After 3 months in Denver, I am returning to New York on Tuesday.
To say I'm feeling conflicted about it would be an understatement. The majority of me is SO excited to be back with my team, my friends, boyfriend, and Tubs. I'm excited to return to a routine, with appointments, classes, and my internship. I also miss NYC like crazy.
I was reflecting today on how insane the past year was. I graduated from college last May, had a whirlwind summer, then moved to NYC and started graduate school right away. If I mapped it out, I was in a full blown relapse in my eating disorder from about October-January. And it got really bad.
I spent my entire first semester of grad school sick and engaging in my eating disorder. I didn't have a lot of hope and it felt like the only constant and sure thing in my life.
I spent my entire second semester of grad school in an intensive level of care, working to return my mind and body to stability and health. I had such an amazing level of support, both with meals, and my emotional wellbeing, that I felt like I could conquer everything and relapse was not an option.
I spent my entire summer at home, recovering from major shoulder surgery. I've been out of my element, so to speak, but also surrounded by family who have helped me so much with a difficult recovery. Being around my family has made it easier to abstain from my eating disorder behaviors; when they make breakfast, I eat it. When everyone sits down together for dinner, I join them. The decision making process isn't there for me. So a lot of the anxiety is removed.
So I'm conflicted. I've spent the last year either very sick, in treatment, or surrounded by people who have helped take away a lot of the power of the ED voice by making decisions for me.
Once I go back to New York, I'm starting over again. I'm going to be in a similar situation that I was in last fall, receiving outpatient treatment, and having to work really hard to shut the ED voice down and not relapse again.
I know that I have a much stronger level of recovery now than I did last year at this time. I have a solid support team who communicates with each other regularly, and who work tirelessly to ensure that I stay in recovery.
And yet, I'm terrified.
My eating disorder thrives off of "excuses" and change and freedom are two big triggers for this. It loves to lie to me and tell me that once I'm the one making decisions for my meals again, ED will be back in charge. It loves to give me false excuses of why I can't do the right thing: "You don't have enough time to eat", "You can't eat in class," "It's too expensive to eat out, you'll eat when you get home." All of these excuses trigger restriction and eventual relapse for me. Every single time.
So I'm scared. I'm worried about being back to being more independent and having to tell ED to shut the fuck up whenever he tells me to skip breakfast or forgo buying a snack when I'm out and about. I know that I'm strong enough to make it through the rocky parts of recovery, but I can't help but listen when ED tells me that I wasn't strong enough then, what's the difference now? He likes to remind me that I relapsed once, and therefore it can happen again.
It's going to be a power struggle, that's for sure. And some days it will be easier. I will eat all my meals and feel little guilt, and I'll be okay. And some days it'll be harder and I have to learn to be easy on myself. Struggle is part of the recovery process. No one ever made a full recovery from an eating disorder and said it was easy.
I guess what I'm trying to figure out is what my new "normal" will be. I don't even know what that word means anymore. And I know it can take a while to establish a new routine, a new sense of being in recovery and actually doing it.
I don't know what the next couple of months are going to look like, but one thing is for sure, I'm not letting ED win. I'm going to keep fighting.
I'm SO thrilled to be able to introduce my amazing friend, Etta Eckerstorm as a guest contributor to LivingFreeC. She's an incredible voice and advocate and I am honored to be able to contribute with her in our respective blogs. Her piece is shared below.
You can check out her blog here: https://fearlesslyafraidblog.com/
Just as there should be no black and white thinking when it comes to food (i.e- a food is entirely good or entirely bad), there is certainly no black and white in recovery. One day you are sick and the next you are better. One day you struggle and the next you are fine. Recovery is a marathon, full of hills and valleys and times when you feel like your legs might give out from under you entirely. I am one who believes that full recovery is possible: a life where the rules, rituals, and fears surrounding food seem to be part of a different life entirely.
But if I am being honest with myself, painfully honest, I am not in that spot yet.
But oh, have I liked to pretend that I am.
Now that I look healthy and can go out to eat with friends and actually take days off from exercise, I let myself think that I am cured, free from the control of disordered thoughts and behaviors.
