What it Feels like to Learn: The Compassion & Truth-Telling that Came From my Recovery from Disordered Eating

On my most honest & humble days, when I feel most secure in myself & in my worth as a human being, it is the easiest to acknowledge the places I have yet to grow, the wounds I carry which still need healing, & the strength & courage I possess which will carry me forward. These are the days when it is exciting to think about how much I do not know. These are the days when it is easy to be with people who live in the space where their questions can not be answered. These are beautiful days. These are days when I feel proud of my work to heal. These are the days when I can tenderly hold my ego in between where I have grown, & where I have yet to grow.

A First-Person Account of Disordered Eating & Recovery

The Ferocious Battle for Myself & For My Health

There was a time many years ago when it would have been very difficult for me to sit in that space. While having slipped into a ferocious battle with an eating disorder fueled by shame & secrecy, I was in too much pain to see that there was anything good about me, that I could grow & change, let alone see them both. Even the idea of growth itself was tainted by shame- I needed to learn & grow to be less unlovable, to be less of a stain on the lives of those around me. & good? I could never be good. I was only one mistake away from people knowing how awful & unlovable I was. Believing that about myself paralyzed me into a seemingly incomprehensible mess of inaction, control, rigid & obsessively perfectionistic ideas about how I needed to live my life. As it turns out, learning for the sake of growth feels very different than the kind of learning that happens when we are just dying to survive.

My process of recovery began long before I was part of a treatment program. It began many moons before anyone on the outside would have known I was even interested in the idea of change. It began with being honest with myself, & the desperation of realizing my life would no longer go on if I did not see all that was, while also seeing all that could be. Those were some of the most painful moments of recovery, because I was no longer hiding my life & my pain from myself, but I still saw my story through the filter of shame. All of the mess I felt I had made of my life was now no longer hidden from me, but I did not have the language of compassion with which to respond. It seemed as though where I had yet to go, & where I would come from, were proof of my inadequacy, failure, & shamefulness. & it seemed impossible that anyone else could see me differently than I saw myself: I was certain that the shame I felt about myself was truth itself. Struck with fear of failure, including the inevitable failure I would face if I did not get better, I asked for help. This was not because I believed I deserved it, but rather because I felt so inside of my own story, turning always in on myself & towards the responses which creating a cycle of immobility & perpetual pain. 

By getting help I began to learn about what it means to be alive. & I came alive in the process. I began to feel, to long, to hope. I felt anger for the first time. I learned to say no. I made decisions, & made mistakes. I began to let myself be really seen by the people in my life. & they didn’t add to the shame; they helped heal it. I was scared by the responsibility of constructing my own life. But I began to dream, & direction (or calling) soon followed.  Over time, & not on my own, I was able to look back on my life once shattered & see that the shame I felt was part of what kept me stuck. That I was not broken, but hurting & very alone. I learned to look on my own life with compassion, seeing the hurting places as opportunity for healing, not more reasons to hide. Compassion for myself came with the gift of hope, & the courage to try again without the fear that if I tried imperfectly, that I was not a failure. Life began to look more like a series of adventures- challenges of spirit- & less like a series of efforts to stave-off defeat.

Many years out since my rotations through treatment facilities & the first ‘I-need-help’ moment, these lessons learned are still challenged, & I find myself wrestling with old stories that play out in my thought-life like distant harmonies of a song I used to sing. It happened this week. As a part of my PhD research, I met with my supervisory committee to discuss some aspects of my study only to find what I had felt was my very best efforts a nuancing complicated academic & political theories, was to them an inadequate attempt at best. While in meeting I felt myself begin to shut down internally, smiling to the people in the room but panicking inside. I nodded, feeling like all my organs within my skin all rotating 15 degrees clockwise. The ‘in-my-head’ harmonies started playing: quiet at first as I shook their hands & agreed on what I needed to work on, thanking them for their input. Then, louder as I left the room, see my eyes cloudy with tears. Loudest as I ran down the stairs, hands trembling as I sought my phone in my bag, shaking while dialing the number of my person, to have to half-confess half-plead as I told him what happened.

