Topic Tuesday: Recovery

The Elusiveness of Truth in Recovery” (By: Halley Corapi)

I was eating a soft pretzel the other night and found myself focusing an unnecessary amount of concentration on which sauce I wanted to use for dipping. I felt a true pang of joy when I realized what I was doing, because it was one of those precious moments when I can think about food in terms of what I want, what tastes good, instead of what will be “safe.”

Last week, I forgot to eat dinner, and didn’t realize until hours later. In a bizarre way, this was monumental for me. Over the last 10 years, I did not forget to eat. I didn’t eat, and that was a choice. Food was on my mind every second of the day; to forget about it in any regard was impossible. And then, now – to forget a meal like normal people sometimes do, and for the idea of food to have been that utterly absent from my mind for hours on end – that, to me, is extraordinary.

These are just brief signposts from that process I guess we’ll call “recovery,” though even now there are some days when that word leaves a false taste in my mouth. It creates a division between “sick” and “well” which I don’t believe to be an accurately complex representation of an eating disorder, or of what “comes after.” But it’s the word most commonly used for what I’m going to talk about, and as I’m writing this I can already sense my mother rolling her eyes miles away at my inability to avoid babbling about semantics.

So let me put it this way: After 10 years with an eating disorder, I felt ready to move forward. I anticipated a struggle. Honestly, I feared a relapse. (I did not voice this concern aloud.) But my shift in experience and perception was not anything I expected. And it was certainly not the beautiful fluffy cloud of love and wonderment that had frequently been pitched to me.

For the most part, I shut myself off from people after deciding to actively descend into recovery – and yes, as negative as the word may seem, the road into recovery was a descent. After I posted my first blog post for Renewed, a part of me felt intensely guilty, because after making such a monumental decision to stop starving myself, the bare-bones truth was that I felt startlingly empty.

Sadly, it’s the easiest thing in the world to be discouraged by the idea of recovery. Now that I’ve entered that new world, it’s still very difficult for me to speak about it in entire honesty, because I remember all too sharply how disgusting “recovery” seemed to me – both as an abstract concept and what I presumed would be a gritty reality. When I speak about this, especially to others who struggle with an eating disorder, I desperately want to inspire, to motivate, and to reassure, and so I have done my best to find a way to express my experience with honesty and hopefulness.

The truth, however, is that sometimes these two do not go hand in hand. And I have to be honest about that as well. Because oddly enough, my hatred of recovery was often strengthened when it was pitched to me as something beautiful, revolutionary, uplifting, and “full of light.” I suspect I am not the only person with an eating disorder who has felt this way.

Why is this? Is it for the reasons that others tend to assume of us, namely that we are too stubbornly entrenched in the eating disorder to want something better? That we are too in love with pain and misery, that the idea of joy is repellent?

No. And when these motivations were projected onto me – whether from “eating disorder literature,” or in therapy, or from loved ones – I can honestly say that the anger and frustration I felt was unparalleled. Because while an eating disorder obviously entails some level of distorted perception, self-loathing, shame, and fear, I have never known anyone with an eating disorder who truly wanted to be miserable.

Our fear can be a fear of many things – failure, rejection, overstimulation, imperfection, physicality, chaos – but I do not think, at the root, it is a fear of happiness. And to be ascribed this fear, this motivation for scorning recovery, often made me feel as denigrated as I was made to feel by the voice inside my head.

My aversion to recovery came not from self-delusion or warped perception, but rather from a very deep, strong, innate sense that the people trying to encourage me were not telling me the truth.

At first, I thought they were lying to me intentionally – that they knew recovery would be painful, maybe even impossible, but wanted me to eat so badly that they used whatever inspiring vocabulary they could think of to motivate me. I felt manipulated. As I got a bit older, I started to see that if there was any sugarcoating of the truth, it was simply because many other people just didn’t know. They saw the eating disorder as so unequivocally “bad” and “dark” that of course they were visualizing recovery as wholly “good” and “bright.” But I wanted to hear the whole truth, and I felt like no one could give it to me. No one had the answers. No one knew.

