How Do You Know When It’s Over?
Two questions I received after posting my thoughts on “Recovered” have stuck with me since.
How do you know when you’re done with therapy?
How do you know your eating disorder will never come back?
The more I consider these questions, the more they overlap for me. They’re both questions of over and done and past. How do you know that you’re over your eating disorder? How do you know that you’re done needing treatment? How do you know this is no longer you?
These two questions unnerve me because they shine light on the scary-but-true fact of the matter: I don’t. I don’t know I will never relapse, I don’t know I will never slip, I don’t know I’ll never have an ED thought, or act on it, or need help making my life (once again) one I can live. I don’t know.
But “I don’t knows” have stalled my recovery far less often than the need for certainty. Recovery is, in some sense, an obstacle course designed to teach us healthy risk. It’s the challenge of knowing when doubting is in your best interest, and when doubting will kill you dead. It’s the challenge of knowing when stubbornness is an act of courage and when it’s an act of fear. When rebellion is about standing by your sickness and when it’s about standing by yourself. These questions are difficult. We move from erring on the side of not risking or risking self-destructively to risking in a way that serve us, and we do so largely by making and reflecting on mistakes. We learn that the safe thing often protects the status quo and the risky thing might save us. We learn that discomfort doesn’t equal crisis and that the only way we’ve known to live is not the only way of living. At times, it’s not even a viable one.
I stayed in therapy for many, many years– for almost as many years as I lived without it, prior. For most of those years, I could not (and did not always want to) foresee a time when I would cease my regular chats with a therapist. After all, my therapist was — for a long time — my most consistent support system, and I often equated life “without one” as life without support. (Hadn’t it pretty much been that — practically speaking — prior to therapy?) Unable to imagine a time when I would no longer need support, I presumed I would always need therapy. I presumed that, in order to quit therapy, I would need to do the impossible: I would need to quit struggling — with anything at all — forever and ever, amen.
The same went for being recovered. The notion of “recovered” as over, done, and finished with illness is a big part of what’s kept me from claiming it. Even if I could go several months without struggling, even if I someday managed to go years, how would I know — without a doubt — that I would never struggle again?
I couldn’t. No one can. I can shake that Magic 8 Ball till I sprain my wrist; I still can’t know.
But I did leave therapy. And I am starting — still cautiously, still with a sense of abject terror — to use the word recovered.
I quit therapy without fully realizing I was doing so. The words themselves — “quit therapy” — still sound off to me. They sound off because I did not, at the time, feel like I was quitting much of anything. I’d grown frustrated with the approach of my then-current therapist and with what I saw as a lack of progress. I’d taken my concerns to the sessions several times; I’d reflected, long and hard, on how I might be contributing to that frustrated, stagnated Stuckness. And still, I found little was changing. I was managing well, maintaining the ground I’d already gained — but going no further.
I’d been in this moment a few times prior, and — in similar cases where no amount of meta-therapy or changing up my own approach improved things — I’d changed whom I was seeing. I began to consider that possibility almost by default. This isn’t working; I should consider working with someone else.
And then a friend of mine said, in a bit of a careful whisper, “Um. Why see anyone at all?”
Well. Because. Because I still have these things that are not sorted out. (I am still not whole or perfect or well.) Because I still struggle and I still presumably will struggle and because I still need support. Because I have been in therapy for a long enough time that I have forgotten to believe I can live without it. Because.
Now. The friend didn’t encourage me to quit therapy, per se. She didn’t suggest that I was well enough to do without, that I wasn’t still fucked in the head regarding a thing or two, that I did not have some non-life-threatening but still not exactly thumbs-up struggles to which I might attend. She didn’t argue that therapy was useless or a waste of money or an industrial complex fostering dependency for profit. She simply suggested, quietly, that a break from therapy might allow me to recognize how much I’d really changed.
Somehow, all these years into recovery, knowing I was a very different person, I still didn’t trust that my circumstances were all that different. It was as if, years’ prior, someone had thrown the drowning me a buoy, and — armed with that buoy — I had populated my pool with steps and lifeguards, lifejackets and shallow ends. I had spent years finding new ways to keep myself safe, sane, and above water. I had learned, figuratively if not literally, how to swim. But I was still holding that buoy, as if letting it go would change everything back to what it had been.
I loosened my grasp on therapy and let it float further and further away — to prove to myself that I could.
I needed to prove to myself that the changes would remain, that I would remain, that I would be able to cope and manage and live without it. Not because I needed to deprive myself of my best tool, not because I was uncomfortable needing therapy, but because I had reached a point where I was more comfortable needing it than I was letting it go. I’d reached the point where it was a healthy risk.
I knew it was time to stop therapy — or suspected, cautiously, that it might be — when stopping became my newest recovery challenge.
Like “recovered,” I held this at bay for years. I was waiting for the moment when I would be past needing therapy, past being sick. Instead, I came to the moment where stopping therapy and calling the sickness past tense had nothing to do with over, finished, or done. They became, instead, simply matters of continuing.
I knew it was time when I walked away not in order to be “past” anything but because that was the next step forward. I left therapy when doing so was therapeutic. I embrace “recovered” now as part of my recovery.
I still can’t predict the future. But I’m learning that’s not what these choices are about. They aren’t about stepping away from the past. They’re about seeing the past for what it is — and finding ways to step into that future all the same.