But I am stuck in the gray zone. The quasi recovered zone, if you will. The place where you are no longer at your sickest, so therefore your eating disorder tells you that you are fine. Good enough. No need to hit the next mile marker in recovery. Hold on to just enough of the rules to feel like I am still “in control,” can still micromanage my body, when the hard truth is, my eating disorder still hasn’t left me entirely.
It’s a dangerous place, this gray zone. It’s easy to pretend as though everything is fine. When you suddenly look healthier or no longer order the salad without dressing at every meal, it can seem like you have made enough progress. But what others don’t see is the internal battle that is alive and well.
The way you will stand in front of the mirror each morning, pinching the extra curves, and then deciding not to pack that extra snack in your bag.
The way you still seek out the healthier options on the menu, when all you really want is to order the burger and fries and eat the whole thing without a second thought.
The way you only take “rest days” when you know you will be active in others ways, so that it turns into only a less intense day of exercise.
The way you still try and avoid eating super late at night or ignore the hunger pains an hour before eating dinner, because you feel like you don’t deserve to listen to your body, now that it is “larger.”
The way you let the fact that your friends decided to skip a meal, or the fact that you woke up late, become an excuse to also skip a meal.
You eat all your meals, but on hard days, maybe eat just a little less. You have reached a healthier weight, but still want it to be just a bit lower. Not the lowest. Maybe just a few more pounds. But that’s how it started in the first place, right?
It can be harder to ask for help in this stage than when you were at your sickest. It’s easy to be in denial. These subtle rules aren’t that harmful, noticeable, or that big of a deal. They give you the illusion of control that so many of us desperately crave. And when you think about letting those last few pieces go, you realize that you’re too scared of how your body will change, of how you will cope. And so you place yourself in quasi recovery and cling to these remnants like a child clings to their safety blanket. You are not sick. But not really fine either.
I have let myself stay here for a while now. It has felt safe and comfortable and also so wrong all at once. As I have cheered on others, sent messages of hope and healing, and proclaimed that I have changed completely, I have also been lying to myself. I have certainly come a long way from when I started. And I have changed and grown in numerous ways. But settling for “fine” and “just recovered enough” doesn’t do justice to my journey and my future.
I deserve complete recovery and full healing. Which means I have to keep fighting. Keep pushing to those final mile markers. Until the fear and rules and voices in my head that tell me I have done enough already are gone. I have to be honest with myself, my team, my friends and family who have perhaps forgotten that I ever struggled in the first place. To continue pretending that I am healed is to continue living a lie. To be vulnerable, honest in the cracks and bruises that have yet to heal, that is hard and scary and also what I need now above all.
If you are like me, in this quasi recovered state, I encourage you to walk with me. Be honest- with yourself and those who care. We don’t have to live a life of good enough or fine. We can live a life of complete freedom.
We just have to be brave enough to try.
I won't lie, recovery from a mental illness is exhausting. This is especially true this summer, as I've been struggling being away from my friends, boyfriend, and support team in NYC for this long while simultaneously recovering from major shoulder surgery and not being able to do things that I used to be able to.
Recovery is hard as hell, and somedays there is nothing I want to do more than quit--just give up and listen to the voice that screams at me all the time with the hope that if I just listened and relapsed, it'd finally quit talking so loud.
I'm tired of my eating disorder and body image getting in the way of me being able to enjoy much-needed time with my boyfriend when he visited.
I'm tired of the cruel and ridiculous things that come into my mind when I eat something like tortilla chips. They're "not safe" so my brain ridicules me and makes me feel like shit for having them.
I'm tired of the paralyzing anxiety that creeps up on me out of nowhere, making me worry endlessly about things out of my control, telling me that I will be unsuccessful in the future, and physically wrecking my body.
I'm tired of the depression leaving me without energy, keeping me in bed all day, and telling me that I'm worthless and a burden to others.
Let's face it. Mental illness sucks. It's not glamorous, or fun, or "quirky". They're complex diseases that can affect someone's entire life.
And sometimes, like this afternoon where my stomach is in horrible pain due to me having an "unsafe" food, and my brain is running a million miles an hour about how I won't get an internship for the fall, I have to ask:
"Why can't I just be normal?!"
