Taking the Long View: On Recovery and Motivation

Recovery from a mental illness is a rough gig. I’ve written many times before about how I wish people would be more honest about just how difficult it is and what that difficulty looks like. Right now, my motivation is low. I want to be done with this stupid, frustrating, painful process. I want people to just leave me alone to wallow and make bad decisions. I want to be allowed to feel bad.

This is basically how I feel all the time right now

This is basically how I feel all the time right now

Now in the traditional narrative of recovery, this means that I’m slipping. It means the “eating disorder voice” or the depression is getting louder. It means that what I really need to do is double down and fight harder. It’s part of the “roller coaster ride” of recovery. If I don’t nip it in the bud though, then I’ll have given up, I’ll have wasted my progress. I’ll be back to square one, fallen harder than I did the first time and it’s all because I didn’t have “the proper motivation” or I didn’t “fight hard enough”. So if I’m slipping I need to keep my eye on the prize of recovery, think about how great I’ll feel, post a few affirmations around my house, and remind myself once again that I can’t live my life the way I have been living it (because who wants to live in the hell of an eating disorder if you can have recovery, amirite?)

If I was telling the story of my eating disorder, that would be the expectation of how I’d frame this. But that is not the reality. Here is the reality.

Recovery sucks. By most basic cost/benefit analysis standards, it’s a really risky, difficult, long venture. It takes flipping forever, and the time that you put into treatment is not fun. In fact it’s more than not fun: most of the time you feel even worse during treatment than you did when you were happily living out your delusion that starvation was the way to a great life. Things have suddenly gotten a whole hell of a lot more complicated and you can’t just rely on rules anymore. So say you’ve been trucking along in your mental illness and then treatment comes and hits you like a ton of bricks. You spend the next 2/3/4/5/forever years working through mountains of crap. And those years SUCK.

And the more you realize that they suck, the more you realize that a lot of the suckiness will still be there even if you do “recover” because life isn’t easy and being healthy isn’t easy and it’s hard work to enforce your boundaries and balance your needs with the needs of others and fight against sexist and damaging media and somehow put together a clear and cohesive identity that can stand up to the trials of life. So you get this picture that in the long run you’re going through a whole hell ton of suffering right now to maybe feel like you can cope with the fact that life is really hard later.

Now pile on the fact that it often looks as if you’ve made no progress whatsoever. Seriously. I’ve been at this for about 3 years (with the same therapist), through intensive programs, groups, dieticians and many, many, many hours of therapy, and a lot of commitment. Three years is a long time to be spending at least 2 hours every week in therapy and most of the time in between wrestling with all the hard questions. And yet when I think about the things that really get in the way of feeling content or grounded, I see no change. Perfectionism still drives me. I still feel unlovable. I still cannot accept praise and focus exclusively on the negative. I can still be flattened emotionally by one negative comment. I still personalize, I still tend towards black and white thinking, I still feel anxiety for no reason, I am still afraid of social interactions…

Logically, it makes sense to be a little low on motivation when there is little evidence of how far you’ve come, much evidence of the pain you’ve suffered and will continue to suffer, and no guarantee that things will be a whole lot better if you continue to work (for another 3/4/5 years?). Part of recovery is trying to make sense of what is worth it and what isn’t, what life can or can’t be like. This isn’t some sort of slip, this isn’t an indication that I just need to fight harder. This is coming to grips with reality.

But there’s another truth and it’s one that I’ve had a really hard time accepting. It’s about the long view. I spent the better part of 20 years developing these really bad coping strategies. It will take me a long time to change them, nearly certainly more than 3 years. For many things that I care about I am willing to invest huge amounts of time (schooling as an example), often because I can see that the end goal is worth it. And many times I can make these investments on faith (when someone tells me that I’ll get a diploma at the end as an example). With nearly everything else in my life, I can take the long view; I am willing to put up with the pain of the now to get something in the future, even when that something isn’t happiness or a perfect life. Why does the pay off for treatment have to be held to a different standard?

Now there are very real differences here. I like school, the pain that I’ve experienced while in treatment far outstrips anything else I’ve ever felt, and the evidence I have of the benefits of recovery aren’t as strong as the evidence I have of many other things (that, for example, a higher degree would make my life a lot easier). Recovery is harder than anything else I have done in my life because when I look at it logically I can’t guarantee that I’m making the right choice to pursue it. But if I look at the long haul, I can see that I can’t come to the conclusion that it’s failed yet. The experiment has to continue. And I do believe that when people are waning in their motivation, it’s because they are re-analyzing the long view and that view is scary.

But I hope others can join me in realizing that it has to be long, but we are capable.




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