A personal post…
When I was going through my early stage of intense recovery last year, I stayed with my parents for a few months.
And although I owned my recovery, my parents were there, providing emotional support and regrettably (for me now) taking the brunt of the pure, raw and very real emotions that recovery dealt me.
Recovery turned me into a monster more than once.
I experienced intense and messy emotions and reactions during recovery which presented for different reasons and assumed different forms. I believe the range of these emotions are common for many of us going through eating disorder recovery.
Types Of Recovery Emotions:
The Fear Response
The first is the intense fear response we face in recovery several times a day: a fight, flight or freeze fear that hits and when it does, it can be very hard to engage any form of rational thought or understanding of what we are doing, let alone empathy for the impact of that on people around us.
When the brain is in a very basic intense fear response, it goes into life saving measures alone, resulting in tunnel vision and urgent attempts to get away from the danger fast (be that food, enforced rest or other actions that might lead to weight gain).
In this state, I urgently tried to escape or fight the fear and because the fear is irrational in recovery, I was usually intensely confused by the power of the effects this fear response had over me. I would find myself trying to escape or ‘fight’ anything or anyone that my brain decided just might be some kind of threat. There were times I would be blindly attempting to escape, fleeing, trying to shut out the threat and for a while I was in a frequent state of high anxiety and on the odd occasion pure panic.
Completely Overwhelming Confliction & Distress.
When my brain was not in pure panic zone but able to allow in some more rational thoughts, I felt pulled between the intense fear on one side (that I could not rationalise) and the baseline understanding that to eat more, rest more and gain weight were the right things to do. Why then were they so terrifying that I would freeze or flee when I tried to put them into practice?
This complete pull inside your own brain is strong and can be traumatic but in recovery it is also constant and becomes exhausting. The pure distress from this mental tug of war would leave me screaming with frustration. I would spend hours tormented by indecision over what or when to eat or trying to stop myself engaging in compulsive movement and the more I engaged in the tug of war, the higher my anxiety would become again.
There were many moments I just wanted to rip my brain out of my skull… and certainly times I would hit my head with anger, willing the constant battle to quieten.
Happily, this emotional turmoil perhaps served a purpose and did lead to my eventually making my bigger breakthroughs in recovery when the frustration had eventually become so great, with accompanying anger at the whole situation, that it would peak with a determination to push the illness out my brain once and for all through food…. I then had occasions when I would lose any sense of ridiculous control and grab at food in a frantic daze and shovel it down. These times sound chaotic and they were but reflecting back they were also crucial.
Arising Emotions From Deep Within
All those emotions that had been buried deep down for too many years because I had learnt to use the illness to numb myself, keeping frantically busy mentally and physically in every waking moment so I would not have to feel anything which came to the surface. In recovery though, they did come to the surface. I had to make space for that and when they did it felt like a tidal wave of pain flooded over me so intense that any physical pain would have been preferable.
These emotions stemmed from grief, the years, people and opportunities lost, guilt of what I had done to myself and to others, feelings of despair, traumatic memories of just how awful life really had been in the illness, anger at the professionals who could have made a difference and did not and so much more besides.
I am not sure how many tears I shed in those weeks of recovery, but there were certainly moments I felt that the pain would never end…
This was raw, deep and painful emotion which was the hardest thing I have ever experienced but also important I did go through and tolerate to progress and grow.
The Impact On My Loved Ones
Bringing this back to how the post started, through those dark and emotional weeks, my parents were present.
They witnessed and took the brunt of my anger (which was never at them but at my frustration and illness). They dealt with my intense fear responses that could leave me behaving in a way that at times was animal like and they saw my mood change 20 (or more!) times a day.
When I wanted to rip my brain out with anger and frustration, they stayed calm and rational and when I was in deep emotional pain and felt the tears might never end, they were there.
Now that I am through those difficult weeks of early recovery, I have only one regret.
I do not regret the recovery path I chose; I do not regret any of the food I ate or the weight I gained and the emotions I went through are worth it for all I have achieved and all that I know I still can achieve…
But the regret I do have is how I behaved in those months to the people who cared.
I regret not just the way I behaved at times but also the pain I know I will have caused them and the raw emotion I let them witness…. At the time I believe I was too deep in the fear created by the illness and that meant I could not access or act upon any true insight or empathy into the way it might make them feel…. but I hate that fact.
Now I have that insight and now when the raw emotions hit me, the cause is shame and regret for the things I put my family through.
And I write this because, if you are going through recovery at the moment and have people who care around… all I would say is that the emotions and fear you are experiencing are real and are crucial to work through.
But warn your family of what recovery might look like. I often say that recovery is messy and it has to be so and when I say that, I am usually not talking about the food (although that can be messy too!) but I am always referring to just how messy the emotional side of recovery can be.
So, allow recovery to be messy but whenever you can, talk to your loved ones, tell them you love and appreciate them, even though in the moments of high emotion you might not be able to voice that fact. Then keep going with recovery, so that all these difficult and distressing moments really are worthwhile for the freedom they bring.
I have now trained as a coach and mentor, working with people who are overcoming eating disorders, disordered eating or low body confidence. If you are interested in knowing more about my coaching work, then please take a look at my coaching website: www.hellybarnes.com