So I began to focus on what I knew. I knew in my heart that I did not want to be miserable and that I did not want to be controlled by my eating disorder, but the disconnect I felt between myself and the people who were trying to help me was preventing me from pursuing recovery. It was not until my early 20s that I realized I was going to have to choose to recover on my own terms, for my own reasons, and with my own unique understanding of my personal struggle – and that people would be able to support me, but that I was going to have to let go of the idea that anyone could fully understand.

This past fall, I was very alone. It was a choice that may have seemed like darkness or bad news to other people. But I knew from years of experience that the people in my life have always been inevitably entwined with the eating disorder, whether they even realized it or not. With the hollowness I was feeling after casting my eating disorder away (even if just symbolically, as a starting point), I felt the very real possibility of resentment toward others who might fill that empty space. Until I had lived with that new space inside and discovered what it meant or how to nourish it, I didn’t want to endanger my relationships with others or threaten my own fragile recovery by allowing people back in before I was ready.

I think anyone else who has ever struggled with an eating disorder will know what I mean when I talk about the desire for another human being to understand the eating disorder. For years, this was possibly the only thing I truly wanted from any loved one. I don’t know why I wanted so desperately for someone to get it, why I thought that was finally going to be the key to wanting to get better. I knew I could do it on my own, I knew it, but I just did not want to. I wanted to crawl into the brain space of everyone I loved and get them to understand, just for a moment, exactly what I was up against, so that maybe I would be able to trust their words, knowing that they had lived my pain for even a brief second.

And so I came to the understanding that not only would I have to separate myself from the eating disorder; I would have to separate the people I loved from the eating disorder as well.

I used to think that if there were someone who fully understood my eating disorder, I would finally be released from myself. For another human being to hold that intimate knowledge, to me, seemed like the ultimate doorway to “being known.”

What I discovered was a truth I never, ever expected. (And I have expected, foreseen, and anticipated many, many things, no matter how doubtfully or reluctantly.)

I did not find an ally in a person who understood my pain. Instead, I found scattered but salvageable parts of myself in people who see so much of the real me that the eating disorder appears, to them, as anything but definitive. More remarkable yet, I began to relearn other people, to know them in an entirely new way, as separate from me and just as complex and shifting.

There is no way I can fully express the significance of this. When you are struggling with an eating disorder, you can feel so utterly trapped and confined by your own body, your own restrictions and rituals, that connecting to the external world is like pushing your palms up against a fogged window to watch all the other people, and the ability to join them exists, even the ability to just reach out the window and call to them – but you can’t, because you’re stuck. You can’t extend yourself beyond your own skin, and you certainly can’t touch anyone. You can put on a good show of it, and I certainly did, but at the core it’s flimsy at best, and something is always missing.

To reach a point where the world outside of myself became accessible has been one of the most important aspects of recovery. If I can reach out for an ambition or a person or even just a soft pretzel, and touch all of these and experience them fully, it is the clearest sign I’ve known that the eating disorder is not steering me anymore.

And so yes, I decided to find myself while on my own. For me it was a necessary step. But if recovery has revealed anything to me so far, it has revealed the importance of balance. It has revealed a new path for me where I can simultaneously rely on myself and be enriched by others.

Through the people I hold close – and “close” for me may still be at arm’s length, but, as always, these are baby steps – I have slowly begun to see myself in a way I never had before, in a way the mirror relentlessly deprived me of. I am beginning to see myself three-dimensionally, as a living, breathing human being in motion, rather than a two-dimensional static figure, reflected and reversed, stuck behind glass.

About the Author

Halley Corapi lives in East Nashville and works as a producer for a messaging firm focused on advocacy and political campaigns around the country. She interned for Renewed in 2015, and has spoken to students on the organization’s behalf about eating disorder awareness and education. She loves language, and is always looking for new ways to communicate the complexity of mental health and recovery.