Progress: Forward or onward movement towards a destination.
In the normal world progress is something that is pretty cut and dry, either you are closer to your goals than you were yesterday or you aren’t. You have more money in the bank, are closer to buying a house or getting a new and better job.
In the eating disorder world, progress is a much more of a grey area. When the illness first starts to take hold, progress is measured in the amount of weight you lose, the comments other people make about your food or body, the shrinking clothes size, shrinking measurements and decreases in the amount of space you take up. Everything is based off of your ability to get deeper into the disorder – of course at first you don’t realize that the disorder has such a huge hold on you but after a while everything other than this progress is seen as extreme failure. I remember making marks on my desk at school with my pencil, outlining where my body lined up with the desk like a growth chart, praying that the lines were closer together than they were the last time I measured. I weighed myself compulsively, compared my symptoms with other people, pushed the boundaries of the torment my body could endure, measured multiple body parts and kept meticulous notes about all of it.
As you start into recovery the rules change and suddenly everything you thought was progress is considered regression. Your whole world is turned on its head and you are forced to see everything you think you know in a different light. The only problem with this is when you are not 100% committed to recovery or early in the game when you are still terrified of everything recovery can mean, it’s very hard to stay the course when you’re not sure what direction you want to end “up”. At first you are supposed to think that weight gain, reduced purging symptoms and lessening of physical side effects are a great thing but it doesn’t feel great, it feels like failure. Everything you have believed and worked SO hard for is all being undone and you are supposed to feel good about it!? Not likely.
Every time I go to see the psychiatrist from my treatment program he asks me a series of questions and weighs me, he uses these answers to gauge my progress in recovery among other things. He asks me about restricting, purging, laxatives, diet pills, body image, mood, chest pain, digestion, temperature, sleep, everything. As I was relapsing my answers would always be the same – Restricting a lot, purging a lot, laxatives and diet pills depended on the time, body image was awful, mood was horrible (2/10), chest hurt, digestion was slow, I always felt cold, I didn’t sleep well etc. As I started into recovery each time the answers started getting “better”, at least they were better in his eyes – restricting less, purging less, no laxatives or diet pills, awful body image, mood still pretty bad (4/10), chest pain occasionally, slow digestion, still cold, hard time sleeping – but in my eyes these were all signs I was failing. I started to worry about my weight gain and blame it on the lack of symptoms I was reporting. I didn’t use diet pills, but I should have! I’m not restricting as much but I should be! I’m purging less often but I should step it up! I’m not as cold anymore and I don’t have chest pain – I must really be getting better, I’m such a failure, how could I let this happen?! My body isn’t as cold as it used to be because it has more fat to insulate it – I’ve really messed up now! It took a lot of self-talk to realize that this was progress towards recovery – this was all a good thing, regardless of what my mind was telling me.
As my recovery “progressed” the answers changed even more and I became more and more ashamed of the responses. As my weight kept creeping upwards these responses were proof of why I was gaining weight, why I was failing and what I needed to start doing again in order to be “successful”. Restricting? No. Purging? No. Laxatives or diet pills? No. Body image? Still awful. Mood? 6-7/10. Chest pain? No. Digestion? Better but still not where it should be. Temperature? Pretty good. Sleep? Pretty good. I watched all of my “Yes” answers shift to “No” which caused a lot of panic but I kept reminding myself that it was a good thing – I wanted recovery and so this was progress, not regression or failure. Over time I have grew to be more and more proud of my “no” answers, they were not only a testament to my recovery progress but to the strength I have shown throughout this whole process.
The last time I had this appointment was Monday this week, and again all of these answers were “no” or “better”. I thought about how many things I can do or handle now that would not have been possible when all the answers were “yes”. My mother passed away and I didn’t end up relapsing or in the hospital myself. I was able to keep up with my yoga teacher training program – a physically demanding process that I would not have been able to endure when I was sick. I can concentrate long enough to read books and pay attention to conversations – just to name a few.
When I left my appointment I felt proud of my progress, I even cried some happy tears! I thought about how scared I used to be and how conflicted I felt about my view and everyone else’s view of progress. I remembered the constant fear and pain, the anxiety and exhaustion. More than that, I remembered how I thought those feelings would be endless, convinced that the awful hole I was in would be forever. I really felt that if I continued down everyone else’s road of “progress” I would feel this way forever and that I needed to go down MY road (towards relapse) in order to gain some sort of calm. Well, I endured all the pain and anguish continuing to progress towards recovery despite every bone in my body telling me I was failing, regressing towards the life I had before I decided to take my life in my own hands and lose weight. The more I moved towards recovery the less relapse started to pull on my mind and the more I started to see the true strength in my progress.
Recovery will feel awful for a while. It will feel as if you are betraying everything you are, undoing all the “progress” you have made. This will feel inescapable and unending but it will not last forever. Eventually you will realize that “progress” is moving towards recovery, towards normalcy, towards happiness and a future without your eating disorder. It will happen slowly, you may not even notice it happening but one day your priorities will shift and you can be proud of your accomplishments again. I was proud of my progress into illness, my ability to self-destruct and now I am proud of my recovery – my ability to rebuild.