the 5th floor, hustling to the bathroom at the end of the hall (because you knew their toilets flushed thoroughly the first time), taking the stall at the end of the line, purging the feeding frenzy you’d managed during and after a business luncheon while maintaining a coherent conversation with the participants by shoving three fingers down your throat until the pile of regurgitated food was topped by bile, and then calmly washing your hands, adjusting your suit and returning to your office for your next meeting, as if nothing had happened.]
So the whole phobia thing didn’t make sense to me, but I had no words to explain why I did what I did, so I attended a couple of that doctor’s phobia sessions and then decided to quit and follow what the woman in the Newsweek article did – I learned to re-eat using nutrition and exercise. [This link, Eating Disorders | Anorexia and Bulimia, takes you to a previous article of mine that describes how I finally broke the binge/purge cycle.]
Where the Recovery and Mental Health Connection Comes In
What I did NOT do at that time was heal my heart, which I now understand really means to heal my brain; to do what I needed to do to restore my mental health; to unravel the deeply embedded brain maps of unhealthy coping skills I’d adopted to block out, cope with and shout down the other voices — the voices that never stopped chattering about my role, my fault, my inability to stop the sexual assault that’d occurred more than a decade before and the profound, compounding impacts of secondhand drinking that I’d continued to experience.
Instead, back in the day, I knuckled down. I learned to re-eat and I quietly celebrated each year of not bingeing and purging with a silent kudo to self at Thanksgiving. And, I became a workaholic and then a super mom and then an even more hyper vigilant hawk who saw every move of every person and inserted herself as often as she felt necessary into every situation in order to “fix” the various alcoholics | alcohol abusers and the scores of others whose lives were crumbling in the wake of secondhand drinking because I knew their pain. I knew they meant it when they promised to stop, but like my bulimia, I didn’t understand why they couldn’t and found theirs even more baffling because you don’t need alcohol to survive the way you need food.
So by 2003, when I finally began my secondhand drinking recovery journey, I’d bite off the words, “I’m FINE,” when asked how I was or “Are you okay?” But as the image to the right shows, I was A N Y T H I N G but FINE.
And for those who don’t know this part of my journey, it began in 2003 when one of my loved ones entered residential rehab for alcoholism. I will be forever grateful to the family therapist at the treatment center. She was truly a godsend for she finally put words to what I’d been experiencing for almost four decades. She called it codependency and called me a codependent. I baulked at the label but was so done with feeling FINE, I listened as she, and the others who were in the rooms with me, described to a “T” what my life was like. Hearing their stories and that they’d not only survived but thrived, once again dropped me to my knees. I took her advice and attended as many family therapy meetings as I could, started attending Al-Anon and found a therapist – one who specialized in treating family members who are so deeply affected by this family disease. And I did what I do — I went in search of facts to answer my biggest question, “Why ‘they’ called alcoholism a disease?”
I buried myself in research — lots of research, and I found the new, revolutionizing information on the brain, stress, addiction, risk factors, childhood trauma, brain developmental processes and so much more to be life-changing. And in that process of individual therapy, research, Al-Anon and family therapy, I finally found mental health. It’s one thing to have knowledge (like that which I had with how to use nutrition and exercise to stop bingeing and purging), but it’s entirely another thing to be free of the voices.
In Need of a Mental Health Tune-up
So now I come full-circle, back to my initial point — recovery and mental health go hand-in-hand. Yes, I could keep going and would be FINE, but I don’t want to be FINE (not that I’m anywhere near as bad off as I once was, to be sure), I want to be content, at peace. I’ve given my tried and true recovery tools a go — the information about the brain and re-wiring brain maps, changing where you think, talking with people who understand where I’m coming from, increasing self-care, meditating more, spending more time in nature, prayer and quiet listening, insuring I eat nutrition-rich foods, getting adequate sleep and exercise. But for some reason, it’s just not clicking this time. However, now I know enough to understand that sometimes recovery is knowing when you need help and then asking for it. I go to the doctor to relieve physical pain in a heartbeat. I consider seeking relief for mental health pain no differently.
And what I love about my therapist (aside from the amazing cognitive behavioral therapy work we did) is that he didn’t make a career out of me. I found him through the Addictions Institute in 2003 and worked with him for three years. In 2006, he felt I was on solid ground and so did I. And I was. Thanks to my arsenal of recovery tools just described, which I found and honed through therapy, Al-Anon, family therapy and research, my life really took off. I kept growing and changing in my recovery from secondhand drinking, now in its 12th year, which meant I was healing the underpinnings of my eating disorders, though I’d been in recovery from those far longer.
But as I’ve mentioned, something’s not right, right now, and I haven’t been able to figure it out. Whatever “this” is, I’m not worried, though. I just know it’s time. Time for a mental-health tune-up. I want my groove back because for me, recovery is mental health and mental health is recovery.
P.S. After I initially published this post, I found this article, Why People Forget Details But Maintain Reactions to Traumatic Events.