Flipping the Equation

We are honored to share the first of a five-part guest blog series from one of our OPC alumna – sharing a glimpse inside her path of recovery and lessons learned along the way. We are continually inspired by all of our women and are proud to share this post with you, our readers. 

A few days ago, a colleague – who is significantly older than I am and more senior in the organization – stepped into my office, closed the door and started talking about life. Nothing that made me uncomfortable, but certainly more important than her weekend plans or arguments about the serial comma (I’m vehemently against it.)  This happens a lot to me – partly prompted by the sign on my door that says, “Knock if You’re Interesting” – but more, I think, because colleagues seem to trust me, so they confide in me.

To backtrack, when I left Oliver-Pyatt Centers I returned to a job on the East Coast – a job I absolutely hated! I stuck it out for six months, but when I was offered a new position in California, I took it. On a whim. Knowing nobody… It could’ve been a disaster.

But, so far, it hasn’t been – 

Largely, I think, because it was the first time in almost a decade that I made a major move based not on my eating disorder’s alluring whisper that going to a new place would allow me to sink deeper into its grasp – but more because I was excited about the prospect of going somewhere different (warmer but without Miami’s humidity.) Somewhere in which I could create a new identity based on me as a person… not on me as a sick person.

And it worked –

Until one day I was talking to that same colleague – at 6:30 pm on a Friday when everyone else had been gone for hours – and suddenly I felt compelled to say, “Last year I spent five months in residential treatment for an eating disorder.”

I was shaking – because here I was, a normal size, seemingly high-energy and competent (albeit kinda quirky) – telling her something I had so badly wanted nobody to know.

Brene Brown said:

“Our stories are not meant for everyone. Hearing them is a privilege, and we should always ask ourselves this before we share: “Who has earned the right to hear my story?” If we have one or two people in our lives who can sit with us and hold space for our shame stories, and love us for our strengths and struggles, we are incredibly lucky.”

I realized in that moment that – throughout my life – there would be people whom I wanted to know my story. Sometimes for my own sake and sometimes for theirs. Often, though, for both.

Having an eating disorder is boring; anorexia does not a good story make. It creates a life of monotony, rigidity – asphyxiating sameness that strangles you slowly without your even noticing it because, in that state, you can’t notice anything at all outside of whether or not the grocery store still has your brand of plain yogurt.

But what you do with it after is interesting. People in my office call me an “old soul,” which I think is funny, because my story is really not that compelling. I’ve lived a privileged life, never suffered any great losses and been generally well supported by caring friends and family. But, more and more, I’m understanding that my “old soul” has been shaped by the stories I heard from other patients at OPC and how – no matter how horrific they seemed compared to my own – they resonated with something in me. 

And now I’m able to use those glimmers of connection to relate to things in other people. I have flipped the equation from being the flakiest, least reliable (at my sickest, I lost nine car keys in a week) and least trustworthy (i.e. pathological liar) to being the confidante. Recovery will do that to you, whether you’re ready for it or not. I can see things in people that I never previously would have noticed – how posture and voice inflection reflect how people see themselves in the world. How a person’s response to one (calculated) question will tell me whether it’s worth befriending them. How a single comment about a man’s father’s pancreatic cancer was the only thing that mattered to him in the span of a 20-minute conversation.

Or how to recognize when someone’s high-energy baseline has crossed the line into mania and that I need to invite them to coffee or tell them about something inane that happened on the train that morning…or else they will inevitably do something impulsive, uncharacteristic and regrettable. (A situation I can identify with all too well.)

And, thank god, there are a couple of people here who can do the same thing for me.

One of the greatest perks of recovery is being seen as trustworthy again…and perhaps I’m an even better listener, who is able to connect to people because of my own experience. Do I think it was necessary to have had (and made huge headway in recovering from) an eating disorder to achieve this status? Of course not!

But, having been on both sides, I’d much rather been the one whose door is always beckoning people to come in, close it behind them and tell me something real.