Recovery Conversations: A Q&A with Melanie Stephen
**Content warning: This is one person’s story; everyone will have unique experiences in recovery and beyond. Some stories may mention eating disorder thoughts, behaviors, and symptoms. This story includes mention of self-harm. Please use your discretion when reading and speak with your support system as needed.
Melanie Stephen is a wife and mother to two beautiful girls. She obtained her graduate degree in social work in 2020 and began pursuing a fulfilling career in the field of eating disorders. She has volunteered her time as a mentor and support group leader, while also working as an Inpatient Clinician for those struggling with eating disorders and co-occurring illnesses. She is pursuing a life that is full of adventures, opportunities, and possibilities that allows for self-growth, passion, authenticity, and genuineness.
Through her recovery, she has learned to be true to herself, scars and all, and to allow the world to see that it’s realistic to be perfectly imperfect. She has earned her certification as a Certified Eating Disorder Recovery Coach and Certified Eating Disorder Peer Mentor, as well as certification in Expressive Therapy. She also plans to continue advocating for the Eating Disorders Coalition and become a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor. It is her deepest hope that with her personal and professional experiences, she will be able to help others in their journey to recovery and be free from disordered eating.
Recovery Conversations is a question-and-answer series that features voices and stories of eating disorder recovery. Melanie Stephen joins us today to reflect on the “roller coaster ride” of her recovery and the lessons it has for others currently struggling.
How did you decide to seek help for your eating disorder?
This is a hard question to answer because I decided to seek help for recovery many times. There were a few half-hearted attempts in my early adulthood, but my insurance company didn’t believe that I was “sick enough” to qualify for those levels of care. The second time was in 2007, after a bad self-harm incident for which I was brought to the hospital. I had already been in contact with two different residential programs and this episode fast-forwarded that process for me. I flew with my husband to Tennessee shortly afterward and checked myself into a treatment program, one I would have liked to attend off and on again for many years if it weren’t for the out-of-pocket expenses. While this treatment provided me with a lot of knowledge of my eating disorder and self-harm and its impacts on not only my own life but those of my loved ones, it was simply too short-lived. I needed more time.
I can remember the day after returning home from treatment and finding out that I was pregnant, an unplanned blessing after having experienced a miscarriage only six months prior. I was terrified about how my body would change and the impact all of it would have on my recovery. I used the opportunity to submit an article, “The MOM in Me,” to the You Are Not Alone recovery newsletter. It was a reminder of why I was working so hard and who it was for. After my daughter was born, life was beautiful and exciting, but due to a variety of circumstances, my husband, daughter, and I moved abroad to Singapore. During our time there, I genuinely enjoyed being a mother and spending time together as a family exploring new things, but my eating disorder was still very much a part of my life. I sought help but was conflicted with many of the practitioners because of Eastern/Western medicine philosophies, especially in relation to mental illness. After two more miscarriages and two episodes of self-harm, the decision was made to return home so that I could receive more treatment in America. My health was fading, my mental health was fading even faster, and I just wanted to focus on getting healthy, being a good mom, and providing a good life for our family.
It’s an awfully long story, but I will keep it as short as possible. I became pregnant with my second daughter and began seeing a therapist. This professional may be the greatest influence in all my treatment endeavors because he taught me about conditioned habits, the addictive personality, and how to differentiate myself from my eating disorder. He helped me learn how to identify who I am separate from my eating disorder and begin practicing days free of behaviors, and he had no problem loading on the in-between session homework, which I needed. This therapy carried me through a high-risk pregnancy that ended on a very scary note. My baby was healthy and fine, but I was rushed out to the operating room for hemorrhaging and couldn’t hold my little girl until many hours later. This was my motivation to continue seeing my therapist and explore additional ways I could be actively working in recovery.
Over the years, my reasons to seek recovery and help have changed depending on where I am in my life. The most recent one was when I graduated with my graduate degree in social work and couldn’t wait to work in service to others. To be strong for the individuals that I serve, I need to practice my own strength and draw on my own journey. I am reminded often of how important this work is and how rewarding it can be when a patient simply says, “Thank you for your help.”
