One of the questions discussed over and over again in my recovery groups is How do I explain to my friends that when I make my recovery a priority, I often don’t have the energy for anything else? Especially when they’re always so disappointed when I say no.
It’s an interesting thing to think about. On the one hand, when they’re not acting on their eating disorder, it’s logical to assume that a person would have more energy. Sometimes that’s true. Often though, it’s entirely the opposite.
To explain this, let me draw you a picture. This is an example of a typical day in the early stages of your recovery:
9:00AM – Wake up.
9:30AM – Find a way to pry yourself out of bed, even after a full night’s sleep. Shower. Get dressed. Put on one set of clothes. Stare at self in the mirror and convince yourself not to change your clothes a dozen times, no matter how crappy you feel, because you will only feel even crappier afterwards. Some days, you win this battle. Other days, you give in.
Let’s say this is one of those days you win.
9:45AM – Do makeup and hair – again, fighting with yourself not to change your hairstyle a dozen times.
10:00AM – Feeling even worse than before, you now have to eat breakfast. You have a meal plan to follow. You measure out your food, cook what needs to be cooked, then sit down and eat. You distract yourself with TV or a book, and yet you also have to focus on your food, so you don’t eat it too fast. You feel full after two bites. You force yourself to finish the entire plate.
10:30AM – Head out to treatment. You have an hour on the subway to distract yourself. Hope you brought a book.
12:30PM to 8:30PM – Treatment. Eight straight hours of talking about eating, talking about your feelings, talking MORE about your feelings, therapy, nutrition sessions, lunch, dinner, process groups, and a nap (if you’re lucky). And that’s the short list.
10:00PM – You finally walk through the door of your home. Oh, you thought you were going straight to sleep? Hardly. Drop your bag, change into your pajamas, and head to the kitchen for night snack – even if you’re so tired, you don’t even want to consider eating.
12:00AM – Sleep. Hopefully.
Rinse and repeat, five days a week. On the weekends, I barely wanted to leave the house at all. Laura has spoken about self care the past two weeks – for me, that meant I recuperated with Netflix, trips to the local coffee shop, reading, and journaling a whole lot. Most times, I only wanted to be around other people if it meant doing something together that required little to no talking. Some days, I didn’t want to be around anyone at all.
What people don’t realize is even in those spare, free moments, a person with an eating disorder is constantly thinking about food: mentally preparing for the next meal, planning outings and events and social occasions around meals at home, dreading going out because of the lack of control over what to eat, worrying about eating too much or too little, and is it really a binge if I eat too much, or is this normal? Every single move becomes an expertly choreographed dance, and it is exhausting.
“But I get tired, too!” You say. “And you don’t hear me making excuses.”
For future reference, this is one of the absolute worst things you can say to someone with an eating disorder, and even to someone without one. Maybe they’re depressed. Maybe they’re having a high anxiety day. Maybe they’re stressed and overstimulated. Maybe they’re just tired and want to go home to curl up on the couch with a good movie, a glass of wine, and their cat. People are allowed to say no.
One more time, because this bears repeating: you are allowed to say no. You are allowed to take care of yourself. This is a foreign concept to people with an eating disorder, most of whom want to please everyone else in the world, often at their own expense.
You’re allowed to be disappointed. You are not allowed to make them feel bad about it. Overwhelmed by guilt and shame, I can promise you they are thinking worse things about themselves than you could ever imagine saying out loud.
A while ago, someone linked me to The Spoon Theory. Written by Christina Miserandino, it’s a way she explained to a friend of hers what it’s like to live with Lupus, but can also be adapted to pretty much any “invisible” illness (the name of her site is But You Don’t Look Sick, a sentiment I readily identify with.) I urge you to read the entire wonderful, perfect metaphor, but here are some of the highlights:
Most people start the day with unlimited amount of possibilities, and energy to do whatever they desire, especially young people. For the most part, they do not need to worry about the effects of their actions. So for my explanation, I used spoons to convey this point. I wanted something for her to actually hold, for me to then take away, since most people who get sick feel a “loss” of a life they once knew. If I was in control of taking away the spoons, then she would know what it feels like to have someone or something else… being in control.
Later, she writes:
Its hard, the hardest thing I ever had to learn is to slow down, and not do everything. I fight this to this day. I hate feeling left out, having to choose to stay home, or to not get things done that I want to. I wanted her to feel that frustration. I wanted her to understand, that everything everyone else does comes so easy, but for me it is one hundred little jobs in one. I need to think about… the whole day’s plans before I can attack any one given thing. When other people can simply do things, I have to attack it and make a plan like I am strategizing a war. It is in that lifestyle, the difference between being sick and healthy. It is the beautiful ability to not think and just do. I miss that freedom. I miss never having to count “spoons.”
This is what it’s like to be in recovery from an eating disorder – to spend every waking moment taking carefully crafted steps just to get through the day without a binge, or restricting, or purging.
Does recovery get easier over time? Absolutely. There are still days when I go to sleep and marvel over the fact that I got through the day and didn’t think about food once beyond remembering to grab my food from the fridge in the morning, mentally cheering for my lunch break, and bemoaning the fact that I forgot to take something out to cook for dinner.
Not thinking about my eating disorder has freed up so much brainspace to think about other, more important things – like grad school, finding a new job, volunteering, spending time with friends; mentoring others with eating disorders and maintaining this blog. I’m discovering new hobbies and passions every day, and rediscovering some old ones (ask me how I feel about whales some time. I’ll talk your ear off.) These are things I couldn’t even imagine when I was deep in the throes of my eating disorder. But getting to this place has taken time, dedication, and a lot of hard work, work that I’m still doing, every single day.
So the next time your friend in recovery tells you they’re too tired to hang out, consider just how much work they’re doing every minute of every day. Have some compassion. Ask them to explain if you don’t understand.
It’s okay to be disappointed – just don’t be a dick about it.