Setbacks, Vulnerability, and Running Again: Carie’s Story, Part 2
Read the first part of Carie’s story here.
**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. Please use your discretion when reading and speak with your support system as needed.
After college, I found myself taking my first professional job hours away from my friends and family in a tiny town. It turns out ED loves isolation. I told myself it was the only job I could find since I didn’t have any experience, but it also turned out to be the perfect haven for ED. I hardly knew anyone. I could go to work, come home, and just spend time with ED for the entire evening, just as he would like it. Then, I would drive the hours back to spend time with friends and family for the weekend and pretend like nothing was wrong. I had a good job. A nice apartment. I was dating someone. Life was good.
Meeting ED Head-On
At some point, my family and a great friend confronted me about my behaviors. It turns out I wasn’t as secret as I thought I was. ED was furious. Furious that they knew. Furious that our little secret was out. Now I was really going to have to actually face these issues I was dealing with. I began my first treatment with a social worker, registered dietitian, and some group work. It opened my eyes to what therapy really involved, and it was truly helpful at the time. Even then, though, I could not truly open up to my family and friends about what I was really feeling, thinking, and doing.
Relationship with ED and ED Alone
Throughout the time that I struggled with ED, I was in several relationships. I was looking for something that I could not find within myself: love. I needed acceptance and affirmation from someone outside of myself to prove that I was worthy. But, as many who have dealt with an eating disorder know, there is no room for a relationship with a person and ED at the same time. ED lives and breathes secrets, lies, manipulation, self-doubt…leaving no room when trying to figure out who you are as a person, let alone when trying to be in a relationship with someone. As soon as one relationship would fail, I would find myself in a new, exciting one. This behavior can only mask inner turmoil and troubles for so long.
I struggled with ED coming in and out of my life for close to 20 years—throughout my teens, 20s, and 30s. Some days, weeks, even years were better than others. I sought treatment after encouragement from loving family and friends. I got better. Then I’d have a setback. I would seek treatment again. Get better. And something would trigger me, and I would relapse again. I learned that setbacks are a part of the journey, and I also learned to celebrate each and every victory. I met my meal plan tallies for this meal? Victory. I went three days without using symptoms? Victory. I just ate an ice cream cone and feel good about it? Victory. I learned to celebrate each and every hour of positive recovery. What might seem like a small win to some might be a major milestone to another.
My treatment was always spent in an outpatient setting, sometimes intensive outpatient (IOP), and sometimes just a monthly check-in appointment. The tricky thing about an eating disorder is it does not always show up and look the way some think it should. I was not always underweight. In fact, many of my most unhealthy times were at higher weights. I am so happy to see more awareness being brought to this fact, but there is still a lot we have to do in terms of education, even within the medical field.
Setbacks are Just Part of the Journey
I am a work in progress, but what I cherish about being in my late 30s is finally understanding who I am and being comfortable in my own skin. And truly embracing that saying, “What others think of you is none of your business.” I have a hard time saying that I am recovered because I know that I will always have to stay cognizant of that old ED voice in my head trying to creep back in, especially when I’m in a vulnerable place. I continue to work on what made me susceptible to an eating disorder in the first place; in some ways, I feel like the true work is just beginning. I think it is important to remember that ED provided something to me at one time. It was not healthy, but it clearly showed up for a reason. I was not sure how to handle emotions or feelings, so when they would come up, I found a solution to not having to deal with them: my eating disorder. It took me years to recognize my sensitivity as a human being. And, more importantly, that my sensitivity is not a negative trait. In fact, it is an amazing human trait. It allows me to experience life in a beautiful way.
And I am constantly listening—life transitions provide a great space for ED to creep back in. I learned this the difficult way after our son was born. He was born four weeks early and with a birth defect known as Tracheoesophageal Fistula and Esophageal Atresia. This means that his trachea (“airway or windpipe”) and esophagus (“food pipe”) were connected at birth, and his esophagus formed in two parts instead of one. He endured surgery when he was three days old and nine subsequent weeks in the hospital, his little body struggling to accept breast milk and put on weight. I stayed at the hospital every day and night that he was there. Throughout this, I thought I was doing self-care: seeing family and friends when I could handle it; going for walks and jogs; talking to a small group of other NICU mothers; and so on. It turns out it wasn’t quite enough. Enough anxiety and uncertainty had built into my brain that ED crept his way back in. I turned to old coping mechanisms, which continued off and on once we got home from the hospital. And then the isolation of maternity leave in the winter with a fragile newborn kicked in. I didn’t seek out help at first, although that is exactly what I needed. I waited and finally opened up to my husband about what I was experiencing, who lovingly encouraged me. I quickly rebounded with the help of a team through outpatient services. I still have a hard time seeing pictures from that time of our son’s life, which indicates that I likely suffered some PTSD during that time. When you are in a situation where your child’s life is in danger and each day can bring a new setback, you are led through these extreme highs and lows. You are in survival mode. You are making it each and every day for that little person in your life that you would do anything for. Once you stop and slow down for a moment and things start to catch up to you, only then do your needs come into play.
