By Kelsey Ognibene
I, like many eating disorder sufferers, am a chronic perfectionist. Growing up, I always wanted the best grades, to win the most awards, and to be everyone’s favorite student. As an adult, these urges are still there: be the best employee, the most liked by the boss, have the most friends. This constant strive toward the unattainable, to be perfect in all aspects of life, is something that I know, logically, is impossible. And yet, I still strive toward it, and it in part fueled my eating disorder.
Recovering from an eating disorder is not perfect. There are no clean parts of it—it is all messy, time consuming, difficult, emotional work, and none of that is part of anyone’s five-year plan. When I left treatment, though, that perfectionist mentality manifested itself again, this time about my recovery: You can be that person that never relapses. You can do recovery perfectly from now on, never needing help again. I told myself these lies for weeks, until I realized that I was wrong.
I, and many others, wrongly assumed that once you leave a treatment center, that’s it. You have all the coping skills you’ll need, you’ve dealt with all the emotional work that needs dealt with, and you will reintegrate into society seamlessly. I realized, of course, that I was wrong pretty quickly. Leaving the relative comfort and controlled environment of a treatment center is terrifying, and realizing that decisions that were once made for you and were not options are now your decisions to make is harrowing. As soon as you leave the center, everything is essentially exactly as it was before—except for you.
I had to understand that perfection in recovery, just like perfection in life, does not exist. I had to relearn how to make food choices, and how to do so in a way that seemed healthier and also like a normal part of life. I had to realize that no recovery is perfect and that no one never has another eating disorder thought ever again. There have been numerous periods of relapse, ruining my image of “perfection” that I assumed would be my life post-eating disorder center.
It has been two years this month since I entered residential treatment. During that time, I have worked to lose the attitude that perfection is possible and have tried to realize that all of the messiness and ups and downs of eating disorder recovery are what makes it so difficult and so rewarding. If recovery was perfect, why would we do it? Why fight for something that you don’t have to work for and that doesn’t make you better?
There are days that I wish I could go back to believing I have the power and control to make my life perfect and my eating disorder tells me often that life was better that way. But then I look at my life now, a life where I accept that I have flaws, and that everyone does. Today I live a life where I live authentically, tell people when I need help, and allow myself to be told when I need improvement. It is not an easier life in that respect, but it is a real life and one that I wouldn’t trade.
Your eating disorder lies to you constantly. You cannot be perfect, and you cannot control everything in your life. What you can do, though, is learn to accept yourself just as you are now, not at a magical weight that you think will make things perfect. Life is so much better when we give up the illusion of perfection—breaking free from the eating disorder is the first step in a long journey, one that ends with acceptance, self-love, and a love of flaws. We are not perfect—but if we strive to love ourselves, our life can become somewhat more rewarding and happier, the goal that perfection and control can never give us.
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.