But, as DBT says, fighting against reality and acceptance causes suffering.
The truth, and the facts are, that I have mental illnesses. I may not like them, they may make me miserable a lot of the time, but they're there. And I can't really change them by getting angry, asking "why me?!" and wishing that I had been born with a brain that fired more "normally".
So, even though it's tough, and frustrating, I have to keep going. I have to keep fighting, taking my meds, engaging in self care, working on the tough stuff in therapy, and knowing that the best course of action for myself is one where I'm living in recovery.
I think it's kind of a misconception that recovery means everything will just be better all the time. That's not what it is, though.
Recovery means a life that's worth living. A life that doesn't get rid of the mental illnesses, but makes them more manageable and easier to cope with. It means that you don't let these completely control you, but they simply become something that's part of your life.
So while it's frustrating and I wish I could say that the bad days ended once I went through treatment, that's just not true. That's not how life works.
Life is messy, and hard, and wonderful and amazing. And so is recovery.
It's times like these where I remind myself of where I've been and where I want to go. I know that if I had not accepted these illnesses for what they are and committed myself to recovery I could NEVER be doing the things that I do. I would not be steps closer to living the life I want, and more than anything, I would be unhealthy, and unhappy.
So when I ask, "Why can't I be normal?!" I recognize that there would not have been the growth and change that I've had from being the way I am. I guess I have to choose the messy and hard and amazing and wonderful that is recovery and deciding not to fight against the fact that I have these illnesses, but fighting for the life I want.
Dear 18-year old Charlotte,
I know times are hard and being alone and independent is scary. I believe you about the bad things that have happened to you that you don't want to tell anyone about. Please know that it is not your fault and you did not deserve it. I believe you.
I want you to know that there's nothing you could have done to prevent all that went down at the end of the year. You did everything you could and then some. You're not to blame for not seeing the signs earlier; you're still so young and you didn't know any better. People are very lucky to have you in their lives.
Please don't believe that you have to binge drink or give your heart to meaningless boys to numb yourself. It's okay to feel the feelings. It's okay to be sad, and shocked, and angry. You are allowed to feel these feelings, and you are allowed to move on from toxic situations.
I know that another situation happened where your body was no longer your own and you felt like you didn't have any choice in the matter. I know that your body physically rejected it and you don't think it was a big deal. I know that therapists will tell you time and time again that you had a panic attack because of your issues with people pleasing and control. Know that I believe you, it happened, it was a big deal, and you were not to blame.
I understand why you took back the control of your body. I know you felt helpless and in so much pain you didn't know what to do. It makes sense that you took your body back and gave it to ED. I understand.
Please believe me when I tell you that you have not ever been responsible for other peoples' lives. There is nothing you did too much of besides care. There is nothing you did too little of besides walk away. Whatever happens to that person is between them and themselves. You can't help someone or make them stay well if they don't want it for them selves. It's not your fault.
I want you to know that walking away doesn't mean you've failed or done something wrong. It means that you've had enough wisdom to know when toxic relationships are no longer serving you. It's something to be PROUD of, being able to listen to your gut like that. You need to trust your gut because you have so much wisdom inside of you. There are simply people who no longer deserve to be in your life. And that's entirely okay.
You will be invalidated. You will reach out for help about your concerns with your eating and will be told you don't restrict enough. You will be told your panic attacks have nothing to do with assault and you don't have problems with food. Your depression and eating disorder will be ignored, pushed down, encouraged. You will experience all of this, and it will hurt. A lot.
But I want you to keep going. I want you to keep advocating for yourself, to keep pushing forward. I want you to tell the professionals, "No! This isn't normal!" until they listen to you.
Please know that the hate you feel for your body and yourself isn't normal or just part of life. Please know that your struggles with food are not "just what everyone's doing". Please know that you are sick, and you deserve help.
Please don't ever give up. Even when you're in your lowest lows, keep going. You will eventually find a team of people who will BELIEVE you and HEAR you and you'll no longer have to communicate by how long you can starve yourself. You will eventually be completely understood and you may even find peace with the demons you've faced and the ones still lingering inside of you.
