Anniversaries in Recovery

Some days mean more than others. Some days are reminders of the past that can bring up mixed feelings to sort through. Anniversaries in recovery can be those kinds of days.

Of course we all walk through life with days that stick out to us, etched into our memories, be they moments of joy, sadness, pain, or anger. It's hard to describe, but there's a particular feeling that comes up for people with anniversaries in recovery (especially from an eating disorder) that seems important to explore in relation to anniversaries. The closest I can come to naming that feeling is "nostalgia."

On the face of it nostalgia might seem like a strange emotion to feel in relation to illness (after all, who wants to be sick?) However, nostalgia is an incredibly common experience in eating disorders, an experience that highlights the way in which these illnesses serve as coping mechanisms for individuals. There are other moments of nostalgia as well (e.g. the anniversary of a suicide attempt or a trauma, etc.) but I am not going to explore those experiences in this particular post.

Nostalgia isn't necessarily a negative thing, but it can be dangerous for those in recovery. Nostalgia is often a pair of rose-coloured glasses that enable us to look upon the past with a sense of sadness and longing. It is important to note that the experience of remembering is a present experience and it is different than the past. Our memories are sometimes inaccurate, we leave things out, we add things in, we change the experience each time we re-live it. When we look back on being sick it is not the same experience as when we were actually in it and we often forget the pain that encouraged us to pursue recovery in the first place. It can seem like life was simpler, easier, better when we were ill and maybe in some ways it was. After all, eating disorders are coping mechanisms, they serve a purpose unique to each individual. In my experience they certainly do simplify life and that can seem better, but it doesn't come without a cost.

What is it I am longing for when I feel nostalgic? There are several things for me personally: simplicity is one of them, but so is a sense of feeling cared about and craving that care, and finally there's a mark on my sense of identity that anniversaries bring up because so much of my personal identity for the majority of my life thus far, has been built around having an eating disorder (and recovering from one).

With time it gets easier to identify these aspect to the nostalgia I experience. With practice I can begin to take each of these things apart to look at them more closely and to realize that feeling nostalgic can be misleading. I don't actually miss being sick and I was often frustrated at being contained in treatment, what I actually miss is what being sick did for me; the needs it addressed that were not otherwise being addressed.

1. Simplicity

We all crave simplicity in life. For me, illness can be a source of simplicity (although it is also a source of complexity that can be stressful). What is simple (and thus safe) about illness is that it can serve as an escape from the challenges of everyday life, social interactions, expectations, demands to meet, and so on and so forth. When you're ill and you're in treatment you don't have to live in the real world. Instead you exist in a safe little bubble: a limited environment with limited challenges. You argue about the fairness of adding yogurt to your breakfast meal plan with your dietitian instead of facing the stress of not knowing what to do with your life, financial burdens, relationship stresses, etc. It's simple and it's safe and sometimes it's a place you end up, but it's not a place you can live your entire life without losing out on a great deal.

2. Feeling Cared For

This one has been hard one for me to identify and confront, but incredibly important to my recovery process. My eating disorder has been one of the primary ways in which I experienced love and caring not because I was not loved and cared for in the absence of illness (which is unfortunately some people's legitimate experience). However, being sick brought me attention and a degree of attention I didn't realize I craved. Attention and craving love seemed off limits to me, so shameful that I denied myself these feelings and refused to acknowledge how basic they are to being human. Of course just because I wouldn't allow myself to acknowledge I craved these things didn't mean I didn't pursue them indirectly. When you're sick, people pay attention to you and they express love more consistently than they might when you are well. You can begin to equate the worry that comes with illness as love and you come to see it as the only way that you are valuable to others and thus, in order to be loved you must be sick or else that love will evaporate.

There's a concept I've heard about in un-offical contexts. The concept of emotional permanence seems to be a fairly well discussed experience in mental health discussion areas (particularly online), but I have never heard it actually defined or recognized by a clinician. Object permanence is something that is described in infants, it's a cognitive development that occurs around two years of age at the tail end of the sensorimotor stage (according to Piaget's work on growth development). At this point in development, the infant begins to understand that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be directly observed. Emotional permanence is similar except it refers to love and caring that are felt by the individual even if they are not directly and continually stated. This concept is something I have mostly heard about in the context of borderline personality disorder though it seems more broadly applicable (in my case to anxiety.)

I remember being a child and continually asking my parents if they were angry at me, if they loved me, etc. I couldn't feel it even if they extended a great deal of effort reassuring me, all I could feel was my own anxiety. It must have been incredibly irritating to have me continually doubting them when they did so much to convince me I mattered to them, but I couldn't stop and at that age, I wasn't logical enough to understand that I was actually struggling with intense anxiety that needed be to addressed.

It wasn't until I was in my twenties that anyone ever addressed that the degree of anxiety I was experiencing was more than just a personality trait, it was pathological. In the meantime, my eating disorder was the way I soothed myself (it also presented a way to simply numb the intensity of feeling anxious both through having a "project" to direct anxiety towards as well through just plain old physical exhaustion. It was a potent sedative and it was effective, much more effective than any medication I've ever taken.)

Being sick meant attention and being in any kind of treatment was the height of that attention. It was confirmation that I mattered, that my life was worth something (worth saving) because I couldn't feel or give that to myself.

3. Identity

Identity is such a huge part of eating disorders. It's often a way people make themselves feel important. I think it's also one of the major sources of the competitive nature of eating disorders (if it's your only source of feeling important, your only source of personal identity, you will feel threatened by others with the same identity.) 

Anniversaries in treatment are a reminder of the sense of identity one's disorder had or continues to have for them. It's a sense of loss when you come to an anniversary. You were in treatment and now you are not and who are you without your eating disorder and how do you matter? It's one of the biggest questions we have to face in recovery, defining ourselves outside of our disorders.

So yeah... Anniversaries in recovery can be challenging days that bring up a lot of emotions to sort through. But the more we build lives for ourselves outside of our eating disorders, the more these days fade in significance and memory until eventually they're just days again: days we can make new memories to feel nostalgic for in the future.

- S. Ritchey


Shaely RitcheyComment