But, the words that came out of my mouth surprised me.  “it didn’t go well” I said, gasping, waiting for a reply. But then this: “I’m discouraged, & frustrated, & confused with some of their feedback, but I know this is not about me as a person, this is about the work, & I can do this, I can work on this, I can do hard things. & I’m still discouraged too.” & then there was this feeling of wrestling: I could hear the old tape at the same time, but the new one was winning. In the back of my thoughts a loop was playing that said “you’re a failure, you can do this, you are embarrassing yourself, & your committee” – all sorts of awful things I would never say to anyone else. & the wrestling was that the new story, the one I had worked so hard on in recovery, was also playing in my thoughts, the one that came out on the phone about feeling the difficulty of this while knowing it was something I would be able to do. This was, notably, not laced with shame & defeat. Once off the phone, I continued to walk another twenty minutes to my car- now confused. This was new. It was almost like it was happening to me. I mean, it was me, & certainly something I had worked very hard on, & was participating in, but it sort of just happened, l how an athlete feels after practicing a skill over & over. She is the one throwing the softball, but it’s also kind of just happening as the muscle memory takes over. Once getting to my car, I sat there, observing the inside of myself having it out:

“I’ve failed”

“I have not failed, I am not a failure, but it did not go how I expected & I can feel sad”
“you disappointed yourself & them”

“I am feeling disappointed, but I am not a disappointed”
“I should be ashamed”
“I did my best, & the only way to grow is to have people outside of me who see more than I do, point out the areas I need to grow in, to push me. I can’t know all the things to be known, & still grow. I want to grow, that’s why I’m doing this”
“How will I go on?”

“Today, I will cry. There will be sweatpants, & bubble bath, & calling my best friend. Then tomorrow, I will get to work. & I will learn. & I will see things with new eyes, & the determination to know that no learning happens, the real learning about being human, when we are comfortable, or trying to be perfect, or defended against our own blind spots. I will let this make me into something more refined. Damn, it’s going to hurt”

It waged on like that in my head for the rest of the night. & the morning. & its still there, at a low level hum in the back of my mind. It is still there but it doesn’t feel like it’s owning me anymore. & I am marveling at all of it still. I think my old perfection shame-avoidance self would have been judgmental of the fact that the old narrative came back. Even thinking shameful thoughts has been something I have at times shamed myself for. & so to hold the shame voice, the old one, with the new one, was like Spring. Proof that after all that has happened, good exists & will show up, tiny green leaves on trees & daffodils out of the ground. I know it’s also a proof of my growth that I could hold my pain & determination at the same time. The wrestling is also a miracle: it is not a sign of failure that we still battle, it’s a sign of courage & healing that the battle exists at all- that there is another voice now where there used to be only one, & the new voice is clear, tells the truth, allows me to feel, while keeping me walking towards the things which are challenging. Then to be able to observe it all, to celebrate my own struggling as it was happening, & interpreting it as a sign that I’m growing; that was everything to me in that moment.

As a therapist, teacher, writer, researcher, so much of my life is about helping people grow, learn, & change. I am with them for guidance & support as they navigate their way through those processes. But growth, learning, & change are hard, & it is so easy when we’re in the middle of it to feel like it will never end. But being in the middle, & feeling the struggle of it, is not bad. You are not bad. It does not mean defeat. With my research, getting the hard feedback that felt like a blow to the stomach will ultimately make my work more meaningful, more refined. & it was the old tape that played out in my head that allowed me to see that it is because of my healing journey that I can handle new challenges in a way that I would have once only dreamed possible. This week, the back & forth in my mind showed me with clarity how important this wrestling is. It reminded me of my courage, & determination. It reminded me that feeling sad does not mean I have to give up, & feeling defeated does not mean defeat. & that through the choice we make to continue to go ahead, to put one foot in front of the other in the direction of healing & growth can feel hard, but that we can do hard things. 

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About The Author - Hillary McBride, MA, PhD Cand.

Hillary McBride is a Registered Clinical Counsellor in private practice working in Vancouver BC, while also working on her PhD at UBC.

She has a book called Mothers, Daughters, & Body Image: Learning to love ourselves as we are available online now or in book stores October 31, 2017, where she writes more about her recovery from disordered eating, & her research & clinical work to help women heal their relationships with themselves, particularly their bodies.

For more of Hillary’s work, check out her website to find more articles & interviews.