How did you stay motivated in recovery?
For me, the motivation always came down to one simple thing: to give myself the opportunity for a better, more rewarding, more adventurous life in which I can be authentic, compassionate, loving, and accepting. When I struggle, I am reminded of the fact that I am raising two daughters in a society that is bombarded by images and thoughts of what people should look like, how they should act, and what they should say. Staying motivated allows me to step back and see what they are going through not only from the perspective of a parent, but also that of a social worker. It’s also motivating that after so many years of working to this point in my career, I finally can engage in the world of recovery more, support others in their journeys, and hopefully impact a few along the way with my own story.
If you could go back to the beginning of your recovery, what would you tell yourself?
I must start by saying that I fully believe in the butterfly effect and that if I went back and changed one thing about my path, it would inevitably change the entire course of my life. However, with that said, I can remember pivotal moments throughout the journey that I would play the “would have/could have/should have” game with. The most important one was when I attended a residential treatment program in 2007. Not only had my bulimia taken over my life, but so had my self-harm, and my husband and I discussed the need for more extensive treatment that cost a lot of money, out-of-pocket. I attended the program for 21 days, leaving early from my 28-day plan, and returned home with a stronger foundation for recovery but without the commitment that I needed. If I could go back, I would stay in that program for at least 2–3 months and I believe it would have impacted the rest of my life.
However, knowing that it would also impact my having had two children, living abroad, my journey to find a passionate career, etc., I would simply change the thought that I left treatment with. I would go back and tell myself to be compassionate, patient, and respectful of myself. I would tell myself to take a deep breath because the journey will be long and taxing, but I believed in myself. I would give myself a hug and provide the reassurance that while this is challenging, everything passes in time.
Favorite recovery quote?
When I think about answers to this question, dozens come to mind. I adore quotes, and often in my work as a mentor, I utilize them for those that I am working with. They can be inspiring, thought provoking, and for me, powerful. Out of all the quotes that I can think of related to recovery, it’s one simple one: “Recovery isn’t linear, but it is possible.”
There is no straight path to recovery. It’s full of ups and downs, twists and turns, successes and failures. I learned a lot about myself throughout the recovery process, and at times, it wasn’t always something I wanted to learn. There were times when I would take a step forward, only to take two backward, and beat myself up for what I perceived to be a lack of progress—a failure. Other times, I wasn’t actively engaging in recovery, but it happened organically.
The roller coaster ride of recovery is painful, challenging, tormenting, depressing, and overwhelming. However, despite all the relapses, dark moments, rock bottoms, losses, and anguish, the journey is one of self-discovery, growth, acceptance, compassion, and triumph. I cried a lot, I often crawled away into a dark hole to hide from the world, I screamed, I experienced torturing self-hatred, I self-harmed, and I failed. But through the nonlinear recovery journey, I also discovered parts of myself I never knew existed, have been inspired, practiced gratefulness, and aimed to be more optimistic and accepting of the roller coaster of life. Recovery looks different for everyone, but the most important thing is to be authentic, embrace the journey, and know that IT IS possible.
What words of encouragement would you share with those who are struggling?
Don’t give up.
I wanted to give up so many times, to turn in the towel and just accept that this was how I was going to live. Everyone has their rock bottoms, and I can honestly say that I had dozens, which threatened my relationships, my family, my education, my career, my opportunities for travel and adventures, but I tirelessly forged on in recovery. I kept listening to the therapists, professionals, peers in recovery, authors, blog writers, etc. to keep my passion for recovery ignited. Even though I had moments of despair, a lot of them, I knew that life beyond my eating disorder was possible. I knew that with ongoing hard work and commitment, I would be able to grow from my experiences and learn who I was without my eating disorder. It was a matter of telling myself that I was worth it, and that even with the scars, internal and external, I was whole and capable of great things. Those struggling need to be reminded that recovery takes time, but the rewards are utterly amazing. Beyond the eating disorder is a life that is fulfilling, filled with opportunities and adventures, and that provides the chance to help others going through the same or similar experiences. Recovery is one of the hardest things that a person can do and it tests every part of your being, but don’t give up!