Learning to fly

When I was in treatment we did a lot of motivation building exercises. We talked about why we wanted to recover. We made a lot of lists – lists of all the good things about recovery and all the bad things about being sick, all the things we would be able to do when we were healthy, all the things ED had taken away from us, all the ways our illness hurt our loved ones, all the things ED made us lie about. Lots and lots of lists. We wrote out what a day in our life looked like now and how it would be different in recovery. Then we made action plans targeting each behavior we wanted to change, like really detailed contingency plans of how to access support and work through urges and implement coping strategies.

And I was really fucking good at those lists and plans. Like gold-star, top of the class, teacher’s pet kind of good. And yet I wasn’t recovering. In fact I was getting more and more sick. This disconnect seemed to really mystify the professionals. I said I wanted to get better. I acknowledged that being sick sucked. I knew what I needed to do. So what gives? Was I lying when I wrote pages and pages about how much I wanted to be recovered? Was I just bullshitting my way through treatment? Filling in the blanks in the action plan worksheets all the while counting down the minutes till I would go home and binge and purge and starve?

Well sort of. But its a bit more complicated than that in a way that I couldn’t articulate at the time. I was talking to someone recently who was frustrated that their loved one could say all the right things but wasn’t acting in a recovery-oriented way. I used this metaphor to try to explain it to them.

Imagine someone asking you if you wanted to be able to fly. You’d probably say yes right? Imagine them asking you to make a list of all the things that would be totally amazingly life-changing and awesome about being able to fly and all the things that suck about having to walk instead. Actually imagine you can’t even walk – imagine you can only crawl around and then compare that to flying. I bet you can come up with a lot of reasons why you would like to stop crawling and fly instead. Now imagine writing a plan about how you are going to learn to fly. Maybe it looks something like this:

1. find a flying school and sign up for classes.
2. attend flying classes
3. practice flying every day
4. read about how to fly
5. visualize yourself being able to fly
6. remind yourself how awesome life will be when you can fly – write out a list and carry it around with you so you have it when you are tempted to stop trying to fly
7. ask friends and family to support you in learning to fly, to remind you to practice and cheer you on when make progress and encourage you when its hard.

Ok so now you are going to do all of those things right? You are going to devote time and effort everyday to learning to fly. Right? Because it would be SO AWESOME. Because YOU DESERVE TO BE ABLE TO FLY. Right?

Wrong. You aren’t going to do that because its not going to work. You are never ever going to be able to fly no matter how long your lists are or how detailed your plan is. Its just not going to happen. The lists and plans are a purely academic exercise – interesting to think about maybe but not rooted in reality.

Recovery is a bit like that. Only harder and scarier and more painful. Sure if I could have snapped my fingers or clicked my heels and all of a sudden been RECOVERED I totally would have. But I didn’t believe, not with a single fiber of my being, that it was actually possible. So I wrote the lists and I made the plans and it was all a lovely fantasy. But no fucking way was I going to go throw myself off a cliff hour after hour, day after day, with no safety net in the hopes that eventually I would stop crashing into the ground and be able to fly. I couldn’t understand why everyone thought I should be doing that. It didn’t make any sense.

I’ve written before about how important caregiver and clinician confidence (real or faked) in recovery is – how they have to be able to hold the hope for the sufferer until the sufferer can hold it themselves. Keep showing that hope and confidence but don’t expect them to believe you. Know that what you are asking them to do feels impossible and painful and stupid and pointless. Know that you are taking them up to the top of that cliff and throwing them off and that your promises that one day they will be able to fly sound hollow and insane.

I know how hard it is to believe in recovery when you are sick or in the trenches fighting alongside a loved one and I’m pretty sure there is nothing I can say that will change that. But I’ll be damned if I’m not going to keep trying because I can fly now and its pretty fucking cool.



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