HEART TO HEART: Taking Risks in Recovery
As a young gymnast, the balance beam was my most challenging event. The beam itself was nearly as tall as my nine-year-old self! I became especially fearful of doing a particular move, a back-walkover, because I had fallen and sprained my ankle on a previous attempt. I was never a big risk-taker, but this fear paralyzed me. In order to regain confidence and trust in myself, my coach took me back to the basics. First, I practiced over and over on a straight line on the floor. Once I was comfortable, I moved to a balance beam that was a few inches off the mat, where there was little risk involved if I fell. Eventually I worked up to the low beam, and finally to a competition-level beam.
Recovering from an eating disorder is a lot like conquering a balance beam. There are new coping sills to learn, along with the constant risk of failing. There is even a fear of succeeding and subsequently having to rediscover one’s identity.
The good news is that taking risks is a skill that can be practiced. Smaller, less challenging tasks can be rehearsed. For example, learning to add one “forbidden” food to your meals without purging, rather than a whole new meal, is a small, but empowering, step. So is saying, “Hi” to one new person rather than mingling with many in a crowd. By breaking down the situations that cause the most panic into smaller, more manageable actions, a person gradually gains the skills necessary for those bigger tasks. Each success, no matter how small, cultivates a little more confidence and a desire to try more daring behaviors.
Learning how to fail
Equally important is learning how to fail. Gymnasts are taught the proper way to fall because it is both expected and inevitable that a fall will happen at some point, despite all training. Learning simple techniques minimizes injuries, ensures that a gymnast can continue her workouts, and allows her to trust herself in knowing what to do when a fall does occur. Similarly, recovering individuals need to learn how to “fall.” Relapse is part of the growth process. It shows you where you need improvement, teaches you forgiveness and resilience, and will ultimately make you stronger.
Every day is full of risks, big and small. Some work out, some don’t. But, for a person with an eating disorder, every failure tends to feel like a catastrophe and confirmation of unworthiness, fueling the disorder even further. It is important to recognize and accept that setbacks happen, but they don’t negate all the progress that has been made. Just as rest, ice, and sometimes medication are necessary to treat a sprained ankle, rebuilding self-worth, confidence, and compassion are the “first-aid” steps required to move past stumbles on the road to recovery.
Have a strategy in place
Tried-and-true relapse prevention techniques help reduce the number and severity of “falls.” It is critical to have a strategy in place before encountering that bad day or difficult situation. Create a personal list of healthy coping skills (such as calling a friend, getting out of the house, journaling) so they’re on-hand when needed, rather than having to come up with one in the midst of a crisis.
Recovery is not an “all or nothing” undertaking. It is a journey that rarely follows a smooth, predictable path. However, like the gymnast who combines several tricks to perform her individualized routine, someone with an eating disorder can build on a repertoire of skills to design his or her unique recovery. In each case, taking risks is a valuable tool for growth and discovery.