*TRIGGER WARNING:  I talk about sexual assault.

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Several weeks ago, I started writing the goodbye letter below but it didn’t feel right. At the time I wasn’t sure why, and then I realized that ED Ali was already gone. Saying goodbye to someone who was already gone felt redundant, so instead of focusing on the goodbye letter I wrote about how her absence affected me (Seeing the Forest for the Trees).

But I couldn’t stop thinking about the goodbye letter. So I came back to it and started to write. The letter started as a goodbye but shifted to “You’re gone and this is why I will never let you back.” What came up as I wrote was something I intimated but never directly addressed here on the blog. Rape. It is an event that I have processed but it is still difficult to share publicly. Which is why it has taken me a few weeks to hit “Publish.”

I know I did nothing wrong and have nothing to be ashamed of, but this feeling is still relatively new. And, one of the countless awful things about rape is that no matter how successful you are at working through and getting over the trauma, there is still fear of having an asterisk by your name. Like, Ali* has good advice (*but Ali was raped). Or Ali* is super nice and super fun (*but Ali was raped). Or Ali* is smart (*but Ali was raped).

Asterisk or not, I am not hiding anymore. Processing the horrible experience and knowing that it was not my fault and not my shame was pivotal to my recovery. Rape affects more women than any of us would like to admit. I refuse to be silent. For too long I shouldered a shame that never belonged to me.

Dear Eating Disorder Ali:

We already said our goodbye. You are no longer with me but I see you in my rearview mirror. Waiting. Waiting for me to slip up and need you. Waiting for me to stop the car so you can catch up and get back in.  Adjusting to your absence has thrown me for a loop but I am finding my new balance.  I need you to know that I will not stop. I need you to know that even if you don’t walk away, I will keep moving forward until I cannot see you anymore.

You have done a lot for me over the years but it has come at a steep price.  You saved my life on few occasions when I was so depressed and so low that I wanted to die. I am forever grateful that you kept me alive so I could get to where I am today.  You numbed the pain and got me through the worst moments in my life. The problem is that there is no such thing as selective numbing. So you also numbed the joy.

Consequently, for much of my young adult life, I felt disconnected from those around me. My only connection, my only constant, was you. However, the human need for connection is strong, so at times I would yearn for connection with another person. Despite being over my head with bulimia and self-hatred, I was able to form some wonderful friendships that I cherish to this day. But because I was still so lost and disconnected, I also made some poor choices that left me aching for you to take the pain away. Some of those poor choices involved men.

But I never chose to be raped. I do not and will not blame you for the malevolent actions of another. I do, however, hold you responsible for continuing to tell me it was my fault. For twenty years, you used that horrible experience to your advantage to make me hate myself and feel unworthy so I would turn to you to take the pain away. No more. It was not my fault. It is not my shame.

I forgive you but I will not forget and I will not let you back in my life. I know that I am enough now and I know how to deal with and process hurt and pain.  I know that by feeling my feelings I can grow.  I also know that numbing my feelings will only defer the pain. Whether you walk away or I keep driving until you’re out of sight. It. Is. Over.

Ali

 

Affirmations are important. Another tool in my anxiety management toolbox. Little mental reminders that reinforce who I am and what is important. As I progress through recovery my affirmations evolve. While it may not seem like one, reminding myself that Recovered isn’t a Fairytale has become an incredibly important affirmation.

The closer I get to Recovered, the more intimidated I get by identifying as Recovered. That probably sounds strange but when I started recovery in my twenties, and even when I re-committed to recovery earlier this year, I thought Recovered meant everything in my life would be fixed. My eating disorder would be gone and life would be perfect. Lollipops and rainbows. No pain, no hurt. No anxiety, no stress. I’d be thin, happy, have tons of friends, a dream career and, of course, be Mother of the Year. Happily ever after. A Fairytale.

