My sweetheart and I were in a restaurant this weekend on our (isn’t this so cute?) Sunday night dinner date. I was eating my food, had recently checked in with myself to find out if I was feeling full, which I wasn’t yet, but was aware that given my level of impending satiation, I would probably be done before I had finished the portion on the plate. So far, so good. Just then, however, the waiter appeared, announced “There’s no shame in quitting, so if you need a to-go box, just let me know,” and zoomed off again on a water glass refilling mission.
I froze. A series of alluringly distorted thoughts flashed through my head, giving rise to a familiar dull ache in my chest that signals the arrival of shame, self-doubt and fear. Am I eating too much, so much that the waiter thinks I’m bad? Should I be full? Am I reading my appetite wrong? Does that mean I’ve been reading my appetite wrong for years and overeating without knowing it? AM I BAD!?!
Had I been alone, it would have been up to me to catch these thoughts and feelings in my mindfulness net, check them out, identify them as distorted and challenge them, but this time I got lucky. My partner took one look at me and my sad eyes, and said “Honey, he doesn’t know your history, he isn’t criticizing you, and everything is ok”. I calmed down, re-inhabited my body and reaffirmed my willingness to trust myself. With or without the support of an outside mind, I’ve been through that cycle more times than choose your cute saying.
But that’s all it takes. The wrong comment at the wrong moment and our little mind gerbils go galloping (do gerbils gallop?) down the paths of our particular brand of crazy. For me, some early physical trauma left me with the belief that my body is inherently bad and untrustworthy and inspires people to hurt me. I’ve sorted that one out, but if you believe something for long enough, even if it turns out it was wrong, it’s unfortunately easy to fall off the right thinking wagon if you read a person or event to be confirming the old belief. Which is why people should really try to avoid traumatizing other humans and teaching them sad thoughts about themselves, but I can’t fix that particular problem right now.
I’m telling you this whole restaurant story because I get the impression sometimes that the people I work with have the wrong idea about what “recovered” looks like. Folks don’t always come right out and say this, but it’s pretty clear that when I say I have recovered from my disordered eating and living patterns, they imagine me skipping down a sunny dirt road singing odes to my positive body image and picking strawberries. Which sounds pretty ok, although there might be a bunch of mosquitos, but is not a true truth.
What recovered means to me is that I actively, in real time and fairly accurately, can identify when a thought that I’m thinking is whole, and when it is distorted by the lens of history or culture or that thing that girl said to me that time in high school. And because I can identify it (I’m circling a theme here), I then have the power to challenge it, and to ease my way out of the uncomfortable emotions the distorted thought gave rise to. A previous therapist of mine noted that engaging in this process, over time, was much like a river flowing over rocks that have the distortions carved on them: the marks are still there, but they grow fainter with time and practice. I have also learned that I can stack the decks towards having more or fewer of these distorted thoughts emerge depending on the choices I make about what to let into my sphere in terms of toxic or empathic people, media, and how I treat myself.
Now. There is a whole huge controversy in the recovery world (eating disorders, substance abuse, other addictions) about if anyone is ever recovered, or if recovery is a process that’s always ongoing but has no stamp of “now you’re recovered, please exit stage left” available. So where do I fit into that debate? Depends on your definition. To me, recovered means not acting on the crazy anymore, and working your work to erode the crazy so it doesn’t pop up as frequently because as great as it feels to be all mindful and challenge your stuff and win, it can get a little old after awhile if it’s a main course at every meal. There are some who suggest that you’re not recovered until you don’t think the thoughts ever again anymore. Why that doesn’t work for me is that I have never, not once, met or read about or heard about or witnessed in any way a person who doesn’t ever think the thoughts anymore, but I have interacted with many people who are living whole and well lives who occasionally trip on their histories and then get back up with verve and aplomb.
My concern with the skipping down a sunny path carefree idea about “recovered” is that it’s totally bogus and gives people a false goal which is eventually very discouraging. Really, no one lives like that and no matter how well we become, our minds and hearts and bodies carry our history. There’s nothing more powerful, though, than becoming more powerful than your history. No matter what people say to you in restaurants.