Eating disorder recovery is hard. It is really hard. I love how Glennon Doyle put it in her recent book, Untamed, “The truest, most beautiful life never promises to be an easy one.” It is opening up yourself in ways you never thought you could or never thought you wanted to. It is about learning to sit in what I like to call the “icky,” those moments that are uncomfortable when uneasy feelings and emotions come up. Even though it is hard, it is completely worth it. Having a life free from an eating disorder is so much more than what an eating disorder appears to bring to you.
During the years that ED was most prevalent in my life, I still ran off and on, but I lost the love of it. I even trained for a few marathons while using eating disorder symptoms. I tried to qualify for the Boston Marathon twice while using eating disorder symptoms. I used to cringe (after the fact) at the thought of what I was putting my body through and asking of it; I experienced one stress fracture in my ankle and countless other lower leg injuries that definitely can be attributed to my lack of self-care and, even worse, self-harm that I was doing to my body.
I was at war with my body for so long that I could not truly appreciate running. Now I am thankful that I found a renewed love for this sport that has given me so much more than it has taken. My renewed love came after I became a parent, especially a parent of a child with acute medical needs in his early stages of life. It brought me a new kind of joy: time to reflect and pray and time to sort through my thoughts and feelings, an opportunity to set goals and do the work to achieve them, and, most importantly, wisdom to Appreciate. The. Journey. Moving my body provides an outlet for my anxiety, which was a vulnerability that helped open the door to my eating disorder.
Running has provided a safe space for me to open up about ED with friends. What you share on the run with friends can be so sacred, it’s truly amazing. There’s no better way to get close to someone than to spend a few hours sweating out some miles with them. Running constantly provides metaphors in life. A marathon training cycle is so reflective of the cycles we go through in life, whether it’s relationship or friendship cycles, career cycles, or eating disorder recovery cycles. Some days are easy, some are hard, then when you get to your end goal, whatever that might be—a job promotion, an addition to your family, a move across the country, a PR—you realize, wait, it wasn’t about getting to this exact point. It was about the journey all along.
Vulnerability When True Secrets are Revealed
An eating disorder thrives on secrecy, manipulation, mind games, negative self-talk, and isolation. During the times I was seeking professional treatment and doing the things that I needed to do to recover, I still could not fully open up about what I was dealing with to loved ones. Not really. I would open up just enough so they knew I was working to get better, but it was superficial. I was still embarrassed, even ashamed. Being that vulnerable to my loved ones was harder than being vulnerable to strangers.
Can we ever be truly, truly vulnerable? I used to think not. I didn’t even understand what it meant to be vulnerable—to put aside your ego, your worries about what others think of you, your preconceived notions. My husband was the first person that I was truly, truly vulnerable with about ED, meaning I could tell him when I was in the middle of a bad spot. And I had to work very, very hard against my instincts and learned traits to get to that point. I still have to work at it. But it is amazing when you finally realize that vulnerability opens up so much in our lives. The more vulnerable I am with someone, the closer I feel to that person. And, hopefully, the more vulnerable I can be, the more vulnerable they feel comfortable being as well.
The idea that sharing my story might help just one other person is motivation enough for me to stop worrying about what others think and truly get real. This led me to sharing my story with The Emily Program community. To be this vulnerable to such a wide audience was truly scary for me. It’s taken me a long time to get to this point, but I know that by opening up, I am stronger in my recovery. I am not a medical doctor, scientist, or professional researcher, but I am an expert in my own experience, which I am only now truly embracing. If you are dealing with an eating disorder, please know that there is help out there. You do not need to go about this alone. I have been there. So many of us have. Have faith. Have hope. It will get better.