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 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.
Somehow, it's been 6 weeks since I had my shoulder surgery. This completely blows my mind because this was an event that was looming so completely over my head for almost a year and now we're here.
It's been a big week. I had my second post-op doctor's visit and my surgeon is very pleased with my progress and range of motion. The most exciting news is that I'm officially cleared to be out of my sling, and I was able to leave the hospital on Thursday slingless!
It's been a strange adjustment being out of the sling. On one hand, I'm not quite sure how I survived 6 weeks of hot Denver summer in it, and at the same time time, it feels like I just had my surgery a couple of days ago. I still have a number of restrictions on what I can and can't do with my arm, can't lift more than 5 pounds, and my arm can't go past shoulder height (cue the short, easy to style haircut).
I think the most interesting thing I've noticed is how symbolic the sling was for me.
When I go into a store now, people don't know that I've recently had surgery and that I'm still very stiff and sore. They can see my scars, sure, but they aren't quite as careful around me, and no one is asking what happened and wishing me a speedy recovery. And while it's never been about that, though it's been nice, it is really a powerful reminder that the majority of my pain (both physical and emotional) has been invisible for all my life.
I suffered for 9 years from a shoulder pain that we couldn't really figure out what the cause was. Multiple doctors, multiple opinions, and really no solid answers, until I met my current doctor. After a while, I started to really doubt myself, like if something was wrong with my shoulder, wouldn't it have been discovered already?
As I've mentioned before, I am SO thrilled that I listened to my gut and continued to advocate that something was wrong with my body. And yet, it was invisible for so long. People close to me believed me, but it was hard to express to others that I was in pain all the time, or that simple things were nearly impossible for me (carrying groceries, holding the poles on the subway...). And for the 6 weeks that I was in a sling, people noticed. They saw my shoulder pain. They acknowledged it. My sling made me injury visible.
I can't help but draw the parallels to my struggles with mental illness. When I was in treatment, my illnesses were more visible. Treatment acted as my sling, where people would check on me more and make sure I was doing okay. It was a little more apparent that I was struggling then, than other times where I was appearing "totally fine". It's really tough to live with chronic pain, mental illness, and any other kind of invisible struggle. It made me so aware of this through the last 6 weeks and makes me recognize just how important it is that we acknowledge the illnesses and injuries and pains that we can't see.
Just because you can't see it doesn't mean someone isn't in pain.
As I write this (one-handed), I am currently 4 days out of surgery. It feels pretty surreal to have this procedure done, finally, after being in pain for the last 9 years. I felt like a huge wave of anxiety rolled right off of me when I woke up on Friday morning, because I had been anticipating this surgery so much before-hand. I really hadn't even thought of the following recovery time because my brain was so clouded with stress and anxiety, and so the last few days have been a learning curve for me as I slow the eff down from all the pre-surgery nerves.
I'll be learning to write better one-handed this summer and sharing the life lessons that I will inevitably come across as I recover from this surgery. In the meantime, I wanted to reflect on what I did prior to surgery to unwind and survive this surgery.
Before my procedure, here are the things that I found to be the most effective:
I couldn't be more thrilled to be out of surgery and on the path to recovery, and I know I will learn a lot and grow through this process.
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
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.