I believed Recovered was a Fairytale because I had no idea what a Recovered life looked like. As I get closer to Recovered, I realize how unrealistic that belief is because if my life has to be perfect to be Recovered, I’ll never be Recovered.

So I remind myself, Recovered isn’t a Fairytale. Recovered means I no longer have eating disorder thoughts or behaviors. Recovered does not mean life will be perfect. Life is hard. Really hard. And despite not having eating disorder thoughts or behaviors anymore, my life isn’t perfect. I get hurt, I feel sad. I get anxious, I stress out. And, for reasons I can’t explain, no one has awarded me Mother of the Year yet.

Everyday I confront a myriad of emotions. In addition to affirmations, I learned, and continue to learn, different coping strategies that help me feel and work through my emotions in healthy ways. But it isn’t always easy (it turns out even joy requires vulnerability). Frankly, life can be overwhelming and down right exhausting at times.

So I remind myself, Recovered isn’t a Fairytale. Recovered means I don’t have an eating disorder anymore. Not having an eating disorder anymore means that I get to live my life. Feel my life. Love with my whole heart, pursue my passions, connect with people on a deeper level, laugh until my belly hurts, and cry because I am so overwhelmed with joy I can’t even stand it. I also get to fall flat on my face, embarrass myself, stress out, fail, hurt, cry, and hide. And then I get to rise and do it all again. It isn’t a Fairytale, but it is pretty awesome.

 

 

 

forestforthetree

Last week a friend showed me some pictures from his vacation to San Diego. The above picture immediately grabbed my attention. I loved it because the way the light shines through the trees reminded me how important it is to see the forest for the trees. Sometimes, especially during recovery, I get so wrapped up in the details that I miss the big picture. I miss the forest. For me, the forest is Recovered. So I made a mental note to print off the picture and keep it on my desk as a reminder. Then Harrison started screaming because Wyatt looked at him funny and I forgot all about the picture and over the next three days I proceeded to completely lose my mind in all the damn trees.

It began soon after I hit “Publish” on The Dialogue. I thought I could get the final two writing assignments for Key 2 written and posted on the blog by Wednesday. One was about positive self statements and the other a goodbye letter to my eating disorder self. I have a ton of positive self statements at the ready and I felt pretty good about saying goodbye to ED Ali, so I started writing. But nothing happened. No matter what I wrote, nothing felt right.  I’d write and write then delete and delete.

I was also in a horrible mood. I felt off. Uncomfortable, unfocused, untethered. ANXIOUS. I had no patience with boys, I was short with Steve, I couldn’t get the laundry done, I couldn’t keep the house clean, I couldn’t make a decision on our Christmas cards, I couldn’t decide who to invite to Wyatt’s birthday party (I am marginally embarrassed to admit how stressed I got over a 5 year old’s birthday party), I didn’t have time to read, I didn’t have enough time to write. It felt like I was doing a lot but accomplishing nothing.

As the days passed my anxiety meter kept rising and my go-to anxiety diffusers were not working. I knew I needed uninterrupted time to process what I was feeling but I never seemed to get enough time. By Thursday, something had to give because I was seriously about to lose my mind. After three full days at DEFCON 1, I needed a release.

Then I got one. The picture. I couldn’t believe I had forgotten about it (I never printed it off). There it was on my phone. The light, the branches, the leaves, the colors, the forest…. As I focused on the beauty of the forest, I realized that I had gotten so swept up in the minutia of all the anxiety that I had missed the big picture. And once I stopped to take a look at my big picture, I noticed something was missing.

At no time during those three days at DEFCON 1 did I ever think eating disorder thoughts or use ED behaviors to relieve my anxiety. In addition, rather than berate myself for not being good enough to handle the anxiety, I was upset because I wasn’t getting the time I knew I needed to process my feelings.

