**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.
By Liz Rognes, a former Emily Program client in recovery. She is a teacher, writer, and musician who lives in Spokane, WA.
My toddler is learning how to assert himself. He’ll run over to me, holding on to a pair of red shoes while exclaiming, “Toes! Toes! Toes!” This means that he wants me to put the shoes on his toes. I’ll sit down with him on the floor, his wiggly body in my lap, and I’ll work hard to get those red shoes on his feet. As soon as the shoes are on, he’ll run back to his room, little flashes of red pattering across the hardwood floor, and then he’ll return with a pair of green sandals. “Toes, Mommy!” So I’ll sit down with him again and work hard to get those red shoes off and the green sandals on, all while he’s squirming and moving and happily watching his feet. And then, as soon as the Velcro is attached, he cheerfully demands the red shoes again.
I love watching him learn to ask for what he wants. As a person who has struggled with anxiety more or less my whole life, I’m not generally cheerful about options. I do not make decisions easily. A former partner said, with some curious level of endearment, that I am “unabashedly unsure.” Rather than feeling excited about red shoes or green shoes, I’ll worry about the impact of either decision, I’ll forecast an imaginary narrative about what could potentially go wrong with either choice, and then I’ll berate myself for not knowing what I want in the first place. I’ll feel anxious about picking the “right” choice, I’ll equivocate, and then I’ll feel like I’m wasting everyone’s time by worrying for so long rather than just making a decision.
My eating disorder made me feel like uncertainty was a character flaw. I felt like I was supposed to have answers. For years, I tried to contort my hesitant, messy self into black-and-white thinking: it must be this way or that way, right or wrong, good or bad. I felt comforted by facts and maps, even if they were not my own. My eating disorder was a champ at giving me facts and maps and numbers and rules. It told me that I was not worthy of asserting my own wants and needs, and that if I couldn’t precisely and immediately determine my own decisions, there must be something wrong with me. And this was a big problem—you could fill an ocean with my indecision and uncertainty about most things, and I judged myself (and assumed that everyone else was judging me) for wallowing in a terrible state of not knowing.
Much of my recovery has been about learning to be okay with uncertainty. Little decisions have to happen every day, and if I feel frantic about each of them, I’ll be overwhelmed all the time. Anxiety can make a decision like red shoes or green shoes feel completely unmanageable, and sometimes I have to take a step back and laugh at myself for worrying about such tiny details, for circling and circling a little dot with my internal uncertainty. Of course, some decisions really do need thoughtful examination. And there have been many big moments in my recovery filled with externally imposed uncertainty: the impending death of a close friend from college, the times that I’ve been without work, going through break-ups, my son’s first week of life in the NICU.
I remember being about a year into recovery when I moved into a new apartment, a beautiful brownstone building in St. Paul. I felt charmed by newness, the wild openness of possibility. And I remember thinking, without judgment or fear, that anything could happen in this new space. I realized that this apartment could be a place where I might feel at home, where I might cook dinner with friends, where I might fall in love. But this new apartment could be a place where I might feel sadness or depression or where I might even relapse. It wasn’t that I expected any of those exact things to happen, but I could suddenly see a whole range of possibilities at once—and I didn’t feel overwhelmed by them. I felt secure in the moment, and there was great relief in imagining potential stories but letting go of trying to control the future.
You know, it’s not ever really about the green shoes or the red shoes—it’s about trusting what I know, listening to my own intuition, and feeling supported in the here and now. And, sometimes, when it’s impossible to have any clue which option to choose, it’s about taking a leap of faith and letting go of calculating the outcome. It’s about doing what feels most right at the time, given the information that I have. It’s about learning.
If I don’t eventually put an end to the cycle, my son and I could spend all day switching from the red shoes to the green sandals and back again. But I suspect that for my son, it isn’t about indecision or uncertainty; it’s about learning to ask for what he wants. I think he wants to know that I’m listening and that he can be autonomous in certain decisions. He wants to tell me about his wants and needs, and he wants to know that he is heard. He wants to feel supported.
It’s okay not to have answers. It’s okay to have an answer and then to change your mind. I’ve learned that my heart is not a place for meticulous organization and classification. My heart is a messy and wild living thing, filled with love and openness and curiosity and, sometimes, unabashed uncertainty. But I’m actually rarely entirely unsure about something; it’s just that I take a long time to consider, to feel, and to question. And there can be wonderful value in holding that kind of complexity.