Tales from Recovery: Why I Choose Me

I was innocent once. I remember sitting in Swiss canopies of grass and flowers noticing the little bluish-purple flowers in particular. “Those are forget-me-nots,” my mother told me. I always remembered them for their sweet name and delicate nature. I later equated my soul to those flowers. My soul that begged me many times over the years to forget-me-not.  

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My recovery didn’t come quickly. In fact, finding help—especially for my eating disorder once I wanted help—proved to be difficult. Not having health insurance complicated this further. One therapist let me go, admitting that she didn’t know how to help me. That she didn’t understand eating disorders. I was devastated and desperate. So desperate that I called the hospital and university research studies to volunteer in exchange for receiving treatment. After a series of questions, I was told that I wasn’t sick enough.

Not sick enough.

I couldn’t imagine hearing anything worse. In one sentence, my years of struggle were completely invalidated. Luckily, I had enough sense to continue seeking help and, eventually, found my first therapist who was a licensed social worker with a kind heart. She allowed me to pay sliding scale, and thus, my journey of recovery began. She was also one of the first people who encouraged me to attend Alcoholics Anonymous, which would later prove to change my life. 

I share pieces of my story with my clients to offer hope that recovery truly is possible. Recovery happens, albeit sometimes slowly. Recovery from an eating disorder isn’t just about learning how to eat properly and weighing the “right amount.” If it were that simple, it sure wouldn’t be very exciting. Perhaps not even worth giving up the sense of security, safety, and quiet that so many people find in their disorders.

Recovery means something slightly different to everyone. To me, recovery means recovering the Self. Remembering our true being and, through exploration, discovering more and more of that infinite Self. Putting those puzzle pieces together is an exciting process. By shining light on the shadows, I found the opposite of what I expected. So much more beauty than ugliness.

The underlying theme for many of my clients is self-loathing. Deep, dark disgust with themselves. I understand this hatred, though, now, it makes me sorry for having endured it for so long myself. One client cannot accept herself unless she is best in all that she pursues. So, she watches herself fall short over and over again and uses it as fodder for her hatred. Another client is so distracted by his self-disgust that it interferes with his ability to function, to finish tasks, to get dressed, and to be with others.

As a dietitian, I can only write so many meal plans and provide so much education on nutrition and metabolism. While planning and education are helpful, they don’t shift deep, core beliefs about value. It’s difficult to follow a meal plan or engage in self-care when you can’t stand yourself. When my clients are baffled by their inability to follow through, I often ask, “how would you treat someone who you hate? Would you take good care of them?”

So, how do you shift from self-loathing to unconditional, self-love?

My lovely psychotherapist co-workers are specialized in helping clients do that inner work—and I’m so grateful for them. They help guide people through discovery of the origin of self-hatred, towards better understanding. Sometimes it’s as simple as undiagnosed depression that turns anger inwards. Through support and guidance, I learned that I’m neither worth hating or being afraid of. I am worth loving. And you are, too.

In therapy, you can identify cognitive distortions that drive your emotions and behaviors. You can learn the tools necessary to start thinking and acting differently. Throughout my journey, I gained additional, practical tools from my teacher Dr. Lucia Capacchione, founder of Creative Journal Expressive Arts (CJEA). In particular, these tools helped me combat the inner critic. One simple exercise I often do with my clients is to let the ED voice or critic rant for two minutes on paper and say whatever nastiness it wants to say. Then I instruct them to switch hands and use their non-dominant hand to “sass back” on paper for another two minutes. I ask them to tap into their inner “brat” and just let it rip. Really blast that critic out of the water. It’s a simple but effective practice that can make reframing these negative thoughts easier. It’s also a way to tap into different parts of self so that we can connect the inner child to the inner nurturing and protective parents, for example.

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I can also share that, for me, “faking it” helped. That’s right. The idea of “fake it ‘til you make it” and “act as if” were powerful tools for me. I remember many years ago when I lived in New York City and did a lot of walking, I became acutely aware of all the details in the ground below my feet. This was because I looked down at the ground all the time and avoided looking at people. Avoided people as they might see me. If they saw me, perhaps they would see all that was wrong with me. I began to practice looking up. Squaring my shoulders and walking tall. I began to look at people’s faces and respond pleasantly if greeted. Strangely, as time passed I became a person with a very confident stride and, eventually, actual confidence. I realize this is one trivial example, but when we take opposite action in many areas of our lives, powerful change can happen.

My lack of self-acceptance also often led to comparison.

My husband Paul and I frequently vacation in Mexico. The first time we went, I spent most the time in my head. At first it was a bombardment of ED thoughts and body image triggers. Everywhere I looked there were scantily clad, thin, beautiful young women. Flat stomachs, thin thighs, perky breasts. That first vacation was a struggle. I was mostly in a foul mood, angry at myself for all my “imperfections” and for being so damn “shallow.” Why couldn’t I have a flat stomach, thin thighs, a perfect body? Why should it even matter so much? These were the thoughts that ran my mind, my mood, and my entire vacation. Everywhere I looked, there was a female reminder. And every woman was somehow superior to me. The story I told myself was that they all looked happy, confident, and together. They had it all figured out. They had something I didn’t. I was sure that it was a flat stomach. I now know it isn’t. Poor Paul had no idea why I could not just enjoy the moment. The aquamarine water, the white sandy beaches, the bright sun that warmed our skin. Sun I could not let in because my head was terrorizing me. 

Each year, I grew a little more comfortable. I believe it was six years ago, after arriving and noticing the same old dialogue in my head, the same old behaviors, and the same insecurities and fears that I decided I was going to do things differently. I could not stand by idly waiting for my thoughts to change.  Instead of falling victim again and again to the critic, I declared my intention for personal growth. I decided to take on the challenge. Every time a thought would arise, I would make a real effort to catch it, become aware of it from the beginning so that it could not kidnap me. I would then make the choice not to react with an old behavior. For instance, I would decide not to do yet another body check, or compare myself to yet another woman. Instead I began to use the affirmation of “I choose me.” 

I choose me. So simple. Yet for all my teenage years, some of my pre-teens, and much of my twenties I did not choose me. I would have preferred to be any other more beautiful, thinner woman. Any other girl who was “pretty, flawless, and popular.” I was wrapped in self-loathing for so many years that I simply could not choose me.  I saw too many defects that I could not accept.  If only I were different. If only I were thinner. Being married has taught me a few things, one of which is this idea of choice. On our vacations, I could look around and see almost as many equally attractive men as there were women. Some had flat stomachs too, six packs even. Some had perfect skin and big white smiles. Some were ruggedly handsome; others were boyishly fit. And yet, there was none other than my husband who I would choose to be with. It is his company I enjoy. It is he who makes me laugh. It is his body I adore and his smile that warms my heart.  I chose Paul to be my husband and choose him again and again everyday that I am faced with other prospects.

Why, then, was it so hard for me to choose myself? 

Early in recovery, I experienced falling in love with myself, but over the years I would allow an image of another woman to trigger me right out of that love. I would begin questioning my worth, my authenticity.  I realized in Mexico, that my relationship with myself was no different than a marriage. I deserved nothing less than choosing ME. Regardless of how attractive another woman looks, I no longer want to be her. I still prefer to be me. Me with all my perfect imperfections, with all my silliness and struggles, and the roundness in my belly. I choose me. And my wish for you is to choose you.

 A canopy of forget-me-nots are blooming.

Marlena TannerComment