I’m not someone who berates herself for not getting everything right. Contrary to popular belief about people with Anorexia, I am not a perfectionist, not Type A, and don’t really care if I get an A, B, or C so long as it is a pass.
I don’t like failing through. Who does?
My recovery from Anorexia as an adult felt like one failure after another. I could go from delirious hope to devastated hopeless in a two-hour period. That feels shitty. However, the feeling of frustration that we humans get when we fail is there for a reason — learning.
Failure feels nasty. It can make you want to give up. Those voices that amplify and say “see, you can’t do it idiot, so you may as well not even try anymore” are not helpful. They are there. You can ignore them. You won’t succeed in ignoring them at first, and that can make you feel like a failure all over again. But chin up. And listen up:
In recovery as an adult, you have to learn how to do this not just for a stint, but for life. And that means that you have to learn what works for you and what doesn’t. And I’m not talking large-scale “what works” I’m talking small scale most of the time. The details. It is the details that separate us from other people, and make us unique. Only you can write the book of your own recovery. Only you have the information about what works, what doesn’t, and how your brain operates.
Failure is a gift. I believe that the years of failure I went through are what have lead me to be as robust in my recovery as I am now. I am not invincible, but I am at least sturdy. I believe that this is because in getting here I have done all the wrong things.
Failure gives you information that success cannot. That information may be what keeps you in recovery.
If you feel like you have failed it’s a good sign that you care.
I didn’t feel like I was failing in recovery before I actually wanted recovery. Sure, I felt like I was failing for other reasons but recovery wasn’t one of them because it wasn’t even on my agenda. It was something other people told me I should want, but I didn’t.
Come the time that I did want to eat more and I did want to weight restore and every moment felt like a failure. I was hungry. I wanted to eat. However, whenever I did it there were eating disorder conditions on it. I couldn’t eat as freely As I wanted to. So even when I did eat I felt like a big fail.
The point is that to feel like a failure at all you have to give a shit about whatever it is that you have not managed to achieve. This is a good sign. Feeling like a failure means that you care.
Don’t talk yourself out of acknowledging those little niggles
If I failed at ordering a cheeseburger but succeeded in ordering a burger at all, I could easily have fobbed myself off with “well, you ate, and you ate something that you would not have eaten this time a year ago. So be happy with that.”
That relative success point is very true. I don’t want to take away from that. Eating is always a win. Relative improvements are not to be taken lightly. I should feel like a success for that. I should hang on to that.
But I shouldn’t allow relative success to make me settle. I wanted a cheeseburger. I felt like a cop out for not having one. I have to pay attention to that and allow that feeling to drive me next time. To help me learn and help me want more.
Those little niggles of dissatisfaction are important to listen to. They can be used to channel determination. They give you information on what it is that you really want. It was those little niggles that meant that I made it up to a cheeseburger one day.
Self-disparagement is a distraction you don’t have time for.
“I’ve failed, “I’m a failure. I can’t do this. I might as well give up.”
Nothing to say much about this other than stop indulging in it. It is a distraction. A waste of time. You will keep going, so skip this part and jump straight to determination.
Get over yourself — there is no A* in eating disorder recovery. If you were expecting a linear path forget it. You will fuck up. You’ll fuck up. You’ll get pissed about it. You’ll make changes and you will work it out.
Recovery is messy!
Some common trains of failure thought
Thought I would write out a couple common trains of failure thought that I get emailed about all the time and that I worked though myself too. I think that sometimes seeing that other people go through these thoughts too is helpful:
I”ve failed at recovery because I didn’t eat as much as I set out to for breakfast
Are you kidding me?
Do you think that I went from nothing to a full English Breakfast in a day? A week? A month?
I didn’t. I have known people who do. I on the other hand wanted to eat more yet failed to eat more for a long long time. You just keep trying and keep learning and keep pivoting and trying something different if you don’t get that extra egg down this morning. The desire to do it is there and that is by far the main thing.
I’ve failed at recovery because I cannot admit that I want to eat
What is it with this? Anorexia has so many utterly illogical rules and regulations. Such as the one where I was not allowed to admit to liking food, and certainly not to hunger. Anorexia told me that this was a failure. There is a lot of arrogance in the illness, and I think that invincibility is one of them. Something along the lines of that to have to eat is something mortals do and therefore in order to be “special” I could not admit to wanting to do that.
