I had a conversation yesterday with a very dear friend, with whom I spent time in residential treatment in high school. Both of us are confidently on the road to recovery, but yesterday was a day when we felt overwhelmed and frustrated by this illness. Lately I have experienced some stressful, difficult life events, and I have felt the tantalizing pull to indulge in those destructive behaviors that are only too easy to return to. As I vented my frustrations to her and admitted thoughts that only those who have struggled with this disease can understand, she said, “You know, it’s so interesting that most of us struggle most after having been to treatment. You and I both had our roughest patches after we had already been.” Her comment made me pause, and I said, “I think it’s because treatment isn’t enough.”
And that’s the thing, treatment really isn’t enough. With mental illness, and specifically eating disorders, people assume that if we are thrown into therapy or residential treatment, we will automatically come out on the other side fully recovered. They expect us to come out without any semblance of the illness left on us, and for us to pretend that the last several years (upwards of eight years for myself and my friend) of pain, self-destruction, and brain rewiring simply did not happen. Yes, treatment and therapy is necessary and often times life-saving. Being surrounded by professionals who are trained to help us fight this illness is an incredible gift. But the reality is that at some point, treatment ends. Therapy only lasts an hour or so, and you are left with what you’ve learned in therapy to navigate the other 167 hours in the week.
That’s where treatment becomes not enough. Yes, you have learned valuable tools on how to fight your illness, but it is up to you on whether or not you implement them. It is up to you how much you put into fighting the demons in your head each day. You are the only one who, when faced with the decision, can choose to feed into the illness or starve it. After treatment, it actually can be harder to fight the illness, because you feel so conflicted by what you inherently feel, and by what you have learned you are supposed to do with those feelings. Rather than blindly giving into your self-destructive desires, you are now faced with the reality that you have a choice, and that choice is terrifying. I have been through countless therapy sessions, been to multiple inpatient centers, and for years despite all the care I was given, I was still sick. I still skated by allowing my illness to dictate my life. I did not want to put in the effort to recover because frankly, I was too scared to.
Having an eating disorder takes grit. Denying your body a basic human need takes willpower that is unparalleled by anything else I have ever seen. But that being said, if you had the willpower to force yourself to destroy your body, you have the willpower to fight against those very same habits. You have the force within yourself to push yourself outside of what is comfortable and safe (the eating disorder) and to step into fearful freedom. Take that same bullheadedness that you used to harm yourself, and use it to radically love yourself. Yes, you should use the support of a treatment team. Yes, you should lean on others on the days when you simply don’t have the strength. But the reality is that it all comes down to YOU. You are the only one inside your head, and you are the only one who can fight those thoughts. So rather than feeling intimidated by the prospect, feel empowered. Know that you have everything inside you that you need to conquer this illness, and to walk out in freedom. Know that you have others (myself included) who are rooting for you and who love you. You can do it, and you will.