ED is a pervasive little bugger. He loves to make you feel bad, and then make you feel bad about feeling bad. He loves to break you down and make you feel overwhelmed and worthless so that you will believe what he says and do what he wants. And what does he want? He wants you to suffer.
Every relationship with ED is an abusive one. And just like any abusive relationship, ED is controlling, he is jealous, he sweeps you off your feet and makes you feel like everything and nothing simultaneously. He pretends he is protecting you when really he is dictating and manipulating your every thought and feeling and movement. He becomes angry when you don’t follow his rules, punishing you and making you feel like you deserve it for disobeying. He distances you from your supports and the things that you love. He makes your entire life about him.
Recovery is a long term journey just like any break off from an abusive relationship. It takes time to separate. To teach yourself not to go back. To ignore his lies and counter them with your own truths. To feel empowered and to believe in your own worth. To reverse his narrative and start to see the world clearly, apart from the lens he has forced over your eyes and the rules he has cemented into your mind.
And sometimes you slip. Sometimes you don’t even realize that he has perked up, started whispering sweet nothings in your ear. He adapts as you recover. Once he realizes one narrative won’t work, he adjusts it until he finds one that hooks you. Because he knows, no matter how small the hook, once he has some grounding he can begin to creep back into your life without you even realizing he is there — until its too late. Until he is beginning to consume you, and you are so far past your window of tolerance that suddenly his reprieves seem like the only option.
Often times, when recovering from an abusive relationship, your friends are your best weapons against him. This is for a few reasons. One, they keep you accountable. They are outside you, and aren’t vulnerable to his manipulation of the narrative of reality. So when you start to slip towards him, and your reasonings become skewed, and your sense of reality becomes fuzzy, they can see what you can’t. Two, they are supports! They are there to help shoulder your emotional burden. To pick you up when you can barely stand. To encourage you and remind you that you are worthy when you begin to forget. To help you stay on this path you so desperately want. They can help you keep distance from him. They can help you stay safe.
This is why your team is so important. In ED recovery, your team is your accountability, noticing and pointing out when ED’s voice begins to creep into your narrative. When your sense of reality begins to warp, and suddenly ED begins making sense. They are there to knock his lens off your eyes and pull you back to reality. To remind you of how far you have come and how hard you have worked. Of the things you can accomplish and of all that you are. They are there to help you pull away from him when he starts to lure you in. To help counteract his attempts at hooking you in whatever way he can.
This is also why your supports are so important. Though they don’t have the clinical defenses your team is equipped with due to their training as professionals, your supports (your family, friends, partner, ED recovery groups, online support systems, pets, etc) are there to help you stay in the real world. To help you connect with yourself and remember you are loved and cherished and that you matter. To help counteract what ED whispers to you in the dead of night, to help pull you out of bed and get you outside and remind you why life is worth living. Why you are fighting so hard.
But often, when ED begins to get his footing again, you retreat from these things. He encourages you too, to wallow in your misery, in order to prove to you how much you need him. When in reality, you need your team and your supports and your hobbies and your life. He lulls you into this false belief that everything isn’t okay, will never be, and its so safe and warm and easy in his arms if you would just stay a while. And at first, you believe it. You don’t even realize its his whispers you are listening to. It just sounds like you, being pulled towards things that are less hard than every day seems to be. I’ll just stay in bed today. I’m not feeling well. I don’t need to go out. I’ll just cancel that hang out. I need some time, and then I’ll feel better. I’ll clean the kitchen tomorrow. Do laundry later. Feed myself another day.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow. Tomorrow. That is the siren song of ED. He pushes away your responsibilities first, making you feel like you are just taking a break. You ignore the depression creeping up. You believe his lies. This will make me feel better. But before you know it, you have lost a week. Suddenly you are feeling bad about yourself. You are feeling incapable of coming back, of checking back in. You feel like its your fault – you were lazy, indulgent, bad. You deserve where you are at. And more so, you don’t know how to get out of it. So you wallow. And you feel guilt. Another week passes. You are drowning. Another week passes. You can’t speak. You feel so guilty and shameful, and you don’t want anyone to know. I should have known better. I am supposed to be better than this. ‘They will judge you’, you think (another whisper from ED). You feel alone. More and more alone each day. You just want to feel better. A month passes. You are locked in a hole with ED and you can’t see the light anymore. He is urging you to use behaviors. Promising it’ll make you feel better. It begins to look enticing. This scares you. You want to wake up. You are drowning.
This is how it always goes for me. Somehow, without even realizing it, I’ve let ED back in my life. By staying silent. By staying perfect. By trying not to worry anyone. By keeping it to myself, struggling by myself. But silence is like a weapon. Or rather, like ammo — for ED. Silence is where he festers. Where he grows and feeds. Because even though you hate it, you need your supports, your team. You need them to know what is really going on. To be a part of the struggle. To be vulnerable and authentic with your struggle. Because you are not recovered. You are in recovery. And no matter how badly you want to be able to check off that box and be done, be better, that isn’t how this works.