Please know that you do not have to hate your body and yourself for eternity. You may not like it but your body has never given up on you. It's been through all your darkest days and the times when you treated it like your worst enemy. I'm confident that one day you will find peace in your own skin, even if it's a moment to moment kind of thing.
You are SO worthy. You are worthy in who you are, the way you act, the way you treat your friends and loved ones, and how you always want to do good for others. Your accomplishments do not define you, and neither do your body or your weight. You are a bright, kind, caring individual with a tremendous future ahead of you. Someday you may even help others deal with their own darkness; you may shine the light of hope or simply be there for them. You have SO much to give to others, this world, and yourself.
And finally, I know that this is hard. I know that a lot of times it feels like it's going to get harder before there is any relief. But keep going. You are the strongest person I know. You are a WARRIOR. You are a survivor, who has been through hell and back and made it here. You can and will make it through this and everything along the way. And I'm truly so excited to see where you'll end up.
(almost) 23-year old
***TW: mention of eating disorder behaviors***
Last December, I was wrapping up my first semester of grad school. Finals had rolled around the corner and I was busy studying my ass off for my epidemiology final. I was also in the middle of the worst relapse I have had since I started really struggling with my eating disorder.
I got to the point that I was bargaining with myself to just eat one meal--anything!-- so that I had enough brain power to not fail my finals. I normally don't like to talk about any of my specific behaviors, but this really stood out to me today as I spent the day at the student space enjoying the free foods they brought in and working on a final paper with a full, clear mind.
I've been very overwhelmed with emotions this week. I'm feeling very bittersweet as I get ready to discharge from my treatment next week. I feel extremely proud and full of gratitude for everything that has happened to me this semester.
100 days ago I admitted to a higher level of care for the 3rd time.
100 days ago I was in the lowest of lows--my deepest depression, totally caught up in my eating disorder.
100 days ago I barely believed my treatment team that this was a good move for me, but knew I wasn't heading in a good direction if I didn't.
100 days ago I was still in denial about the dangers of my behaviors.
100 days ago I didn't believe I was "sick enough".
100 days ago I took the leap of faith that was totally necessary and took the first step to full, true, recovery.
I cried today in session because I can't believe I'm here. I'm going to miss the team at my treatment center that I've grown so close with over the last few months. I cried because when I entered treatment this January I truly never thought it would actually change me like this did. I cried for the desperate exhaustion that I've felt each and every day doing some of the most challenging work I could imagine. And I cried because I truly never believed any of this was possible.
I cried today because I was truly at such a low point, so depressed, and so engaged in my eating disorder, that in January I never believed any type of recovery was possible. I never believed that it was possible to live a life that wasn't fully controlled by my mental illnesses, or that I would ever find this elusive "life worth living" that we continued to talk about in session.
My therapist was touched too. She saw me getting progressively worse, until I finally got to a point where she could no longer sit by and let me continue without additional support. She stood by me as I bitched and moaned about how hard it was to eat and restore my body, and she was there for me as I clawed and dug myself out of the deep, dark hole that my eating disorder had told me to crawl into. She told me she was proud of me, and that meant the world, as it came from someone who has seen the struggle, the falls, the wins, and everything in between as I've worked my way through the program these past 100 days.
100 days seems like a huge milestone. As of today, I am 100 days behavior free. I am 100 days into my new recovery, my true recovery, that I am actually 100% dedicated to. And I am 100 days away from the girl who never thought any of this was possible.
And yet, here I am. I have survived. I have prevailed. I still struggle. I am still emotional (as I tear up writing this), and I am still a fighter even when times get tough.
I am so grateful to my team and most importantly I am thankful for myself, 100 days ago, for taking the first step to changing my own life. I never thought it was possible, and yet, here I am.
Here's to looking back and appreciating where I've come from, and looking ahead to the future, be it full of struggles, Donald Trump jokes, and everything in between. I'm ready to face it head-on.
Hi, I'm Charlotte! I'm a 24 year old navigating life in NYC and mental health recovery. I am passionate about public health and eliminating stigma.