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.
In January I was supposed to go to Atlanta for a week to visit my best friend, Jordan. I never made it.
As I've spoken about before, November-January were the sickest months of my relapse and I was in a place where I didn't think recovery was possible, at least not for me. I didn't get to go to Atlanta because my treatment team was adamant that I return to a higher level of care. It came with a heavy heart that I cancelled my trip and spent a miserable month fighting with insurance and treatment centers to get myself admitted.
It's been six months since I've been to the Denver airport to fly anywhere.
Today, I'm finally taking my trip to Atlanta and when I walked up to the gate I realized, this was the same gate I was at 6 months ago as I returned to New York and a higher level of care.
6 months ago I used travel as an excuse to restrict and was happy about the delay in my schedule.
Today I bought and ate breakfast and my backpack is full of snacks to keep myself nourished.
6 months ago I sat and cried at the gate that I wasn't "sick enough" to be admitted to a partial hospitalization or residential treatment, because an eating disorder tells you if you're going to recover, you better be the sickest you can be.
Today I'm happily supported by an outpatient team and am so thankful that I didn't have to go to any of those levels of care.
6 months ago all I could think about was that I had failed. I had failed at recovery and I had failed at having an eating disorder.
Today I realize that by recovering, I'm winning and choosing life. The only way the eating disorder wins is through sickness and today I choose health.
6 months ago I kept silent. My only voice was my eating disorder and I felt that no one cared what I had to say.
Today I've been writing almost non-stop for 6 months, and I truly believe my writing has had an impact. I've been published in a variety of places, and writing has helped me heal.
6 months ago my only way to cope was through using eating disorder behaviors.
Today I've been through DBT an entire time and even have the teaching manual. I know that I am well equipped with the skills I've learned and I can finally cope in a healthy way.
6 months ago I couldn't see life outside my eating disorder or depression. I trusted my team but it felt truly impossible.
Today I'm in recovery once again. It's still a struggle and I have to fight every day, but I'm here. I'm in a place that Charlotte 6 months ago could have only dreamed of. And for that, I am so beyond proud and grateful for the leap I took 6 months ago.
6 months ago I was barely surviving.
Today I am thriving.
All this from an airport gate.
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.
It's been a crazy week+ here since I got out of the sling. My pain is reducing everyday, but I still find sleep really challenging, and my physical therapy has increased ten-fold. We're working on really increasing my mobility before we get to strengthening, and I've found I'm making huge strides in mobility every day. I can get my arm past my shoulder, which is a huge milestone!
I've also been missing swimming SO much lately. Swimming has always been an activity that makes me so peaceful and has been the one exercise that was least affected by my eating disorder and compulsive exercise. I haven't swam since last summer, and besides the huge amounts of pain in my shoulder, I wasn't in the right headspace and found myself getting obsessive about numbers the last couple of times I was in the pool.
When I started physical therapy in June, the first thing we did was establish my goals moving forward. There were the obvious ones: being able to carry groceries, wash my hair, not be in pain for 9 years... and then there was my big, ultimate goal: Get back in the pool.
With the extent of my injury and the time it takes for the tissues to heal, my physical therapist told me that in order for this to happen, I'll have to do an additional ~2 months of supervised physical therapy when I get back to NYC in August. As each day of PT is a real struggle, at first, I was a little bummed. But then this got me thinking.
I haven't been cleared yet by my ED treatment team to begin formal exercise again, but I really, really, want to get back to the pool. And I haven't been cleared yet to do any overhead motion by my doctor or physical therapist, but I really, really, want to get back to the pool.
Today I've been in a little bit of a weird headspace where food doesn't seem so important or appealing, and PT seems like a pain in the ass.
Strong eating disorder recovery has to happen first before I can get back to what I love and want to do. In order to get back swimming, I HAVE to eat, nourish my body, and work on the hard stuff that makes exercise so compulsive for me.
Full healing of my shoulder has to happen first before I can get back in the water. This means I'm doing my exercises twice a day, even though I'm only required to do them once, and that I have to be patient in order to get my full range of motion back to where it needs to be. It means that this is by no means a quick fix, which I knew going into it, and that I have to keep working my ass off to get my shoulder back to where it is.
And looking at these two sentences, I could be totally overwhelmed by the amount of work that needs to be done before I dive back in to doing what I love.
This can totally motivate me and be a goal to move closer to each and every day. It means that when food is hard and I'm not feeling my best, I still have to eat because that's what's necessary to get back in the pool. It means even when I'm tired and sore, I do my physical therapy, above and beyond what I need to do, because that's what will get me closer to my goal of being in the water.
As I've been at home this summer, I've felt a little disconnected from my life worth living goals. Since so many of them are in New York, it's been hard for me to feel motivated and like I'm making any progress towards them. However, I think that now having these goals solidified into place gives me something tangible that I can make little steps towards. I believe that having this will keep me focused on the bigger picture and working towards full recovery which is ultimately what I want anyway.
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.
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.