I recently was listening to someone talk about their recovery from drug addiction, and heard them say something that articulated what I’ve been trying to find the words to say for years:
“I couldn’t just stop using drugs. I had to become the kind of person who doesn’t use drugs.”
I’ve never abused drugs. I don’t even drink, to be honest. But there’s remarkable parallels between recovering from drug or alcohol abuse and healing from an eating disorder. Both have genetic and environmental contributions to their development. Both transform the way you interact with the world around you. Both become a dependence on a certain way of living that inevitably takes over your personality and who you are.
And both, to be certain, are not really about the preferred method of abuse.
Not about the drugs, not about the alcohol, not about the food.
While the underlying roots of these dependencies can be found somewhere in our genes, it typically takes some kind of environmental pressure to cause the issue to fully manifest. You can be predisposed to an abusive relationship with some vice, but should you never be in a life situation that applies vast amounts of pressure in some form (be that an unhealthy home life, relationship, community…), it might never arise.
Take, for example, my experience with disordered eating. The foundation was laid in my genes, most likely. I was inclined to an anxious predisposition from the day I was born. I have a genetic family history of depression and varying forms of mental illness. But what brought my disorder to a full manifestation in my life and daily habits came from the vast amounts of pressure I experienced in the transition between middle school and high school.
And it wasn’t truly about the food. I developed a profound fear of and simultaneous obsession with it, to be sure, but it was a stand-in for the parts of my life I didn’t have control over. My identity felt lost to me in many capacities: who I was seemed to be a mystery that was spiraling further out of control the older I got. My mom, who had stayed at home with me for ten years, was suddenly working 12 hour days. My parents were slowly beginning to realize that separation was what would make them both happiest. I was in an engineering program in school when I am most certainly not an engineer in any way, shape, or form.
I could go on. There was a vast multitude of things I couldn’t have control over, but what I could control was my food. And so I did. I controlled it and the way my body looked to the point that my life was in danger, and convinced myself that I was doing it to be prettier, to be more acceptable, to be more self-disciplined. But what I was really doing was turning away from the parts of my life that felt uncontrollable. The beginning stages of my recovery didn’t address this inconsistency.
The predominant focus of my early recovery was my physical body.
I was hospitalized, I was force-fed vast amounts of food and told to lie still most of the day. I was weighed, measured, poked and prodded, and hooked up to machines. I talked to doctors about my bone density and my EKG stats. My release from the hospital was entirely dependent on my physicality: once I weighed enough, once my vitals were stable enough, once I was enough, I could leave.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m somehow grateful for what I view to be the sterile segment of hell I was in. It scared the shit out of me, first of all, and gave me something to avoid in order to help push me towards recovery (which I think must be a fact they’re aware of, despite the revolving door attendance that facility has). And it did instill in me a greater understanding of the cause-and-effect between my eating habits and the very really damage it did to my body. But it made me believe that all this was just about the food.
If I could eat enough, if I could weigh enough, then I would be recovered.
So I went through the motions. I ate everything on my plate. I diligently attended doctor’s appointment after doctor’s appointment. I watched the number on the scale creep up, uncomfortably waiting for the moment that it would reach the magic “recovery number” and everything would be okay again. That’s what the doctors made it sound like would happen: all their goals and targets were physical. Gain XYZ pounds every week, have XYZ blood pressure, reach XYZ bone density…
But other than my organs, nothing inside me was changing. I was so focused on meeting the physical targets in front of me that I failed to recognize that once again my vice had changed. An obsession with becoming as small as possible had become an obsession with becoming as “recovered” as possible (or, at least, to appear as such so that everyone would leave me alone again).
Although I had a wonderful therapist, who was certainly trying to get me to look at what this all was really about (i.e., not the food or the numbers or the vital signs), I couldn’t view it as important. She wasn’t the one that decided whether or not I went back to the hospital. She wasn’t the one with the goals and targets and numbers. She wasn’t the one that could get everyone off my back. She was just a lady I talked to once a week. At least, in my mind she was.
If I could go back in time and tell that high school girl avoiding the fact that this wasn’t all about the food, I would have her listen to that message I heard just a few days ago:
“I couldn’t just stop using drugs. I had to become the kind of person who doesn’t use drugs.”
