Abstinence isn’t recovery and other annoying truths.

Abstinence isn’t recovery, but you can’t have recovery without abstinence. Just another one of life’s bureaucratic annoyances.

If you spend time in treatment for addiction in one of its various forms, you’ll encounter the term “dry drunk.” That phrase describes someone who isn’t acting on their addiction, but who also isn’t recovering. They’re white-knuckling their way through and because of that, they’ll stumble. [i]

You cannot beat these issues with willpower.

White knuckles were applicable to me for most of my stop-smoking efforts, but it never really applied to my eating disorder recovery. When my bulimia is active, it’s active, so I never white-knuckled my way through attempts at sobriety. They lasted minutes at most. My eating disorder didn’t give me time off, and it was active for nearly four decades.

But I’ve quit smoking now, and I’m coming up on three years of no self-induced vomiting. [ii]

What I’ve come to realize is this: stopping the addictive behaviour is part of recovery, but it’s not all or even the most important part of recovery. I’m proof-positive that if a compulsion can’t find a door, it’ll come through the window.  

The eating, the lack thereof, and the bingeing and purging are the least of the eating disorder behaviours, for all that they’ll kill you. Recovery didn’t come from no more vomiting, though that’s been exceptionally nice. Recovery is in the brain. Much has to happen before we’re moving forward in recovery, dry status notwithstanding.

For me, recovery has been about working on the underlying this and that. Not purging is not recovery. My brain is well-aware of that truth; I suppose it’s why well-meaning compliments sometimes burn.

They don’t know about the inside thoughts.

The things that mattered least in recovery were the meal plans, though they did keep me from undereating and on a sober eating path (mostly). Having a window of time where other people took over my food preparation and service helped as well. I was able to calm down and distance myself from eating disorder behaviours. Only then can you hear what your heart and soul are saying.

I wonder how long before new becomes old, and some other maladaptive behaviours start to drift away?

Not this week.

My thoughts are still too often not my own.

I’ve been exercising too much. “Too much” in this instance refers less to the amount of time and more to the mindset. When exercise becomes a daily must instead of a want, when my sessions become result rather than process-focused, and when comparisons creep in and negative self-talk attacks at the thought of a day of rest – you’ll get soft, you’ll lose your momentum, you can’t follow-through – it’s time to contact Houston.

We have a problem.

It’s also in the clothes. I’ve noticed an increased avoidance of things that fit. I’ve noticed I’m once again avoiding things that are bright. I’m thinking about perfection too often these days, and the panic I felt when I put on a pair of jeans for the first time in a bit and then couldn’t decide if they were good or not because I couldn’t remember the size indicated issues.

Size x and you’re a good person, size y and you’re a disgusting failure of a human being.

Problematic behaviours seek openings and weakenings in our defences, and I’ve been down. This, that, and the other is weighing on me, and my response has been to spiral a bit.

Fatigue and anxious thoughts rarely lead us to a happy mental place.

Especially when the comparison demon comes out to play. I’m not a fan of the way she makes me feel. I’m not a fan of her profligate spending. She’s unconcerned with the fact that credit card bills come due. I asked Siri to collect the loose coins scattered about the internet for me, but she declined.


What to do then, when you find that you’re backsliding?

Ignore the first response which will be to call yourself nasty names and judge yourself harshly for being human rather than perfect.

Unless that’s just a me thing.

Acknowledge what’s happening. Addiction and compulsions tend to like secrecy. Keeping secrets, even from myself, got me in trouble in the past. I now try to face the truth head-on.

Acknowledge the situations with grace. Members of my club tend to be experts at treating ourselves badly. Our default is to expect perfection even in recovery. It’s an escape card. It allows one to bail on getting better at the first sign of an imperfection.

With humans, flaws always show up.

Don’t ignore what’s happening. That’s a slippery slope. Make changes. My life has changed significantly over the past two and a half years. What worked before doesn’t always work now. How I’m doing recovery changes – it’s fluid, not static. As we evolve, so must our recovery.

But if it isn’t about the food (or whatever your particular drug of choice may be), what are the addictions and compulsive obsessions about?

It varies, though we’re not as unique as we like to think especially in fundamental ways. For me and for the people I know, the most important and fundamental aspect of recovery is boundaries.

I didn’t have them going into my last in-patient, a do-or-die attempt. I have them now, and it’s when I stop maintaining them or believing I’m entitled to them that things start to go wrong.

Though sometime in the future I’ll have to apologize to the people I’m currently boundary-heavy with. [iii]

I obviously addressed food and eating in recovery. But recovery was never about stabilizing my weight and a meal plan. The thoughts that never went away despite doing those things prove that. But my brain is much less about the self-hatred these days. I’m more about observation and noting than judgment. That’s recovery.

That’s recovery sometimes. I’m not Gandhi. But it was learning to say “no” without guilt that got me here. It was learning that it was okay to put boundaries on other people’s behaviour that let me let go. Coming to believe that the only person I have to answer to is myself made freedom possible.

I don’t always love the consequences of standing firm. I’m lonelier now than when I was a doormat. I’m no longer able to accept crumbs and call it a meal. I hold people accountable for their words and behaviour now, family included. No one much likes it.

Sometimes the pushback from other people is severe – witness my current issues with my daughter. I’m glad that’s a “now” and not “then” issue. Not too long ago, her words and our estrangement would’ve destroyed me. It’s been devasting, and caused a flare-up of my PTSD and depression, but as I’ve worked through this and that (and acknowledged my imperfections as well), I realize that I failed to maintain boundaries with her. I was afraid of her rejection, and of her anger which is fearsome when roused. My habitual caving was partially why she reacted so strongly to my refusal to move on without a discussion of events.

But although I was spinning and spiralling, though I was in tears and black thoughts, I did not binge. I did not purge. I didn’t handle things perfectly – I exercised too much and played a little fast and loose with my cutting tic.

It’s perhaps odd to be casual about that kind of thing, but I’ve been dealing with the patronizingly renamed NSSI behaviours for a long time. [iv]

I held my ground and the eating disorder didn’t get to come out and play.

I consider that a rather splendid achievement, current reality considered.

Though gross popularity and a robust family life would be nice too.

“Perfection” is what landed you here.

[i] You’ll also encounter the phrase DOC. It stands for drug(s) of choice. If an eating disorder is among your problems, one of your DOCs is food.

[ii] I’ve had a kidney infection, so there was some involuntary vomiting.

[iii] Don’t end with a preposition. Corollary – Winston Churchill: this is pure pedantry up with which I will not put.

[iv] Non-suicidal self-injury.

9 thoughts on “Abstinence isn’t recovery and other annoying truths.

  1. Stating facts. You’re kicking ass in your recovery, even if it doesn’t feel like it. Keep on moving forward, even if it’s only one measly hard-won inch at a time. Sending you love and light. 💕

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.