By: Kelsey Ognibene
As a social worker, I have had the opportunity to work with those who struggle with addiction—drugs, alcohol, gambling. Addiction work is immensely difficult but is also immensely rewarding. Relapses are expected, and when those happen, they can either be a devastating setback or a unique opportunity to move forward with renewed commitment.
The same can be said for eating disorder recovery. The one difference comes with measuring the length of recovery or the “success” of it. When I attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as part of an internship, each member would introduce themselves and tell the group their sobriety date.
As I sat in on these meetings, it occurred to me: what would my sobriety date be? What is the day that I started recovery? This is a difficult question for people who struggle with eating disorders.
There are common responses—the day of diagnosis, the day of entering or exiting treatment, the day of seeing symptoms in oneself—but how do we know that recovery has started? There cannot be a sobriety date from food. We have to eat every day, as difficult as that can be, so there is no true abstinence from food, the substance that causes so much turmoil and difficulty.
That is something that has always bothered me during my recovery journey—when did it start? Did I remain in recovery today despite engaging in behaviors? What is my official date? Is it the date that I left the treatment center, despite less commitment then than what came later?
These are hard, personal questions that differ for everyone, but they are questions that can still make eating disorder sufferers—myself included—feel different from those in recovery from other vices.
All addictions stem from similar places, and manifest in different ways. Living with an addiction that you cannot quit completely though, makes for an interesting set of hurdles that are unique to those with eating disorders. Despite my own personal need to know hard and true facts, there are, unfortunately for me, none in this case. I cannot tell others when their recovery started, and I am still hazy on that answer for myself.
Recovery is such a personal journey, and one that is never a straight upward progression. There have been times over the past three years that I have had new behaviors come to replace old ones, setting me back, and other times when I rarely thought about my eating disorder more than once or twice a day, a huge improvement. In both of these examples, I do believe that I was in recovery, because the base definition of recovery to me—trying to live free of the bonds of my eating disorder as best as I can at that moment—was something that I was still striving for.
As someone who easily gets hung up on formalities and arbitrary facts and dates, the ambiguity of eating disorder recovery drives me insane most days. I want to have that magical date that my life shifted, and I want to have a way every day to say that I did it, I continued to recover.
What I have learned though, both professionally and personally, is that recovery is something that you have to work on every single day, and that it is rarely, if ever, clear-cut. Some days I feel like a recovery warrior who will never have another food-related issue again, and some days I don’t leave my room. Both are parts of the recovery process, and both are what should be expected.
It’s okay if you don’t have a day that you realized you started recovery—the point is that you are trying to live your best life now, eating disorder growing quieter and quieter.
Though you cannot abstain from food or avoid it altogether, you can learn to abstain from self-destructive thoughts and behaviors—and that is the greatest marker of true recovery of all: happiness, freedom, and a life with less self-doubt. Make today your special date of recovery, and all that will follow will be an improvement, despite the ups and downs that will come with a life in true recovery.
About the Author:
Kelsey Ognibene is a social worker living in New Orleans, Louisiana who graduated with her masters in social work in 2016. She received a Project HEAL grant in 2015 and has been working to help others with addictions and mental health issues since. She also has a dog, Daisy, who is a pretty cool canine. Follow her on Twitter.