It hit me. She was gone. For the first time in over thirty years, ED Ali was gone. I wrote our goodbye in The Dialogue but it never dawned on me that she might actually leave. But she did. Unfortunately, I was too distracted by the aftershocks of her absence to even notice. I wish I could say that when I finally realized she was gone it felt like a weight lifted off my shoulders and suddenly everything was sunshine and rainbows. But it didn’t and it wasn’t. ED Ali had been an anchor so when she left I felt untethered and uncertain.

However, now that I had the big picture in focus, I knew adjusting to her departure was a necessary step to get me closer to Recovered. So I started talking about it. To my Dad, who was supportive and encouraged me to keep writing. To my Mom, who wisely recommended that instead of focusing on the goodbye letter, I focus on writing about what happened when I realized that ED Ali was gone. To Steve, who took the boys for the whole weekend so I had the time and space I needed to process my feelings. To Jamie, who made me feel needed and appreciated. To Liz, who listened and helped me see how far I’ve come. And to Abbie, who listened and shared and helped me discover new things about myself. I also shared more of my story with friends and that felt wonderful. After sharing and showing up with all those wonderful people, I started writing and was able to find my voice again. And to me, that feels like sunshine and rainbows.

Recovery is a work in progress and I just took a big step forward. I am trying to be as honest and transparent as I can and it’s hard because I am still actively working through it. Recovery is messy and it hurts but as long as I focus on working towards Recovered, I know I will get there.

I should also probably print off a copy of that picture….

 

 

 

 

 

 

Continuing with the car analogy I used in last Wednesday’s post, we find Healthy Ali driving on the road to Recovered and Eating Disorder Ali tucked away in the trunk (I’m picturing a white sedan with tan leather interior-a car I drove for most of my thirties).

INT. ALI’S CAR – DAY

Healthy Ali (HA): Looking in the rearview mirror. Hey, how ya doin’ back there?

Eating Disorder Ali (EDA): A bit muffled but intelligible. Oh, so now you talk to me? Why do I have to be in the trunk? You know, it’s not super comfortable back here and I was a way better driver. A pause. Don’t you still need me? I think you still need me.  Can I at least get in the backseat?

HA: No, sorry girl. I know how you operate and I’m not falling for that one again. Look, I appreciate all that you have done over the last three decades but…

EDA: Kicking and screaming. GET ME OUT OF THIS TRUNK!!!!! Seriously! A trunk!! This has to be illegal!!! LET ME OUT!!!!

HA: Do I need to stop the car? EDA is still kicking and screaming. Okay, I’m pulling over. She pulls over to the side of the road and stops the car.

EDA: Suddenly quiet. Hey, did you stop the car? Why did you stop the car? Legally speaking, I don’t think you can keep me in the trunk.

HA: Seeing how you only exist in my subconscious, legally speaking, I think I’m in the clear.

EDA: Softer tone. I just want to help. I can protect you from the hard, scary feelings.  I know you still have them. I know you’re scared. If you let me drive, or at least let me sit in the backseat, I can take some of the fear away.

HA:  I know, but the fear doesn’t scare me like it use to. Fear is part of life and I choose life. Look, thank you for keeping me safe when the feelings became dangerous. Back then I wasn’t equipped to handle those feelings and when they got to be too much you swept in and took care of it.  But because you always took over, I never learned healthier ways to cope.

EDA: No, you have to admit that I made things healthier as time went on.  I mean, you use to binge and purge several times a day.  Your whole life revolved around food, binging and purging.

HA: Yes! Because you wouldn’t even let me in the car!

EDA: And when you refused to stop banging on window, I let you in. I let you convince me to commit to some recovery. Okay? I found healthier ways for you to cope. Constant dieting worked really well. A pause. Justifying. It was way better then bulimia. I also threw in some emotional overeating which then fueled your need to lose weight. I mean, it was a brilliant cycle! You were so focused on eating and then trying to the lose weight that you never had time to deal with anything scary or hard! And, hello! There are a bazillion different diets out there, I seriously could have protected you from feeling anything for eternity.

