By Sarah, F.E.A.S.T. Parent Support Volunteer
How long? This question went through my brain every single day during recovery. How long do we have to endure the hate? How long do we have to monitor? How long before she can plate her own food? How long before she can eat freely?
It seemed reasonable. I wanted an answer. After all, most illnesses have a timeline, don’t they? Doctors prescribe antibiotics for an infection or ice and rest for a sprained ankle. Surely someone had an idea of how long this would take.
My daughter is in strong recovery now. So, how long did her recovery take?
The truth is I still can’t answer the question. When we realised she had anorexia our world changed. Our lives were consumed with shopping and feeding and monitoring and therapist appointments. The adjustment was brutal and hard.
With time, small things changed. A moment where a meal went well. A day where a new snack was added without too much stress. A week of good weight gain. A point where we no longer had to increase food. Our journey was changing. All the time. There was still a lot of fear and anxiety. There was still a mountain to climb but we started to see little successes. Little changes. Little glimpses of the girl we knew.
This illness is a wily beast. It won’t be committed to a neat diagnosis. It won’t follow a steady path of progress. So I put it to you this way: If there is no answer to the question ‘how long will recovery take’ maybe we need to ask a different question. ‘How do I endure the time that it will take?’ I think this is a better place to focus.
I think firstly there is a stage of grief. A stage of sadness that the life we wanted for our child is not a reality and it’s okay. It’s okay to grieve that loss but it’s not a place we can dwell in. The first question I would ask is ‘do you really want to know?’ It’s likely this illness will take longer to beat than you could imagine. During this journey, we will endure things we never thought possible, and perhaps for those at the beginning to hear how long recovery will take could be too much to take in.
If we focus on the ‘how’ rather than the ‘how long’ we can get through anything. So we take one day at a time. One meal at a time. We arm ourselves with the ability to tolerate distress. This in itself is a superpower against an eating disorder. We count the progress, not the result. We celebrate the banal. We look for glimpses of our child even when we might only see them for a brief moment. I still remember the first time I heard my daughter whistle again. It was something she did often but not since her eating disorder. We learn to appreciate the smallest things. A meal that went well. A movie together. Sharing a story of our day. Anxiety can often overwhelm us but it also makes us look towards the worst-case scenario. So try to focus on the next steps and leave the future where it is. We try not to make a catastrophe out of each day but view it as lessons learned or just simply as a bad day.
Recovery will not be linear, but as we cycle through the highs and lows, we cycle towards recovery. We read stories of hope and success but keep in mind that their journey is theirs and ours is our own. We build a support team around us. This may consist not only of doctors and therapists but of friends and support groups and forums. Our new life of refeeding our child means we lose so much; our freedom, our social life, our sanity, but this has to be better than watching them starve. This at least leads somewhere. We learn to live in the moments of our new constrained life.
Self-care looks very different when you are caring for a loved one in recovery so we steal moments wherever we can. It took me a long time to learn that recovery would not happen on my terms, that I couldn’t make it fit in a perfect little package. I had to learn to bend so that we didn’t break. I love the quote from one of our members, ‘Recovery is like a cat. The more you try to pull it towards you the more it pulls away. Put your head down. Do the work. It will come to you.’
It will come to you. One day. It will.