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February 15, 2017

Vulnerability in Recovery

Vulnerability in Recovery

This is one person’s story; everyone will have unique experiences on their own path to recovery and beyond. Some stories may mention eating disorder thoughts, behaviors, or symptom use. Please use your own discretion. And speak with your therapist when needed.

by Liz Rognes, a former Emily Program client in recovery. She is a teacher, writer, and musician who lives in Spokane, WA.

In recovery, sometimes I go long stretches without even thinking about the fact that I have struggled with an eating disorder. Still, recovery hasn’t completely erased any possibility of struggle. I am still vulnerable to moments of feeling triggered. I still encounter anxiety and even the occasional return of eating disorder thoughts. But, in my life today, I have powerful tools to handle the situations where I do feel triggered and vulnerable.

One night not too long ago, after a long workday and a late meeting, I stopped at a restaurant to pick up a to-go order of food for dinner. I was too tired to cook, my partner was too tired to cook, and we agreed to get take out. I was tired and hungry. I couldn’t wait to get home, to eat some good food, and to be with my family.

As the cashier ran my card, she smiled at me and asked, “When are you due?”

I paused, confused. “What do you mean?”

“Your baby,” she said. She gestured at my stomach. “Aren’t you pregnant?”

I was not. Earlier in the day, I had been feeling pretty good about the dress I was wearing. I had selected the dress for its bright colors and the weird sash that tossed itself around my hips. I felt colorful and a little splashy and professional enough and comfortable in the dress. But, suddenly, I hated it. Suddenly, the dress’s colors seemed annoying. The sash was bulky. Maybe it was too tight. It bunched up in awkward places! Why had I worn this dress in the first place? Before this, I had not even been thinking about my stomach, but it felt like a spotlight had been snapped on in the middle of the restaurant and it was shining on my midsection, which suddenly felt absurdly out of proportion.

“No,” I said, “I’m not.”

The cashier looked embarrassed. She returned my card to me. “Oh,” she said. “It’s just that you look like you might be pregnant.”

“Nope.” I took the food. “Thank you.”

The distance from the cashier stands to the door from the door to my car and from the outside to the inside of the car felt incredible. I walked, one foot in front of the other, the weird sash and loud colors clinging to me. I unlocked the door and lifted my now excessive-feeling body into the driver’s seat.

And then I sank my head onto the steering wheel and began to sob.

It wasn’t that I was afraid of looking pregnant. I have been pregnant, and, then, I was proud of my round and full pregnant body! My body has been through many weight fluctuations, from the restriction and weight restoration of eating disorders and recovery to thyroid issues to pregnancy to just the fact of living in a human body that changes, and I have worked hard at learning to be gentle and accepting of this body, in its many different stages and ages. I wasn’t exactly sad because of a desire to look a particular way, but it felt like someone had just pointed a finger at me and implied that, in the shape of my body couldn’t be justified by pregnancy, then something must be wrong with me. It felt like her attention on my belly was indicating a failure on my part, that my body was somehow not good enough. And I felt enormously frustrated with my own emotional response—how could I be so affected by a simple question, years into recovery?

Sitting alone in my car, I could feel old eating disorder thoughts crawling around, awakened. I felt those thoughts that tell me there’s something wrong with my body and therefore with me. I felt those sharp thoughts that tell me I don’t deserve to be soft and safe and full and fed. I felt thoughts that told me I should not eat the food I had just bought.

I sat in the car and cried until I felt okay enough to drive. Then, I drove home and cried some more. I told my partner that someone pointed at my stomach and assumed that I’m pregnant, and I explained that it just felt bad. I have no desire to be pregnant at this moment in my life—it wasn’t about pregnancy at all. I told him that the comment triggered old eating disorder thoughts for me. He listened and reassured me.

I expressed my anger and frustration. I fumed about impossible standards of beauty. I became angry at the implication that women’s bodies, pregnant or not, are public property. I became furious at the fact that I still sometimes have to cope with eating disorder thoughts. And, after a little while, the tears stopped. The feeling of a spotlight on my stomach lessened. The anger started to feel motivating. I took a deep breath. I blew my nose. I put on my pajamas. My partner dished up our food, and we ate together.

There was a time when I would not have made it to the part where dinner continued anyway. But, now, even when a triggering moment happens, I can go on. Sometimes I have to pause first and cry or be angry, but, eventually, I can go on. This experience was a good reminder for me that I’m not immune to feeling triggered, but it was also a good reminder that I have come a long way. I appreciate the tools I have (allowing myself to cry, to be angry, to talk to someone, to recognize the bigger picture), and I am grateful that I was able to continue on with my night. That night, the old eating disorder thoughts quieted. I was able to go to sleep, get up the next morning, eat breakfast, and continue on with my day.

Those old eating disorder thoughts don’t crawl around my head as often as they used to, and, for that, I am grateful. I am also thankful for the experience of remembering my vulnerability. My recovery isn’t about perfection or complete erasure of challenges, but it is about knowing how to use the tools I have collected over time. I’m glad I got to go home that night, be with my family, and eat dinner after all.

Get help. Find hope.