It’s exactly a year since I ended up as an inpatient in an eating disorders unit. I’m still very much a work in progress; but I have learned a lot… here’s a little of what I’ve learned since I lay drifting in and out of consciousness in that hospital bed just a year ago.
1. The right diagnosis was a doorway to beginning the recovery journey
Anorexia wasn’t really the problem, nor was depression, self-harm, anxiety or dissociative identity disorder. These were all symptoms and they’d never been pieced together before because I spent so much time building walls and refusing to deal with the heart of the issue. When it finally came, my diagnosis of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (cPTSD) seemed obvious. I’m a textbook case but I’d been so crippled by my past that I’d been unable to begin to understand or address it.
Finally armed with the right diagnosis, I’ve been able to begin work to treat the heart of the problem rather than just addressing the symptoms. This makes me hopeful that whilst I’ll always need to manage my mental health carefully, that my life does not always need to be a fast-revolving door of relapse and recovery.
2. My doctors are on my side
Starving, yet refusing food, of course the hospital had to intervene – I remember vividly when things had gone far too far and it was determined that I’d receive food via a nasal gastric tube against my will. I was livid and felt that everyone was ganging up on me. I refused to co-operate and I’m not proud at all of how I acted that day. But things changed in an instant when the doctor who had been charged with inserting the tube showed me she was human; showed me she cared; got angry about the situation too and made me realise that she didn’t want to be doing this either. Her very human response to the situation made me step outside of myself and realise that we were on the same side. She was not fighting against me; WE were fighting my illness.
3. It is not for me to decide how people judge me
I used to be ashamed of how ill I was and I thought that if people knew how unable I was to beat the very illnesses that I wrote and taught about, that it would undermine my professional credibility.
I thought too that if people knew the stories behind my trauma that they would walk away from me, disgusted.
I was wrong.
The fact that I can draw on both professional and personal experience of mental ill health has, if anything, seemed to boost my professional credibility – I guess there is something to be said for walking the walk as well as talking the talk.
As for the assumptions that kept me silent about my past; again, I was wrong. I have shared the details of my story with only a handful of people, terrified each time that I would lose someone I cared about – so blinded by self-hatred that I thought those I loved would hate me too.
I was wrong.
I was wrong to assume how people would judge me. These days, I am learning to be unashamedly me and to allow people to judge me as they see fit. I’m learning that people can be really kind if you let them be – and that love and friendship can be unconditional.
4. I am a good Mum
I’m very insecure about my parenting. It’s not something that comes naturally, and I have beaten myself up ad-infinitum about the impact that my illness has on my children. But more recently, I’ve begun to realise that I am not a bad Mum. I have learned that no matter what ails my girls, they feel safe in my arms. I can fix them – just by holding them and loving them. I spent way too long comparing myself to other parents and finding myself falling short; but now, I am coming to understand that I am the safe base from which my children can begin to explore the world. Mine is the hand they reach for when they’re uncertain – I am far from perfect, but I’m good enough.
5. It’s important to allow myself to feel
I have been emotionally blunted my whole life. It has served me well and my ability to block off my feelings and box up the bad stuff is, I’m sure, one of the reasons I made it through to adulthood. But I’m safe now and as I finally lean in to the therapy that is helping me to address the experiences that lie at the heart of my PTSD, I find myself overwhelmed with emotion. Good as well as bad. I’m finding it hard because I’m feeling love and fear and sadness and joy and pain and… you name it… all at once and I’m only just beginning to understand how to process these emotions. But whilst it is terrifying and BIG, it feels healthy – and sure, finally working through the feelings that have been boxed away with my troubled past is far from easy. But the flipside of also feeling love for my children, for my husband, for the other important people in my life in a way I’ve never quite felt before is totally worth it.
Remind me of this on a day when I’m crippled with the bad feelings though… sometimes I long for numbness again…
6. Help-seeking is a vital skill
I hate asking for help – and I’m not very good at it. I’m working on it and an important part of my long-term recovery is about unashamedly help-seeking when I need support. Picking up the phone when I need to hear a friend’s voice because my flashbacks are crippling me so much I can barely breathe; asking my husband to move a meeting so he can eat lunch with me because I’m not sure I can do it on my own; asking friends to hang out with me after therapy because I need to find happier ways to fill my troubled mind. These are all things that the people in my life do gladly if I ask them. I have to get better at asking… it’s a work in progress and something I’ll continue to work on as help-seeking is going to be a vital skill in my long-term recovery toolbox.
7. There will be bad days
No prizes for guessing that I’m a perfectionist by nature – and yes, I’d love my recovery to be a straight line. But it’s not and there are bad days. Even years from now, when these few especially hard years feel like a dim and distant memory, I’ve no doubt there will be the occasional day when the past looms large and I take to my bed, unable to face the world. I need to accept that and be forgiving of my need to take occasional mental health days, much as I might occasionally take to my bed with a virus. There will be bad days. That’s okay.
8. There will be good days
…and of course there will be good days too. It felt for the longest time that I wasn’t capable of feeling happy – and if I did it felt undeserved or wrong in some way. But even in the darkest times, there are good days, and I’m learning to embrace them, own them, enjoy them and bottle up those moments of happy to help see me through the darker times.
9. I am strong
This time last year I was bedbound. Now I spend much of my free time climbing. My body is healthy and strong and my mind is getting there too. I never used to see myself as a strong person but now, at last, I do. Strength comes in many forms – it’s not just about pull ups or facing the tough stuff in therapy; it’s also about saying I’m fallible, I’ve had a tough time but I choose to go on; I choose to be a wife, a mother, a friend, a colleague. I accept that I’m breakable and that sometimes I’ll stumble and fall. But I know the way forwards now and I choose to walk that winding path, one step at a time, hand in hand with some really incredibly people.
I am strong and I choose life.