Living Moderation in a City of Extremes, Part 1
This is one person’s story; everyone will have unique experiences on their own path to recovery and beyond. Some stories may mention eating disorder thoughts, behaviors or symptom use. Please use your own discretion. And speak with your therapist when needed.
By Clare Harmon, a former Emily Program client and woman in recovery
I’ve lived in New Orleans for almost two years and I dearly believe I owe some of my recovery to this deeply flawed, deeply rich, and very, very humid city. This of course, is not to say, “come to New Orleans, recover from an eating disorder in ten easy steps!” Certainly not. Recovery is a practice, a set of skills, a way of thinking and acting. But for me, recovery is also about setting goals and meeting challenges and I can think of no more challenging a city than New Orleans.
Before I continue, I feel obligated to offer a disclaimer. I’ve tried many times to write about New Orleans. Upon first arriving two years ago, I reacted expectedly: Louisiana is not Minnesota and New Orleans is not like any other American city. And this, at first, is perniciously charming to a born-and-bred Midwesterner. People smile, there seems to be music everywhere, the lushness of live oaks gives gracious respite from a near-suffocating Southern sun. But eventually, the tourist’s rose-colored glasses come off and you realize this is a city of extremes: wealth and poverty, corruption and goodness, violence and fellowship. And then of course, the Storm, about which the complex befores and afters I have only just begun to fathom. All that said, I’ll do my best not to fetishize the city I cannot help but love.
There is food (and alcohol) everywhere. And it’s hot. The way dry Minneapolis cold gets in your bones, swampy New Orleans heat saturates your skin. Here, a conscious embodiment is inextricable from daily life and for a person in recovery, this presents a considerable challenge. Prior to the beginning of my first summer here, my advisor called me to a meeting in her office. She said, “Are you ready? For, you know, the heat?” I shrugged, “I have a pair of sandals and some maxi dresses.” She winked knowingly in response: I was not at all prepared.
Shortly thereafter, sometime in July, I learned I could no longer allow my eating disorder to dictate my dress. I had a simple if devastating choice: either wear shorts and tank-tops (clothes I always ardently avoided due to my eating disorder symptoms) or sweat to dehydration, heatstroke, exhaustion, the list goes on. My response? I remembered the discussions and practice of exposure therapy in intensive programming. I remembered the way in which I achieved meal plan goals, for example. Start small. Each week, or as often as you want, try to increase the percentage of exchanges met, get comfortable with upticking numbers until 100 percent is an indisputable given. I remembered that slow and steady really does win the race.
For my then-present dilemma, this meant I started by wearing shorts and a tank around my apartment, then when walking my dog, then on errands, and to class (a big challenge for me). And, within a few months of graceful challenge, I was wearing miniskirts on dates! This is not to say that it wasn’t difficult, it was damn hard but absolutely worth it. Never in my life did I think I would be able to wear short skirts or dresses and there I was, comfortable in my own skin. New Orleans’ extreme weather cajoled me into a moderate recovery practice.
Today, a year and change later, the Crescent City is hot and humid. My boyfriend and I are planning to picnic in City Park. We’ll sit under a sprawling oak in refuge from the sun; we’ll listen to the not-so-distant sounds of the festival du jour (Bayou Boogaloo), and I’ll smile, grateful for how good I feel in shorts and a tank top.
A little about Clare:
She is the author of two books of poetry, The Thingbody (Instar Books, 2015) and If Wishes Were Horses the Poor Would Ride (Finishing Line Press, forthcoming 2016). You can read her first post about Recovery here.