Chapter Fifteen: Giving Up

I didn’t really want to give up my eating disorder when I started intensive outpatient treatment. I wanted to stop being miserable. I wanted to eat without feeling the overwhelming shame that flooded my whole being every time I put food in my mouth. I wanted to stop injuring myself from working out too much.

But I didn’t want to stop restricting how much I ate. I didn’t want to stop dieting. I didn’t want to stop working out multiple times a day and tracking every exercise and calorie burned. I didn’t want to gain weight. I didn’t want to let go of control.

Luckily, my experience getting sober taught me that I didn’t have to want to change in order to actually change. All I needed to do was show up and follow directions. I knew I needed to change, even though I didn’t want to. I knew my eating disorder was in charge of my life and making me a person I didn’t want to be. And even if I didn’t want to give it up, I’d reached a point where I couldn’t live with it anymore. So, I showed up at my intake appointment for intensive outpatient treatment.

The therapist who did my intake ended up being the one assigned to me for the duration of treatment. I didn’t want him. He wasn’t an eating disorder specialist, he wasn’t an addiction specialist. He wasn’t an anything specialist. And I thought that meant he wouldn’t be able to handle my *extremely unique* eating disorder experience, which I found out later was not actually unique at all. My ego just loves to tell me that I’m different so that I can’t belong.

I met with him twice a week, participated in group sessions once a week and saw a yoga therapist once a week. And none of those treatment sessions looked like what I was expecting.

I had a lot of ideas about what I thought treatment *should* look like. I’d get a meal plan to teach me how to eat enough of the right kinds of foods. I’d get a movement plan that would teach me how to workout in a sane way, like with rest days and less than three workouts a day. I’d go to group and meet some other women who were probably skinnier than me and we’d learn some coping skills together. I’d go to yoga therapy and learn to meditate and move gently.

But that’s not how it went at all. From what I’ve read about other people’s treatment experiences, my experience was fairly unconventional. Maybe it’s because I’m from Vermont and we take an esoteric approach to most things up here. Maybe it’s because I chose to go to treatment at a holistic, integrative practice because that was my only option short of going to inpatient out of state. I’m not exactly sure why, but my treatment was way different than what I’d read about, and in the end, that was absolutely perfect for me.

When I met with my individual therapist, week after week, all I wanted to do was talk about my eating disorder behaviors and my intrusive eating disorder thoughts and what strategies I could use to stop engaging in them. But that’s not what he wanted me to talk about. He started asking me about my trauma history, which I’d disclosed in my intake appointment. I tried to steer the conversation back to my eating disorder behaviors and thoughts and he said he didn’t want to focus on that. He wanted to focus our work on the deeper stuff. I tried to talk about getting a meal plan and an exercise plan. He told me I was too controlling and that a meal plan and exercise plan wouldn’t help me let go of my need for control, which I needed to do if I wanted to get well.

Frustrated, I started to lash out, saying that I didn’t think that approach was going to work for me and that I wasn’t here to talk about the stuff I’d worked on with other therapists for years. I was here to talk about my eating disorder. And he said exactly what I needed to hear, “Robin, none of this is about food or exercise. All of this is about managing your feelings and your trauma.”

Of course, that was the last thing I wanted to hear. I thought I’d worked on all that before. I’d been going to therapy to “address my trauma” for years. I’d talked about it. I’d faced it. I’d put it behind me.

When I told him all this, he acknowledged that I probably had done a lot of hard work already, but said that he suspected I’d never done the work to actually feel the feelings, that my history with alcoholism, addiction, and eating disorders all indicated that I never really allowed myself to feel my feelings. And he told me I had to really, truly, viscerally feel my feelings before I could recover.

I shot back that I had, in fact, done a lot of feeling my feelings after I’d gotten sober. I’d felt all of my feelings, all at once, in a completely overwhelming fashion when I couldn’t use drugs and alcohol to numb the pain anymore. He acknowledged that I’d felt my feelings at a depth I couldn’t have experienced while using, but then he delivered the killing blow to my defiance. He asked me if my eating disorder got worse when I got sober. And I couldn’t deny that it had.

In that moment, I knew that he had my number. He knew what was up and I couldn’t hide from him the way I’d been hiding from everyone else, including myself. That moment — which came several months into my outpatient treatment, after several months of combativeness and denial and defiance — was when I finally realized that to actually recover, I’d have to admit that I didn’t have my shit together, that I wasn’t in control and that I never had been. After that epiphany came the terrifying realization that in order to do that, I’d need to let this therapist see the ugly parts of me, the vulnerable parts, the squishy parts that made me feel so uncomfortable.

I was used to talking about my life and all the things that had happened to me. Part of staying sober, for me, was being honest with someone about my whole past. So, I had very little trouble sharing the traumatic events of my life with another person, but even as I told the truth about these events, recounted what happened, I always kept them at a distance. I never allowed myself to emotionally connect with the words I was saying and truly feel what I was talking about. I talked about my trauma in a flippant, detached way, insisting that it was no big deal. And I really believed it wasn’t a big deal because I didn’t feel that upset about it. I didn’t really feel anything about it. So, it couldn’t be a big deal, right?

Until that moment, I’d never realized that it was impossible to truly process my trauma while I was numbing out and spending all my time and energy on my addictions and my eating disorder. I’d never realized that for over a decade I’d been physically manifesting my trauma through the self harm of addiction and eating disorders. Instead of feeling my trauma with my heart and my soul, I was taking it out on my body and my mind. I’d been carefully controlling every piece of my reality to block out what I didn’t want to deal with. I’d been spending exorbitant amounts of energy hiding instead of processing.

Once I knew these things, I couldn’t hide behind them anymore. I knew that my eating disorder behaviors and thoughts weren’t really what was keeping me sick — the hiding, the veneer of perfect control, and the mask of being “fine” were keeping me sick and I’d have to give them up.

It was a terrifying realization. My whole life had been about finding the perfect combination of self destructive behaviors — alcohol, drugs, cutting, restriction, over-exercising — so I’d never have to feel a thing. One by one each of those behaviors had fallen away and there I was, still clinging to the last two. I didn’t want to let go of the only things I thought were keeping me from an abyss of feelings that I feared would swallow me whole. But I finally knew I didn’t have a choice, so I finally gave up.

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This Body Of Mine

A collection of personal essays exploring how my experience of my body has shaped my identity and my spiritual, emotional growth. Written by Robin Zabiegalski.