HA:  Yes, I get that, but I don’t think it was genius or beneficial. By keeping me in a constant state of trying to lose weight, I always felt like a failure. Instead of caring about who I was as a person, I focused solely on what I looked like as a person. And because I never met this ridiculously subjective definition of what I thought other people defined as beautiful and perfect, I never felt like I was good enough. A pause.  Look, while you did make things a bit better, I’d argue that your tactics were still very harmful both physically and mentally.

EDA:  Thanks not fair.  You finished law school, didn’t you?  Passed two bar exams, got three different great jobs, met and married Steve and gave birth to two wonderful boys.  How could I have been so bad if you did all that with me behind the wheel?

HA:  It’s true. Some great stuff happened with you behind the wheel.  But they only happened because I was finally in the car.  And since I’ve been driving, things have gotten even better.  Just imagine…

EDA: Not listening. Look, I have been calling the shots for over three decades and I will admit that it’s not perfect, but I am what you are used to.

HA:  Not anymore. You know I want more and I cannot get there with you.

EDA:  That’s harsh HA. Look, I’ve evolved, I’ve changed.  Who’s to say I’m not worth keeping around.  Need I say canary in a coal mine?

HA: I am a canary too, EDA. You have done so much that I am grateful for but it is time.  This is extremely hard and I wish I knew a better, easier way to let you go.  Saying goodbye to you is a loss.  A very, very big loss, which is why this week has been so hard.

EDA:  I just can’t believe I have to go. I’ve been here your whole life and the last few months I’ve been in the trunk for you! Girl, I got in the trunk! Pause. Realizing that it’s over.  I suppose I don’t know how to say goodbye. I don’t know how to let go. What will become of me?

HA: I don’t know. You’ll be free. I wish this was easier.  It hurts and feels like I am losing a dear friend. If it makes you feel any better, I feel like I’m going to have to mourn the loss of you.

EDA: That does make me feel a little better. Can you say I was your best friend? No, no it’s okay. I get it. But you can mourn me.  I am definitely mourn worthy.

HA: Smiles. Yes you are.

EDA: I suppose it is time for me to make my exit. Is it possible to make a graceful exit from the trunk of a car?

HA:  If anyone can do it, it’s you.

EDA: Could you maybe pop the trunk?

HA laughs and reaches down for the lever at the base of driver’s seat and pulls.

End scene.

I could probably write a Game of Thrones length series of novels with all my eating disorder thoughts over the years.  For a very long time I had no idea they were “eating disorder” thoughts. I just thought they were… thoughts. Through recovery, I learned about my healthy self (aka “Healthy Ali”) and my eating disorder self (aka “Eating Disorder Ali” or “ED Ali”). I realized that those thoughts were actually ED Ali’s thoughts.  She was in the driver’s seat. Healthy Ali wasn’t even in the car. Once Healthy Ali got in the car, I had trouble deciphering who was saying what (ED Ali is deceptive and a master manipulator). However, as Healthy Ali got stronger, it became easier to determine when ED Ali was trying to grab the wheel.

Today, Healthy Ali is driving and ED Ali is in the trunk. ED Ali doesn’t say much anymore because she knows I’m not listening and I don’t put any stock into what she tries to tell me (plus she’s in the trunk so its hard to hear her). It dawned on me while writing this that many of my eating disorder thoughts stemmed from one core belief ED Ali convinced me to be true: You (Healthy Ali) are not enough.

“You are not enough.”

ED Ali had this thought on repeat for most of my life.  She used, and still try’s to use, it to keep me beholden to her. As long as I believed I wasn’t enough, I needed her to help take the pain away of not feeling worthy of connection and belonging.

ED Ali use to tell me that someone else could and should fix me.  There were several times in my life that I was pissed that someone didn’t step in and magically make me Recovered. ED Ali also told me on a daily basis that if I changed the exterior of my body (i.e. if I was thinner) then I would feel like I was enough, and be instantly Recovered. The fact that neither of those things ever happened was just further proof that, indeed, I wasn’t good enough.

