I did then what I knew how to do.
Now that I know better, I do better.
~ Maya Angelou
It’s autumn. My favorite season. But last year, at this time, I was in the deepest, darkest place of my life. Last year, I was spiraling into a hole that I couldn’t climb out of, and it nearly cost me my life. It’s a hard thing to remember, and lately, there are many reminders.
“Are you going to allow yourself to celebrate your success?” Kelly, my nutritionist, asked me at our last appointment. Her message was that I needed to mark the occasion of my first year in remission. “Even if it’s small, with just a few people,” she encouraged me. I could appreciate her argument.
I am not one to permit myself an accomplishment or a victory. There is always some way I could be better, and the journey is far from complete. My recovery will be the work of my lifetime. Always ongoing. Always in progress. It’s fragile. I’m fragile. Perhaps, I’m not quite as fragile as I was during those first few days, weeks, and months, but isn’t it enough to just try to live this day of my recovery? Today? I tell myself that celebrating the one-year milestone does not make me more likely to relapse. Acknowledging an achievement does not mean that I am setting myself up to fail. But I am still afraid of what the future holds. And so, can’t I just focus on today?
“It’s not as simple as celebrating your success after a year in recovery,” my therapist affirmed when I tried to express my complicated thoughts and feelings swirling around the subject. Juxtaposed against my climb out of the chasm is the fall into it. While my recovery really began in earnest at the end of November, my rock bottom occurred in the days and weeks just preceding it. My memories are neither objective nor clear, but October was the worst month.
The person I was then would be unrecognizable to me now, except that she is me. I was a wreck. I was depressed, suicidal, and barely functional. I marvel as I try to imagine how I managed to get myself showered, dressed, (I applied makeup and fixed my hair every day, no less!), then to and from work each day. When I wasn’t at work… I’ll spare the graphic details, but it wasn’t a pretty picture. Of course, I only know what it looked like and felt like from inside my head. “You have this idea that you were a babbling, incoherent, disaster. You seem to think that you couldn’t string two words together to make a sentence,” my friend and co-worker, Steve told me. A thick, brown envelope sat on the desk between us with a case number scrawled on the side in black Sharpie. “Your judgment wasn’t quite there, but just read it. I think you’ll find it’s actually very well-written. It makes sense. It’s a good write-up. You made a snap decision and it was the wrong one, but it’s a good write-up.” The folder contained the contents of work that I produced when I was on my downward spiral. At my absolute worst, I only ever made one significant misjudgment on the job. Well, three, but it was the same misjudgment made three times. Within the folder was the first of those instances. My co-workers corrected the effects of my errors, reworking my concluding statements, and then they covered my workload for me while I was in treatment, and now that file was up for its annual review. Once more, it found its way to my inbox. I started to cry. I didn’t want to read it. I didn’t want to relive it. I didn’t want to face the person I was and the things that I did, because it wasn’t just this one case, it was all of it. The daily binges so severe that I was sure my insides would explode and I would die. The catatonia into which I would sink the moment I left our office building. A hidden life of shame. Laying on the floor of my living room every night, the detritus of my binging spread around me, flooded with mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical pain. “You are not that person anymore,” Steve stated. “You are my go-to. Don’t be afraid of this. It’s a chance for healing, or to close the loop. I think you’ll feel better when you bring it to completion.” Deep down, I knew he was right, so I picked up the folder, and headed back to my office.
“It feels important that I be able to forgive myself at this stage,” I told my therapist during our session that afternoon. “I processed this during my very first weeks of recovery, but then the new skills sort of took hold, and I didn’t think about it much.” She asked me how. How do I forgive myself for what I did? What I did to myself. What I did to the people around me.
Love. LOVE. Love can be the only answer. “When I was driving back from Massachusetts, I practiced this visualization,” I began. “I did a lot of prep work with my counselors before I left in order to cope with returning to the environment where I was using behaviors for so long, and I would practice telling myself, ‘The scenery is the same, but I am different.’ And I worked on accepting everything that happened before. Instead of denying it, I had to accept that it’s part of me. It’s my story. It’s part of who I am. My old self is part of who I am, and she deserves to be acknowledged. She deserves love. So I would talk to myself in the past and picture her sitting in the passenger seat next to me during that long drive. I would tell her, ‘We’re in this together, and I won’t leave you behind. I am sorry for everything that you went through, and I know that you did your best. I know that you were in a very bad place, and I know you were just hurting so badly and didn’t know what to do, but it’s going to be ok now. I forgive you for hurting us, and you don’t have to be afraid or hurt anymore, because we have new skills now, and I’m going to take care of us. I won’t forget you and I won’t deny you, because you are right here with me, but now it’s your turn to rest. So don’t worry, because I’ll take care of us now.’”
When I finally opened that brown folder and began to read, I was surprised. The words flowed eloquently, and the narrative was seamless. The conclusions were based on shaky reasoning that was likely the result of impatience, anger, resentment, and the overly rigid, all-or-nothing thinking that permeated every aspect of my life at that time, but the sentences were coherent. I could feel my tense muscles relax just a bit. Steve was right. I’ll never know objectively who or what or how I was during those weeks and months. It affected me too personally. But maybe I wasn’t the total failure I believed myself to be.
“The same traits that have made you so successful at everything else are going to make you successful at this,” a friend told me as I was leaving to enter partial hospitalization for my eating disorder.
“What are those traits?” my therapist asked last week.
“I never quit. Ever. Not ever. I’m smart. I work hard. I am always searching for answers and trying to improve. And I have hope. That’s probably what saved my life. When I would be sitting in my car at a red light and think, ‘I could just drive home and park in the garage with this thing running. It would be so easy,’ my next thought would be, ‘But what if tomorrow is the day something changes? What if tomorrow, God finally answers my prayers?’ When I think back to that time and the other times in my life when I was severely depressed, I sometimes think the greatest achievement is simply that I survived.”
So, to my former self, the me that I was a year ago, thank you. You survived. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for you and your stubborn refusal to give in. You are a SURVIVOR. I am proud to have you with me on this journey.
Though much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
~ Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ulysses