My first warning signs are when I start isolating. First, I stop running errands. I spend days inside, on the couch, with the cat. I often have valid rationalizations, like feeling poorly, getting my period, or just needing a day off. But once a day turns into three, and suddenly it starts feeling like I can’t go out anymore. It begins to feel more and more difficult, like I am being weighted down to the safety of the home. Like the door itself has a physical tension to it, something looming and scary and forbidden.
Next, I cut myself off from others. I take every miscommunication, unreplied text, lack of likes on social media as a sign that no one likes me. No one cares. I don’t matter. I am alone. I will always be alone. (Note that always — a total red flag for ED seeping in. Always/never. Absolutes = RED FLAG).
I begin to get depressed. I’m feeling down. I try to reach out, usually to my mom about it, or my roommate. Those who are always in my proximity. I say I’m down, I don’t know why. They are concerned. I immediately brush it off, I’m fine, I can handle it. I will be okay. I don’t want them to worry. I don’t want to be a bother. All I want is for them to worry anyways, to care. But I always win. My dismissals are reassuring.
I reach out to my team. I’m feeling down. Use your skills, they say. As though I haven’t been. I only reach out when skills are no longer working, or I feel like they are inaccessible. I’m using all I can. Though some feel cut off to me.
Making. Expressing. These cut off first. These are the most important, the most effective. And yet, they feel the least accessible in times like these. I feel silenced. How can I make? How can I express? When everything inside of me has been pushed down so far. When I’ve silenced my suffering, to keep others from worrying. To keep myself functional. I can’t access it. I can’t express it. A total catch-22. I need to express to feel better, but I can’t express because I feel so bad.
Then I begin to feel hopeless. I begin to wallow. I escape in whatever acceptable means I can. No behaviors. But distraction. Mega-distraction. Comatose, on the couch, eventually the bed, watching films, tv shows on repeat, consuming media like I’m starving. Recently, reading. Listening to audio books. Anything to escape my reality. To live in theirs. Anything to pass the time. To make the minutes move forwards as painlessly as possible. To disconnect. To not have to feel. To numb. Until I can sleep.
Sleep becomes a respite at this time. When I can exist without the effort of breathing and eating and doing. When I can just go along for the ride. The next red flag: It begins to become more and more difficult to wake up. I lay there, trying desperately to stay asleep, to stay in my dream, long after my body has pushed to waken me. At first its just a few minutes at a time. Eventually its an hour. Nearly two. I just lay there, concentrating, desperately reaching for continued sleep that alludes me. On borrowed time.
I begin to awaken later and later. 10 am. 11. 12pm. 2. If I can’t sleep in the morning, I take a nap shortly after waking, after taking my meds and eating like I am supposed to. I meet my minimal requirements of functioning. Getting my work done. So I can say I am. But I long for sleep.
Then urges begin in earnest. This is when I realize something is wrong. And I don’t know what to do. I reach out to my team, my supports. They are surprised. But you were doing so well — what happened? I was hiding, can’t you see? I need help. Bring me back. Make it better. But now the fight is hard. It takes time and energy and effort to come back. It’s a trap. I see it now. It was a trap the whole time, and I fell for it again.
After I bounce back, I try to plan. Plan for the next time. Plan for ways to see the red flags sooner. To better deal with them when they show up. I get encouragement from my team, from my supports. They are all at ease again. I will be good, I think. And the cycle starts again.
I do not know how to stifle this cycle. I believe writing is one way. Expression. Even though it feels impossible when I’m in the depths of depression, I think that is ED’s lens making it look so. I think a lot of it is that. The looming forbiddenness of the outside world. The belief that no one likes me, that I am a burden. The draw to sleep rather than improving my reality. That reality can’t be fixed. The hopelessness. It is all ED.
I like to convince myself I am better, because I use behaviors so little now compared to a year ago. And in some ways that is true, that is a marker of ameliorating this disease. But that does not mean I am better. ED still has its holds. He is still constantly adjusting his plan of attack. And he gets me all the time. Being miserable is not living. And I so desperately want to live.
A part of me wants to conclude this with a paragraph about maybe. Maybe I can focus on building my supports, on reaching out more, on making myself speak up when I begin to feel bad, on making more, on making myself make more, on… That is the next stage of the cycle, right? Get it all out there, show I’m working on it. Getting better. Better prepared for the next time.
The truth is, I don’t know the answer. I don’t know what will make it better. I’m just going to keep fighting. And to hope that it will get easier in time. Because when you get down to it, beyond all the skills and check ins and everything, that’s all you can do. Keep trying.