For years my loved ones tried different ways to tell me and even show me that I was enough. But the truth was, knowing I was enough had to come from inside me and, frankly, with ED Ali in the driver’s seat that was not going to happen. I had to do a tremendous amount of self-love work to strengthen Healthy Ali. Through self-love, I learned that I am enough. Just as I am. It was a huge turning point on my road to Recovered.

In recovery, you talk a lot about why you want to be Recovered (hello Key 1). What is your purpose for doing the work and getting to Recovered? The answer to that question is really important and also really hard to determine at the beginning of recovery. In 8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder, Carolyn and Gwen talk about how your motivation and reasons for recovery will change and evolve throughout the process and that, even at the very beginning, the fact that there is some part of you, however small it might be, that brought you to the book or to a therapist is enough to start the recovery journey. 8 Keys, pgs. 17-18, 35.

When I made my first commitment to recovery in my early twenties, I knew I wanted to stop doing what I was doing because I didn’t want to die. I hated myself and didn’t think I was enough, but I didn’t want to die (ie. ED Ali was behind the wheel, and Healthy Ali trying to get into the car). The part of me that didn’t want to die was Healthy Ali. She was tiny and weak but by banging and kicking on the car door with all her might she got me into a therapists office (and into the car). With a lot of work, and guidance from my therapist, I was able to strengthen Healthy Ali to a point where I didn’t need to binge and purge everyday. To be clear, ED Ali was still driving, but I was able to get Healthy Ali into the car (for some reason I picture Healthy Ali strapped into a rear facing convertible car seat).

That’s how I lived for the next fifteen years. ED Ali drove and Healthy Ali served as a constrained, and somewhat visually impaired, backseat driver. But with Healthy Ali at least in the car, I was able to go to law school, start a career, meet and marry my husband and have two wonderful little boys.

By March 2015, after another bulimia relapse, I was ready to move Healthy Ali to the driver’s seat and get to Recovered.  At almost forty, I was tired of hating myself and letting ED Ali dictate who I was, what I did and how I felt about myself. At that point, my kids and my husband were my primary motivation for recovery.  However, I started to think that there might be an even more compelling reason to be Recovered. Me (aka Healthy Ali).

The first day of our 8 Keys group, Liz asked each of us why we wanted recovery. I remember saying that I wanted to be Recovered for myself, knowing intellectually, that should be my answer, but I didn’t mean it and I felt terribly guilty (it seemed so selfish to say myself). So when Liz asked that question again throughout the course of the group I usually said I wanted to recover for my kids and my husband.

While working through 8 Keys in our support group, I started to have some real breakthroughs which lead to me feel all sorts of feelings I had never felt before. I started opening up and sharing those feelings, instead of turning to ED Ali to make them go away. Around that time, my friend Kathy recommended a book by Brené Brown. In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown defined words like shame, connection and courage that helped me understand what I was feeling.  She enumerated ten guideposts that helped me navigate through those feelings and learn how to love myself. She talked about the importance of learning to love yourself and how loving yourself deepens how you love others. The book changed my perspective and helped me learn that I, Healthy Ali, am enough.

It turns out the strongest, most compelling reason to want to be Recovered is me. It was always me. It just took me almost forty years to realize it. 

 

 

 

 

TRIGGER WARNING: If I could put flashing red lights on this one, I would. Big trigger warning on this post.

No one can make you get better. The battle for recovery is not between you and me. It’s not between your eating disorder and anyone else. The battle you have to fight to get better is inside you. The battle you have to fight is between your healthy self and your eating disorder self.

8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder, Carolyn Costin and Gwen Schubert Grabb, pg 37 (emphasis added).

This quote starts Key 2: Your Healthy Self Will Heal Your Eating Disorder Self. Carolyn said it to Gwen at the beginning of Gwen’s treatment. (Carolyn was Gwen’s therapist). Prior to reading the book, I had never thought about having two selves, one healthy and one eating disordered. I thought being eating disordered was just who I was, I had no idea that I had a healthy self in there too.

