“Recovering from an eating disorder is like swimming upstream.”
That sentiment, expressed by so many people in recovery, is one of my favorites because 1) it’s incredibly true and 2) it applies beyond eating disorder recovery.
In a society that maintains narrowly-defined standards of beauty and praises weight loss, fitness, diets, etc., eating disorder recovery inevitably feels at odds with what “everyone else” is saying and doing. Recovery requires the strength and resilience to swim against the currents of diet culture; to trust in your own body and what it needs; to often ignore what you’re told is “healthy” by peers and the media.
I struggled a lot in recovery with reminding myself that I have different needs than others, and that what’s healthy for me shouldn’t be informed by what I see others doing. In some rivers I found it easy to swim upstream (I had no problem knowing my body needed a burrito when others ordered a salad) but others were much more difficult, especially when it came to exercise. As an athlete who is surrounded by many other athletes and fitness-fanatics, one of the hardest things for me to do was remind myself that my body needed rest even when I saw others logging massive runs and bike rides. It’s hard not to hear the fitness industry in the back of your head saying, “working out is great for your health!” when you’re trying to remind yourself that, actually, in your circumstances, rest is probably better for your health.
But, like I said, in addition to being true, this notion of “swimming upstream” applies beyond the realm of eating disorder recovery. I can imagine, for example, a recovering alcoholic trying to say “no” to drinks at the bar when everyone else around them is drinking.
The image of a (cute lil’) salmon swimming upstream is something I carry with me when I want to acknowledge the hard work it requires to do what is best for myself despite what I hear and see around me.
Because swimming upstream is really, really difficult.
Not only do you have to ignore the voices around you, you often have to ignore your own “eating disorder” voice (or, for those to whom that doesn’t apply, some other unhelpful inner voice) that’s trying to convince you that what you’re doing is wrong. And, to make matters worse, you actually have to listen to, and trust, your own “true” voice (and body and heart).
The problem is…once you’ve ignored your own voice for so long, it’s sometimes hard to hear at all. It feels impossible to parse what’s your voice and what’s the voice of your mom, or your sister, or your friends, or the latest influencers on TikTok.
Many people I’ve met in recovery communities have expressed a thought like, “How am I supposed to do what I want if I don’t actually know what I want?” If you’ve trained yourself to ignore your own voice – your own wants and needs and passions and interests – for so long, you lose the ability to hear it entirely.
I talked a lot in the process of my own recovery, and then with groups of others in recovery, about how recovery gives you the gift of freedom. Unfortunately, in the early stages of recovery, freedom feels less like a gift and more like a burden. Freedom from your eating disorder (but again, this could apply to many other situations) is incredibly scary. All of a sudden you have to make choices about who you want to be. You have to rediscover who you really are without those other voices and protective layers and false identities you’ve relied on. You have to ask yourself really freakin’ tough questions like: What are my preferences? What is healthy for me? What brings me joy and purpose?
Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to answer these questions (if there is, I’m all ears!). The best advice I have to offer could be crudely summarized as “exposure therapy.” AKA: start to try things out; test the waters; experiment through trial and error, all the while paying intense attention to your own body and heart.
Part of the reason I’m writing this post now is because I was recently reading Mary Oliver’s collection of essays titled – you guessed it! – “Upstream.” She was, of course, not writing about eating disorder recovery specifically, but she wrote with such clarity and beauty about everything I just tried to describe.
“In the beginning I was so young and such a stranger to myself I hardly existed,” she writes.
I imagined myself emerging from the dark tunnel of my eating disorder, not knowing who I was without it. Wanting to not exist had been the whole point; I struggled with the simple awareness of my own existence.
“In those years, truth was elusive – as was my own faith that I could recognize and contain it.”
The other voices that had guided me for so long meant I had strayed so far from my own truth. What even was my own truth?
“I had to go out into the world and see it and hear it and react to it, before I knew at all who I was, what I was, what I wanted to be.”
Ah, yes – the much more poetic way of expressing what I referred to as “exposure therapy.” But what a beautiful way to frame this idea of freedom. I imagine a bird taking flight.
“Sometimes the desire to be lost again comes over me like a vapor.”
The other voices get louder; I find myself getting pulled back again by the current; I have to quiet my intense desire to return to the “easy” method of letting my life be dictated by others.
“And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life,” she finishes.
I want to carry the bravery I hear in this sentence with me forever.
“Having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and love, a handsome life.”
I reflect on the years that have passed since I chose to “claim my life,” to choose recovery. I remind myself to be proud of who I have become and who I am becoming.
Oliver writes of swimming upstream as “the sense of going toward the source.”
I suppose that’s still what I am always working towards, at the end of the day. Going toward the source; hearing my own voice louder than the voices of others; listening to that voice and to my body and my heart; always becoming a truer version of myself.