One of the most difficult roadblocks to overcome in any recovery is the perceived need to isolate oneself. I’ve noticed that in the battle to overcome an illness, two distinct types of recover-ees emerge. There are those who, in a perfectionist bid to shield themselves from the judgment of friends and acquaintances alike, withdraw from those who might offer support. On the other hand, some open themselves up to the world, embracing the help of a network of supporters, willing to lean on anyone who offers understanding or comfort.
I fall in to the first category, and perhaps I’m wrong but I tend to think that I find myself in the overwhelming majority. Admitting to others that I am not perfect, that my “healthy” habits slipped into the underpublicized and oft-misunderstood realm of eating-disorder-not-otherwise-specified was the most difficult task I’ve been faced with thus far in my young life. The fear of letting someone else in to the struggles I faced crippled me for years, and as my symptoms crescendoed, my isolation deepened. The few tentative admissions I made to friends about the struggles I faced were often met with misunderstanding or even guilt. It is difficult to comprehend, of course, how going to the gym every day for hours and eating only foods deemed “healthy” could possibly be a bad thing. After all, doesn’t society value the diet mentality? It was no fault of my friends that the reply to my “I really shouldn’t have gone to the gym today, it was supposed to be my rest day” was generally “Oh god, I haven’t been to the gym in the weeks, how can you be so good?”.
Eventually, I stopped trying. I avoided conversations surrounding eating and exercise in part because I knew that the conversation always turned to self-hatred and poor body image when the topic of the gym or “healthy eating” was broached. The problem was, my behaviour had become so much a part of my identity that avoiding these conversations was extremely difficult. My days had revolved around the gym and food for so long that I had felt (falsely) that I had very little else to contribute to a conversation. I had also become the resident “expert” on these topics, and was frequently asked questions about them. Skirting the issue often made me feel extremely uncomfortable, so much so that later in the evening in the sanctuary of my apartment I would be paralyzed with tears and fears over what I was doing to my body, my mind, and my social life.
Being alone was both more safe and more dangerous for me. Isolation wasn’t always a choice, since sometimes I could not make it to the end of the street without feeling like I might pass out. Many hours were spent debating over whether a trip to the ER was in order with the only person I felt I could fully open up to, my mom. Unfortunately, these conversations took place on my tear soaked cellphone, from 6 hours away. All told, isolating myself in the cucoon of an apartment in a big city far from home was ruining not only my own life, but the lives of my parents.
Its ironic that in isolating oneself, one causes more harm to relationships than could possibly be caused by making a social faux-pas. The fear of making an unfixable dent in the “perfect” social persona one portrays drives her into isolation, and the isolation, in the end, causes more damage and misunderstanding.
The other trouble is that isolation creates a seemingly unbreakable circle. If others perceive that they are being ignored, eventually they will stop calling. This isn’t because they hate the recover-ee or don’t want to spend time with them, but it is human nature to stop behaviour that is reaping no rewards. The stopped phone calls, the halt in text messages and the curtailing of all contact is perceived by the isolationist artist, conversely, as hatred and dismissal. Isolation allows the doubt to creep in. Unfortunately, without that network of support to cope with problems, it is all too easy to fall back on what “works”, in my case, running until I am numb. Until it doesn’t matter that no one has called in weeks, or that I’ve lost contact with people who I once saw almost daily. Until I feel no pain, emotional or physical.
Truthfully, I struggle to overcome the desire to isolate myself even though I am now much more aware and open about my struggles and my process of recovery. Yes, wearing my heart on my sleeve has lead to misunderstandings in the past, but the cave of isolation in which I have encased myself has brought about many more. I’m no longer willing to simply sit back and go it alone. Admitting to others that I struggle is difficult, but without that admission I face this alone. Facing the long road of recovery is frightening enough; going it alone just offers another excuse to fail. No one should have to deal with this alone. And I’m not going to fail.