This idea that I had two selves was groundbreaking and transformative for my recovery. As I read and started to work through the chapter, I began to recognize my healthy self, and work to make her stronger. I knew Eating Disorder Ali all too well, as she had been dominant for almost my entire life. As Healthy Ali grew stronger, my eating disorder self got smaller and weaker.

Throughout my recovery I have found so many ways to strengthen my healthy self.  Books are a wonderful resource. In addition to 8 KeysThe Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly and Rising Strong by Brené Brown have been so helpful. I also loved Magic Lessons podcast with Elizabeth Gilbert.  Working with my therapist, Liz, and being involved in a support group played a big role. And finally being able to reach out to friends, as well as being more open and honest about where I am in recovery, also helped me explore and strengthen my healthy self (more about that in Key 7).

Today, my healthy self is strong and my “dominant self.” Healthy Ali has been working hard for several months now. My eating disorder self is still in there but she doesn’t have much pull.  Honestly, I thought doing the writing assignments in this chapter would be easy because I had already done a lot of the work.

I was wrong. Particularly, about this first writing assignment. I must have started and re-started writing this thank you letter five times. I kept writing to my eating disorder self like there was still room for her to be a apart of my life. I kept thinking she could be my canary in the coal mine, but it didn’t feel right.

The truth is, my healthy self is more than capable of being my canary in the coalmine. Over the last several months, my healthy self has done a very good job of alerting me to when I need to check in and use my anxiety management tools.

It is time to say goodbye to my eating disorder self. Carolyn and Gwen talk about integrating your two selves and I can see how that might make sense for some, but it doesn’t feel right for me. Eating Disorder Ali was a crutch I needed for a very long time, but now that my healthy self has heeled, I don’t need her anymore.

So for me, this key is about saying goodbye to the crutch I don’t need anymore.

Dear Eating Disorder Ali:

You have been my constant (my Penny) for over 30 years but now it is time to let you go. Before you go, I want to tell you the reasons I am thankful that you were a part of my life.

It is hard to remember a time when you weren’t a part of me, helping me manage my feelings.  For whatever reason, I was a really insecure kid and you made me feel not so alone.  When I felt ashamed and embarrassed about who I was, you were there to numb the hurt away.  As I got older and my insecurities and hurt got bigger and more intense, you adapted and gave me ways to escape the crippling insecurity and pain.  I had trouble connecting to people so I connected to you.

I remember when you first introduced me to bulimia.  I felt so special and apart of something so much bigger than my little world. Before I told my Mom about it, I felt like I had this incredible secret.  At the time, I thought what I felt like must be what famous people felt like.  But it didn’t last long.  At first, I enjoyed being able to eat whatever I wanted and lose weight. I had never actually felt thin before. I have a distinct memory from those early days of purging in my upstairs bathroom and noticing that my waist was smaller. People complimented me on how good I looked. I knew those compliments should feel good but you had taken away much of my capacity to feel so I didn’t know how to handle it.

I especially didn’t know how to handle the attention I got from boys. I felt a lot of shame for what I did and what happened to me.  You helped me hide from that shame.  It’s interesting because the thinner I got, the more stuff came up that I needed to hide from. When I started gaining all the weight back you still protected me from the feelings that got too intense.

Thank you for protecting me and giving me someplace to feel okay.  If you hadn’t been there I’m not sure what I would have done.  Some of the only feelings that I could feel back then were very dark and dangerous.  So I guess, in a way, you saved my life.

I suppose that is the role you played in my life.  You saved me from the fact that I did not have the skills to handle the dark and scary feelings I had.  Suicide came to mind at a few points in my life and you were there to give me a safe, numb place to rest and recoup. You kept me alive so I could get to where I am today. For that, I am forever thankful.

Sincerely,

Ali