National Eating Disorders Association
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Choosing Recovery After Extended Treatment

Mindy Tabakin

When I left treatment several months ago, it was all I had known for twelve years. I was excited to start my new life, but I also realized that I had no clue what I was doing. I had never had to be an adult, and I was now in my early 30s and trying to navigate the world. I had missed out on so much growth, and I had no idea if it would be possible to catch up. I still have no idea, but at least I am fumbling through trying to figure it out. 

After being in treatment that long, there were so many scary things to confront that had nothing to do with food and body image.

Below are the top 5 biggest unknowns for me leaving treatment:

1.I have no idea what I want to do with my life.

In between my stints of treatment, I had working with adults with developmental disabilities in various capacities. I was always overworked, and I really didn’t like it. But I kept going back to it because I had no idea what to do. I still have no clue. When I finally got out of treatment, I realized I had absolutely no skill set outside of what I had been doing. Even my college major, psychology, I had chosen because of my eating disorder.

I ended up getting a job as a special education paraprofessional at a middle school. It is definitely a transition job, and I am not in love with it. But it does have consistency, a set schedule, and I really enjoy my coworkers. So, for now it works and it’s good for me. 

I am still terrified every day that I won’t find a job I really enjoy and that pays the bills. But for now, holding a job the entire year and having that consistency and connection is important. The rest is to worry about another day.

2. I know no one.

Okay, that’s partially a lie. I know a lot of people. But a majority of the friends I have made over the past 12 years I made in treatment. And in treatment you are forced to tell your deepest fears and truths to people you live with 24 hours a day. It definitely isn’t the same as meeting people as an adult.

I used to have the excuse of “I just moved here.” But let’s face it, I’ve been in Denver for two and a half years. I don’t have that excuse anymore. 

Sometimes it’s lonely as I figure out who my people are, but I also am learning to enjoy time to myself and time for self-reflection. I guess I have always had to learn to enjoy my own company first.

To meet people, I have been really engaging in life—figuring out things that interest me and going for them. I take a writing class, I work, I have started to play tennis, I go to temple. All these things involve other people, so I get to connect to my values while meeting people with similar interests. Kills two birds with one stone, I guess!

3. Life skills, what are those?

I never had to learn the basics of how to exist. Cooking was always done for me. Doctors’ appointments were set up for me. I have no savings from being in and out of treatment, so budgeting was never really a thing. I didn’t have to clean or fill the air in my tires or go grocery shopping. Technically, in between times in treatment I had to do all those things, but I was busy relapsing, so I didn’t.

As soon as I left treatment, I was instantly overwhelmed by even the smallest of things. Returning phone calls, checking the mail, cooking, really anything was overwhelming. I had to learn that I didn’t have to do it alone. I could ask for help until I was confident enough to do it myself.

I celebrate the fact that I clean my apartment every Sunday. I celebrate the fact that now I actually check my mail and pay my bills. I celebrate things that other people do without a second thought. And that’s okay. It’s a success for me. 

I am slowly learning how to do all the things that I probably should have been doing years ago. And I will probably be catching up for a while, but that is okay.

4. Who will I reach out to?

This one is related to the whole relationship thing, but it’s a little different so bear with me.

In treatment everyone got it. I could say I was struggling with something or anxious or whatever and someone would know what to do. I would celebrate eating something, and everyone knew what a big deal it was and would celebrate with me. 

Now I’m in this world where I just want to appear “normal.” And let’s face it, most people aren’t going to understand how to respond to my fears or my successes. But that doesn’t mean I have to face them alone. I still have a treatment team, and I still have friends and family that I can reach out to when I am struggling.

When I have successes, like the first time I stress ate with my coworkers instead of stress starving, I had people who I could instantly text and celebrate with. You may not have those people living with you all the time now, but you can still reach out.

I also write a lot. I started a blog about the struggles of recovery and of reintegrating into life after treatment. I write for myself all the time. And I write for my writing class. It’s been great. I have learned to use myself as someone I can reach out to, and I think that has been the most powerful thing of all.

5. What do I tell other people?

This one I have a really hard time with. I have been basically out of my life for a long time. And now I’m around people who have no idea of my history. What do I say to them when they ask what I do for fun? Or about relationships? Or why I moved here? Or what I did last summer?

