The Multiple Paths to Recovery Are Often Confusing
In late 2013, I first agreed to go to treatment. I was one of those rare people that put up no fuss when my parents cornered me at 2 a.m. on Thanksgiving night and asked me to get help for my eating disorder. My binge food remains dug out of the trash and the evidence laid out in front of me, I put up no fight.
The truth is: I was waiting for the moment.
I didn’t know how to self-advocate and was one of the millions who didn’t feel I was “sick enough” to need help. So on I trudged through the vicious eating disorder cycle until someone stepped in − in my case, my parents.
Some part of me understood there was a life out there bigger than the box I’d put myself in for nearly a decade. But I didn’t know what that world would look like and, looking back, was arguably quite idealistic about what the process would be.
Maybe the idealism is what helped push me into recovery. In a way, I’m grateful for it. The idealistic way of thinking that I’d get better quickly and that the eating disorder would vanish overnight made healing seem within close reach at the time.
Laughable now. Realistic then.
Eight years into recovery and there’s so much I could not have known then, when first heading down the recovery path. The most surprising lesson of all is that being in recovery from the eating disorder behaviors themselves is just the tip of a very large iceberg.
What I think I would have found helpful to understand (although maybe it was better that I didn’t understand or I might not have wanted to walk the path) is that you’re not recovering only from the behaviors; you’re recovering from a patterned way of thinking.
The black and white. When you make a conscious effort to change your life and your patterns, you’re going to end up taking a magnifying glass to other areas in your life as well.
The first couple years, I stumbled through recovery just barely surviving the weight shifts and the discomfort of new clothes and the loss of workout routines. It wasn’t until I felt strong enough in those areas that I started to look at other areas of my life, such as my relationship with alcohol and intimate relationships in general.
We live in a culture that welcomes alcohol in daily life, so it’s hard to recognize when our relationship to it is an issue. I didn’t necessarily think I had a problem because my friends seemed to be doing the same as me − and besides, I reckoned, I didn’t have blackouts and I always knew when to stop.
That line of thinking later created an issue for me. It’s not so much that my relationship to alcohol mimics a Lifetime movie about addiction but rather it influences the way I ingest food and the way I look at the world around me. It influences the way I view emotions and deal with the ebbs and flows in mood.
It’s been an interesting path that my initial healing led me down. I’m not sober currently but I’m always exploring. There’s some shame to that, too. Once I started talking about the concept of “drunkorexia” on the internet, there was a lot of pressure around me and internally to become totally sober.
I’m still not sure where I land on that. Can I have a balanced relationship with food if there’s wine involved? I explore. I watch. I listen to my intuition in any given situation where alcohol and food are involved. While sometimes an unpopular topic among those in the sober community, I spoke with a couple of people about the concept of different recovery paths.
Leah Young, LCPC, Clinical Manager of Addiction Recovery and Comprehensive Help Integrated Services (ARCH), has worked to introduce substance use treatment and education into ERC and Pathlight programming at all levels of care. In describing the ARCH program’s approach to substance use disorder, she uses the word “explore.”
“Rather than labeling people as alcoholics or addicts − or identifying whether or not they meet the diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder − we seek to explore how substances and addictive behaviors impact their lives.”
When I first heard this description, it stripped away my shame about being in the exploration phase myself. While I didn’t believe there’s only one right path to recovery, it was nonetheless comforting to hear from an expert that it’s not necessarily black and white.
Young continues: “While people can self-identify as alcoholics, the specific programmatic goals are less focused on clinical or diagnostic criteria, and more focused on understanding.”
According to Young, the earlier this work begins, the less likely an individual will experience long-term, potentially damaging consequences from substance use. And while the ARCH program is not averse to harm reduction, it does recommend that people refrain from using substances for the duration of treatment. This helps patients maintain clarity and ensures that medications are working appropriately. It also supports patients as they, to quote Young again, “build up practice with new coping skills, and remove substances from the equation. If we’re not using substances, nothing can be blamed on them.”
For me, this understanding of the nuance of exploring our relationships with relationships, drugs, alcohol, and food helps me grow more confident in my own healing. But of course it’s not the only way.
Sarenka Smith, Marketing Communications Manager at ERC and Pathlight, shares her path to recovery as follows:
“When I first got clean and sober almost half a decade ago, I knew very little about the recovery process. While well versed in the psychological and physical aspects of addiction, I was uncertain ‘how’ people entered recovery − and what that meant. My personal journey began with an inpatient treatment center, and ended in a women’s sober-living home in South Florida where I was introduced to the concepts of 12-step fellowship. This, in conjunction with a remarkable therapist who undoubtedly saved my life, helped me in the early days of sobriety and helped me chart a path to lasting recovery.”
As summarized by the American Psychological Association, the 12-step process involves admitting that one is powerless over our addiction; coming to believe in some kind of a higher power; looking at past mistakes with the help of an experienced sponsor/mentor; making amends for those mistakes; learning to live a new life based on recovery principles; and helping others who suffer from addiction. Many are familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous, and there have been multiple spin-offs such as Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and Sex Addicts Anonymous.
Smith also mentions other resources like SMART (Self-Management and Recovery Training), and becoming personally interested in the application of harm reduction principles to drug addiction, with the understanding that she had ample resources at her disposal when she decided to enter recovery. She reinforced that there are practical strategies that can lessen the negative consequences associated with drug use, and that this kind of proactive approach can help reduce the devastating damage of drug addiction.
Smith says, “I wish I’d known early on that addiction − while it has an inherent physical component − has little to do with the drugs themselves and far more to do with underlying behaviors. When I first entered recovery, I was under the illusion that I would magically transform into a different person. I firmly believe that the real work began after the physical detox and withdrawal had subsided, and I realized how much internal work remained. I remember feeling painfully lonely in early recovery, and I wish I had truly believed people when they told me I would one day have a life beyond my wildest dreams.”
At the end of the day, I was talking to someone about recovery and how it’s inherently pointless to think about what you wish you had known because it wouldn’t have made a difference at the time. All you can do it live it − whatever path works for you, and however hard and windy that road is.
Ultimately, I don’t wish I’d known anything about recovery before it happened. There was no other path but the one I’m on. And it’s brought me here − to an apartment in Medellin, Colombia, single for the first time in my life and with a cat I adore.
There was no other way for me. As there will be no other way for you.