I could try on all the behaviors a “recovered” person does. I could gain the weight and eat the food and have great blood pressure. But none of that would take me further away from falling deep into my disorder if I didn’t address what was lying beneath the surface, confront all the things I didn’t have control over.
Without the intention of healing, I would not heal, no matter how much action I took.
Finding yoga was the thing that first offered me that intention. At first I went because it was another motion to go through, another thing I could check off on my recovery to-do list. I’m incredibly lucky, however, that I stumbled into a studio that offered me masterful teachers who sneakily instilled healing intention within me throughout each practice. It showed me the power of doing things with purpose, of looking inside and confronting the darkest parts of ourselves that we’ve avoided for so long. It showed me the powerful of reflection, of seeing how our physical bodies can represent something deeper and more meaningful.
Through yoga, I began the process of “becoming that kind of person.” I became the kind of person that went to class not just to get stronger physically, but to listen and learn about coping with emotional difficulties. I became the kind of person that engaged in thoughtful reflection about what my behaviors truly represented. I became the kind of person that knew how to articulate what I was feeling inside. I became the kind of person that learned when to take rest and when to push on through difficult situations. I became the kind of person that developed a sense of confidence and strength without dependence on appearance, perceived control over food, or hitting arbitrary goals others set for me.
It was a long, slow, painful process to be sure. And it wasn’t easy in the slightest. But intention I was beginning to connect to made my work far more fruitful.
Now the changes in eating were more intentional: they weren’t just because some doctor told me to and I wanted to appease, them they were because I wanted to nourish my body. Going to therapy wasn’t something I had to do to keep up appearances with my recovery team, it was a space to discuss the revelations I was having on my mat with someone who could help me reflect on them in a helpful way. I stopped relying on the idea that once I would gain enough weight and eat enough food all my problems would go away, and that’s when the legitimate change began.
Our flawed beliefs about recovery, be it from an eating disorder or drug abuse or alcohol abuse or any other form of dependency, don’t serve those who are struggling. Our reliance on treating the symptom and not the underlying cause undermines many’s attempts at healing.
What happens is that either a) because we’re not addressing the underlying cause, we never take any action towards healing, or b) we do take action, and maybe even end the behavior for a period of time, before relapsing because the underlying cause was not adequately addressed.
You can eat the food and gain the weight, but if you don’t do the internal healing work with intention and guidance, you’ll look around one day and think, “Man, I still feel like shit.” It’s the same thing that happens at the height of an eating disorder: you think you’ll be happy once you’re thin enough and light enough, and then you realize you’re still not happy. And so since you still feel like shit, you either go back down the rabbit hole chasing after that thinness or sense of control that might make you happy, or you switch your vice to another form of dependency that promises happiness or escape, like drugs or alcohol.
But if we address what’s truly going on, then the path becomes clearer. If we’re able to begin to work through and fully confront the things that manifested our disorder or dependency in the first place, like trauma or lack of control or struggles with identity, then the symptoms begin to heal in a more long-lasting and tangible way. Rather than slapping on a bandaid on the issue by just fixing the symptom (the weight, the use of drugs, the abuse of alcohol), we can go deeper and do the work to heal what caused those issues to arise in such a dramatic fashion.
It’s not about the food. It’s not about the drugs. It’s not about the drinking or the sex or the overexercising. It’s not about the symptoms. It’s about treating the cause, and that can be a long and painful process to find.
The fact is, it’s easier to treat the symptom. It’s tangible and consistent across the board: eat more, gain weight, stop using drugs, stop drinking. Going inside and doing the work to “become that kind of person” is hard, complicated, and different for each and every person.
But it’s worth it. It’s incredibly worth it for the peace and clarity it can offer you. It’s worth it to root your recovery in a more intentional space that will create long-lasting relief instead of a vicious cycle of recovery and relapse. It’s worth it because you are worth it, even if you’re not “that kind of person” yet.
I’m still trying to become that person, each and every day. I think it’s a process that will last my entire life. But I’ve reached a point where it’s become clear to me that treating just the symptom alone will never work, it will only allow me to look away from what’s really going on inside.
Photos by @emiliebersphoto, shared with love.