What I’ve Learned and Done Since 1984 That Might Help Others Find Health, Peace and Happiness
As National Eating Disorders Awareness Week approaches (February 23 to March 1), I’ve been reflecting on how far eating disorder awareness has come since I stumbled into my first self-help meeting for compulsive overeaters, looking for what I’d never seen in my 8 years of bulimia – hope.
In February 1984, I was a lonely, scared and hopeless young woman who’d been hiding her bulimia since 9th grade from the world – from my swim coaches, my family, my friends, my Harvard roommates and everyone I’d ever worked with in a job. Most significantly, I was newly married and had recently disclosed to my husband that he’d married a defective billboard and I was desperate to save my own life. I was presentable and accomplished, but behind the billboard face was a blank slate. I didn’t know who I was if I wasn’t a woman trying to achieve body perfection (whatever that meant).My life changed one night not long after when I heard a normal-weight, attractive woman announce from across a room at a 12-step meeting for compulsive eaters that she was recovering from bulimia one day at a time. She was what? Recovering? And talking about it without shame? My recovering life started that night, and the rest of that story is in “My Name is Caroline,” the first major autobiography about bulimia recovery (Doubleday 1988).
The primary reason I believe I’m still standing at 52, as a totally recovered bulimic who hasn’t relapsed in the intervening years since early recovery, changed addictions or fallen down a physical or emotional rabbit hole, is because I used the hope from that night to generate the energy and continued hope that I could face down any challenge that came my way.
And come my way they did – family of origin issues, depression, an ADHD diagnosis in my 30’s, bankruptcy, job upheavals, pregnancies and parenting challenges, to name just a few. As I continued to develop my emotional strength in therapy, coaching, friendships and through sheer grit, I learned that staying in recovery was not for the faint-of-heart. In fact, the primary question I’ve received in the tens of thousands of emails, calls, letters and speech appearances since 1988 is: “Did you stay in recovery?” With so few public role models telling relatable stories that inspire hope that short-term recovery can stretch throughout adulthood, and depressing statistics that indicate someone like me probably doesn’t exist, I’ve chosen to tell that new story in “Positively Caroline.”
My newest book is not a platform to endorse any food plan, treatment protocol, public policy change, or nonprofit advocacy. There are no ads in my book from treatment providers that would create a conflict of interest and impact my honesty. I’m not a researcher, clinician, or professor striving to get tenure, and my professional identity doesn’t revolve around my recovery – in fact, the decades I’ve spent in the fields of coaching and Positive Psychology have given me some perspective on the state of the eating disorder field and the people who make money off of it.
I have no dog in this fight other than the same one that motivated me so long ago when I began to pound out my recovery story on a prehistoric computer that only featured orange typeface and weighed fifteen pounds. I want to light a new path that might give struggling sufferers, and those who love them, hope – in this case hope that full, long-term recovery is possible.
At the end of “Positively Caroline,” I go into greater detail about the points here – particularly how I believe Positive Psychology can play a bigger role in addiction recovery:
- I completely stopped drinking alcohol and using anything that might alter my mood, and haven’t ever revisited this decision. In fact, 12-step groups for alcohol recovery played an important role in the early years because witnessing and listening to long-term recovery talk taught me a lot
- I refused to get on a scale to weigh myself unless a medical professional needed to know, in which case I got on backwards and plugged my ears.
- I faced the fact that depression was an underlying contributor to my eating disorder, so I found the right anti-depressant in conjunction with individual and group therapy and have stuck with it.
- I confirmed my suspicions that I had ADHD, and found that stimulant medicine addressed a tendency towards impulsive thinking and behavior that had been a well-known personality trait since childhood
- I included exercise in reasonable ways without extremes, reinforcing natural strengths I’d lost sight of during my eating disorder
- My friendships continued to be with people who didn’t have addictions – many of whom were also in 12-step groups
- I returned to activities I’d lost to my eating disorder and finished them on my own terms – school, piano and swimming among them – to get closure
- I used the martial arts to help me learn how to defend myself physically as a way of resolving past abuse
- I steadily widened my diet of “safe” foods to include just about anything – giving me the freedom to go anywhere, anytime and be comfortable
- I shared my recovery and knowledge with anyone who asked for help which reminded me regularly to be humble and grateful
I’d love to have people with long-term recovery share more of their own helpful ideas and tips from personal experience here. There is a lot of power in shared wisdom, and we owe it to the people coming behind us to give them the benefit of what we’ve learned that might flatten their learning curve and give them higher quality of life much sooner.