Give me a break.
Oh, and then, when hellbent on recovery, that was turned on top of itself and I felt like a failure because I couldn’t admit to wanting to eat. This is the most wonderful part in the recovery process where the “healthy brain” and the “Anorexia brain” both get at you at the same time.
I was very hungry. Restriction squashes that hunger somewhat for sure, but when I started eating again I was ravenous.
In the early stages of recovery, however, despite my hunger, and despite wanting to gain weight, I still refused food.
Mum: Want a sandwich Tabs?
My inner healthy-brain voice could have been screaming at me that I wanted to eat. But the eating disorder still won for a long time. I felt helpless and useless against it. Utter failure.
Why couldn’t I just say yes? In fact, even the thought of saying “Yes” brought me out in a cold sweat. What’s with this?
I was programmed to say “No,” that’s what. And re-programming takes time and consistent effort. But the discomfort that I felt and the failure that I felt every time I said know taught me that I really wanted to say yes!
One day out of pure frustration I decided this: I am going to say yes to everything from now on. Be it a cup of tea or a bloody cheeseburger. I am going to start saying yes if it kills me!
And I did. And it didn’t kill me. It gave me a whole new life.
I’ve failed at recovery because I have been to IP/tried before and always relapsed
First off, you haven’t “relapsed” because weight restoration alone is not “recovery.”
Weight restoration is a first step, but it is not “recovered.” Not by a long way.
Second, just because you have gained weight before whilst in a treatment centre or previous recovery attempts and then lost it when you have come out is not a reflection on you. It is a reflection on the system. And boy do I have a lot to say about that!
I’m not going to turn this post into everything that is wrong with the system. But I am going to say that usually the “target” weight that insurance companies cut you out at is too low for you to be anywhere near fully weight restored. Additionally, the brain lags behind the body in terms of healing so you are not even part of the way to full recovery even if you hit some arbitrary BMI. Then there is the case that if you have been eating under pressure and as dictated to by an IP program when you hit the streets you have no idea how to eat alone. On top of that you are at the stage where the anxiety and eating disorder voice is at the very loudest because you have gained some weight yet you are still not mentally healed enough to deal with that.
Not to mention that in my opinion the cruelest thing that you can do to a person with a restrictive eating disorder is to put them in a larger body with a very active and loud eating disorder still in their head. And that this happens with traditional models because people are put on strict meal plans that mean they are weight restoring while still in restriction!
Meal plans often force people to weight restore within restriction because they do not account for or encourage the mental hunger that I believe it is crucial that one responds to in recovery. In others, they also encourage “counting” which is, again, an eating disorder behaviour. Oh, and not to mention they reinforce the idea that there is such as thing as “too much food.” Regardless of the relative increase or change in consumption, if the malnourished brain is screaming I don’t want one burger I want 10 then eating only one burger is restriction. Yet IP treatment centres don’t allow for this. So what happens is weight restoration starts, but the brain still feels like it is in restriction and therefore the eating disorder is still very strong.
You may be able to tell that this is a sore point and something I feel incredibly passionate about. You can check out this little video I made on this subject here.
The TL;DR is that you should not think that just because you went to IP or have had pervious recovery attempts and “relapsed” that you have failed. Nope. All you have learned is that it is very hard to recover fully whilst still restricting food and an alternative approach is required. Or additional outpatient support. Or family support. Whatever it is, we can work it out and learn from what didn’t work for you before. We are not all the same. We do not all respond the same way to treatment. Treatment has to be individualized and agile.
Couple things to do when you feel like a failure:
1. Acknowledge that you don’t feel right. It’s okay to think that you could have done better.
2. Acknowledge there relative change. Look back 6 months or a year and see the improvement. This will shift you from monkey brain into analytic/logical brain and that is helpful for the next step, which is:
3. Work out what doesn’t feel right – where you went wrong. Approach this objectively. What don’t you feel happy about? What could you have done better?
4. Make a plan on how to learn from this and what to change next time. Allow yourself to feel excited/nervous about whatever it is that you know you have to do next time.
5. Make the decision to follow through with your plan next time and put the whole issue to bed. Dwelling is like worrying. Ineffective waste of mental energy
Important: Change things that are not working. Try something different.