I honestly really don’t have an answer for this one. I am still working through my own shame and fear of being “found out.” 

What I’ve found that makes me most comfortable is I don’t lie, but I only share what I am comfortable with. When people asked me what I did last summer when I first started work, I wasn’t comfortable saying, “Oh I was in treatment.” So, I just said that I didn’t do anything too exciting. 

If and when I feel comfortable telling people more information than they have now, I will. But that is something that everyone has to do on their own terms and timetable. I’m not there yet, but now I do have new things I can talk about filling up my life more and more. 

Now, I get asked all the time what made this time different. Why did I choose recovery now. I don’t have a solid answer to that question, because in a lot of ways nothing was different.

But here are a few of my reasons to keep striving for recovery after so many years.

1. I was missing too much.

In August of 2017, my baby brother got married. I wasn’t there. I was too sick. I was in treatment. I was FaceTime’d into the ceremony, but I missed actually BEING THERE. I was so upset, and I still carry so much guilt and shame over not being there that day.

I realized that I had missed so many things, and I would continue to miss things every day that I was ill.

I was sick of being left out of weddings and family vacations and relationships. I was done.

Now I get to be involved again. I get to see my nephew grow up. I get to go on vacations. I get to find things I enjoy and do them. I get to find people I enjoy and be with them. It’s exciting. And it’s worth it.

2. I was tired of being boring.

Okay, let’s face it, eating disorders make you kind of boring. Yeah, there’s lots of drama and life or death stuff, but when all you can talk about is food and weight, it’s pretty boring. I was incapable of having any kind of interaction that wasn’t marred by my eating disorder. I had no passions, very few relationships, and nothing that I had actually done.

I was boring. And I hated being boring. My life before my eating disorder completely took over was a whole lot more interesting. And I wanted that back.

3. I get to go back to my old passions and discover new ones.

One thing that has been really important to me over the past several months has been trying new things. And trying things that I haven’t done in so long to see if I still like them

My eating disorder had taken the joy out of everything. It had also taken my ability to do a lot of those things at all.

I started going to temple weekly. I wrote. I read. I crocheted. I figured out what kind of clothes I liked. I sang. And, finally, I started playing tennis, which was my biggest passion before my eating disorder.

I have found things I enjoy, and I am realizing I am a lot more multifaceted than the eating disorder allowed me to be. Now I can try as many things as I want. I can figure out what I actually want to do as a career. I can travel. I can do all those things that I never could in my eating disorder.

4. I was tired of being anxious all the time.

In my eating disorder, I had three feelings: anxious, depressed, or numb. People around me would have reactions to things, and I would either be numb to it all or just shaking like a leaf with no words to describe what I was feeling. Even when good things would happen, I would have no reaction.

Sometimes having emotions again is scary. But I now get to have the catharsis of crying when I am sad or getting angry. And, best of all, I can now feel joy, excitement, and gratitude. I was so one-dimensional for so long, it’s a great feeling to be able to have more layers.

I still get anxious. Everyone does. But now that I am capable of accessing more emotions, my anxiety is much less debilitating than it was before. 

For my whole life the eating disorder or treatment had been my story. I had slowly come to accept that this would be it. That I was just in a waiting game. That I would be a revolving door of treatment that was just putting off the inevitable of my eating disorder killing me.

When my nephew was born, I would have nightmares of my brother and sister-in-law having to tell him when he got older that he used to have an aunt. In those moments I decided that I had to have a different ending to my story.

I still have no idea what is going to come next. I have no idea what my story will be, and that can be terrifying. But it’s also exciting. Before, there was only one possibility and now the possibilities are infinite. 

Coming out of treatment has definitely been a challenge, and it continues to be a challenge every day. But it also has given me a second lease on life that I get to create from pretty much a blank slate. It’s both scary and exciting, and I’ve always enjoyed a challenge! 

And for right now I will continue to fumble through, because that’s what we are all doing in this crazy thing called life anyway.

Mindy is from Virginia Beach, VA and currently lives in Denver, CO. She spent 12 years in and out of treatment for her eating disorder and is currently exploring and rebuilding her identity, values and life. She is currently working with special education middle schoolers while also exploring tennis, writing, and other interests. She writes a blog, inrecoverybutnowwhat.com, about the struggles of reintegrating into adult life in recovery after extended treatment stays.