Important lessons get repeated


The best and worst thing about recovery is the learning. There’s so much of it.

I decided shortly before arriving that my last in-patient treatment was going to be the last. It was do-or-die time, not hyperbole considering both the status of my eating disorder and my recent suicide attempt.

Attempts screw you up beyond the issues that got you there in the first place. You learn truths about how far you’ll go and what lines you’ll cross.

You come back different.

You come back willing to cross those lines again.

Although I was aware that I was dying, I thought it was mostly because I was a failure. I simply couldn’t fix myself, and how wrong was that? I had so much knowledge. I tried so hard, every day, to make myself better. To make myself normal. To make myself perfect.

I failed, over and over.

There might have been a flaw in my approach. This is the blind spot of eating disorders and addictions. You think you know, but you don’t. It’s like drowning. You don’t save yourself all that often. [i]

I love this analogy.

My awaking to the reality that I’d crossed the line with my behaviour into a world of trouble was connected to a different suicide attempt – my first, at age nineteen. It quite upset the people in my dorm, or so I was told. It was at the end of the term, just before my last exam. Which I wrote, bandaged and mute.

 A lot of firsts came out from that first attempt. It was my first nervous breakdown – do we still call them that? It was my first psychiatric hospitalization.

It was my first selective mutism. It’s reminiscent of catatonia. I withdraw, extremely. I just didn’t talk. I mean I did, for the first couple of days. And then, I just stopped.

It was also my first experience with a non-religious inspirational author. My psych ward roommate was the source, introducing me to Og Mandino. Secular self-help, recovery, and inspirational advice weren’t fields I’d been introduced to as yet, though I read The Best Little Girl in The Worldover and over. That was hope – maybe there was a Dr. Garrett out there for me.

If you don’t write below the inserted images, the spacing is off.

I’d seen some inspirational, self-help books when I babysat, but they talked about Jesus to a degree that made me uncomfortable. I grew up in the bible belt and the world around me was very evangelical. They try and pray away much. I didn’t find God that helpful with my eating disorder.

I’m a big reader, but up until then, my non-fiction was mostly related to my eating disorder, and mostly not in a good way. Diet books and exercise books, make-up and fashion, how to be a model. Book after book full of picture after picture, so I could compare and fall short again and again. The books your eating disorder selects aren’t designed to get you better. They’re designed to make you feel like garbage.

I loved Of Mandino’s “The Greatest Salesman in the World,” by the way. I loved the next feel-good book too. With pop psychology, I felt heard, validated, and loved. It was the opposite of what I was feeling in life – silenced, imperfect, and never enough.

But I couldn’t make the book feels and resolutions stick. I couldn’t make the me that was into the me I wanted to be. My recovery efforts failed over and over. No one picks you up and dusts you off, either. Probably because you’re dying in secret.

What was I missing? Was I really such an incompetent human?

My inside voice says yes.

Then came Cedars at Cobble Hill, a hail-Mary, and the tuck shop. It sounds like the title of a mystery novel but it was my life in late November 2014. The shop was open during morning free time, a kind of recess for those of us working programs, and after dinner. They sold diet Coke, other, calorie-filled drinks I didn’t care about, candy, souvenirs, stamps, and books. So many books. Books for alcoholics and drug addicts. Books for people with eating disorders. Books for people who are co-dependent. Books for victims of sexual abuse.

Books by Brené Brown.

And so I came to learn about boundaries.

I met them again as I worked the program, talked in groups, and had one-on-ones, but Brené came first.

How strange that none of the doctors, counsellors, and therapists that came before suggested that my lack of boundaries was a problem. Except they probably did. But before Cobble Hill, although I was desperate, and although I went to appointments and talked, my ears didn’t work all that well.

They never do if you’re not ready to hear.

But dancing on the edge of death can sometimes make one receptive.

I bought, “The Gifts of Imperfection.” And then a copy of, “I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t).” I left Cobble Hill with a small library. I love these first books by Brené Brown. They spoke to me so clearly. They speak to many of us and isn’t that a tragic thing.

It’s like the ACE (adverse childhood experiences) study. When you see the numbers, when you see how many people are living with and dealing with multiple childhood traumas, it makes you want to weep.

Almost two-thirds of the study participants reported at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE), and more than one in five reported three or more ACEs.

As the numbers increase, so do the number of negative consequences.

You can’t undo the past, but you can change things moving forward. And though I struggle with mental illnesses, it’s boundary maintenance and enforcement, not neurotic flares, that are one of the biggest indicators of how well or ill things will go.  

It was weak boundaries that left me desperate, miserable, and abused in the past. Those experiences were not my fault, but a different skill set on my part – boundaries – would’ve helped. Boundaries would’ve perhaps lowered my ACE score.

In fear situations, we fight, flee, or freeze. In my imagination, I fight. I kick ass and take names. In reality, I freeze. I freeze for various reasons. Training. Because I don’t want to offend. Because I don’t want to upset someone else. You wouldn’t want to make that man groping you on the dance floor sad.

Because I don’t say “no” – for years, I was pretty sure I wasn’t allowed. Boundaries are helping turn that around too. I’ve come to enjoy saying no. I’ve learned that a “no” from me doesn’t cause my friends to spiral into a desperate and dark pit or some such similar fate. They simply go on with their lives.

I feel like a rockstar.

Unfortunately, life lessons aren’t one-and-done. We learn the same ones over and over. Not because we’re slow, as I used to accuse myself of being. Because we refine and evolve, and because the opportunities to practice keep coming.

And isn’t that a damn shame.

Boundaries. They need to be part of parenting. They need to be part of the education system. They’re vital to survival. We need them to thrive.

Learn them, practice, rinse, repeat.

[i] I have a near-drowning to my credit. I became hypothermic in the water after going over a small waterfall and ending up submerged for about a minute. Trying to get to shore was terrifying. I couldn’t make any noise, confirming what I’d heard, that drowning is quiet. I couldn’t get my body up level to swim. I hung vertically in the water, paddling with arms that felt impossibly tired, my nose just above water. When my feet touched gravel, I was shocked. I wasn’t sure I was going to get there.

10 thoughts on “Important lessons get repeated

  1. Boundaries have to be first defined, then enforced. I am learning to stay with the boundaries I have defined. It is hard sometimes. Great post will look into some of the books. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. YAY! I love Brene Brown because she writes “real” and “life” and she does not shy away from hard issues – thank God for Brene Brown! You are right ” life lessons aren’t one-and-done” and each “practice session” takes us deeper within ourselves peeling away the layers that have built up like a huge onion. To me, boundaries need constant review because they may change as I change, get tighter or looser or become permanent – it all depends on ME and that was not who mattered before … ME matters NOW and I decide how open or closed I want to be–YES, the freedom to be ME!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Exactly. How well phrased. Without boundaries, “me” disappears. I turn into a doormat with a “kick me” sign.
      I love the way you’ve expressed it – the freedom to be me. Thanks for commenting 😊


  3. “Unfortunately, life lessons aren’t one and done.” This is something that I catch myself getting frustrated with over and over, and I feel like I’d blame myself in similar ways to what you mentioned. Looking it as part of our ever-changing selves is more hopeful to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I came to a similar conclusion for a similar reason. I’d get so frustrated that I couldn’t get it done. But each time, it’s a little more. Subtleties and complexities emerge in later iterations. I got a lot less aggressive with my boundaries as time passed as well.


  4. I’m so sorry you went through all that but so glad you pulled through. You are a blessing and I feel like you are a blogging friend.

    Liked by 1 person

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