Saying goodbye to santa and hello to yoda
Confession: I love reading books about rehab. Memoirs, fictional accounts, self-help journeys, I’ve read them all. Even though I worked in chemical dependency and eating disorder programs for over a decade, and continue to work with recovering women in my private practice, I’m not being a martyr. I actually enjoy reading these books. Partly, I screen them to decide whether to recommend them to clients (any book that teaches new disordered eating techniques, mentions clothing sizes or weights, or finding a new way to get high is automatically off the list). I also treasure working with and reading about the early days of recovery, as they are often such a rich, albeit challenging, time of growth.
I just finished reading Believarexic, a novel by J.J. Johnston. It is the story of Jennifer (J.J.)’s adolescent journey into a hospital treatment center for eating disorders. Besides the frightening but quaint 80’s references (cassette mix tapes, awful fashion trends, a psychiatrist smoking?!) ), this was a lovely book that I would highly recommend. Here was the hook:
“In her heart, J.J. knew that she would be a happy, healthy adult one day. But how? Instead of a clear road to that future, J.J. was lost in a twisting maze. She needed a guide, a mentor, someone who knew her inside and out. So one morning before weigh-in, J.J. closed her eyes and promised: When I’m grown up, and thriving, I will come back to this me- here, now. Healthy me will help bulimarexic me find the way.”
So much of recovery is about trusting that thread that you are sending into the future for yourself. The courage it takes to send that thread out ahead of you into your future life often gives you the grit and vulnerability required to delve back into the past to heal the hurt parts of yourself.
We go there with Jennifer in this book: back to her experience in her family of origin, her anxiety with her mom, separating her mom’s anxiety from her own, her anger toward her dad, her dad’s anger, her hidden alcoholism and the generational links, her desire for perfection and to be “good” (or if not good, at least thin)…
Some of the recovery highlights J.J. learns on her journey include:
Not Dancing on the head of a pin
It is impossible to dance on the head of a pin: expecting yourself or anyone else to sets you up for disappointment and suffering. J.J.’s therapist advises her in her treatment to not idealize or devalue anyone, including herself in her recovery process. No-one is All Good or All-Bad; No-one can maintain perfection all the time or make horrible mistakes all the time.
Melonie Klein, an early Freudian, first coined the term “good breast/bad breast” in her object relations theory conceptualizing how infants “split” their caregivers into good or bad, but aren’t able to integrate them into a cohesive, imperfect being.* Although this may sound infantilizing, it is actually something we all do and takes a mature person to integrate this on a deep level into their Being. On her treatment journey, J.J. must allow staff members and herself to not be all-good or all-bad in order to break this pattern from her family of origin. Here is a conversation she has with her therapist:
I wonder if you have a habit of idealizing people.
What do you mean? I don’t idealize my dad. Obviously.
No? When we idealize people, we place them on the head of a pin. If they are perfect- kind and loving, like your mother- there they will stay. But if they are less than perfect, they will topple off. One mistake and down they go…If we idealize people, we also create a wide space between ideal and not ideal. I really want you to think about this, because I believe you do this to yourself, too.
What? I definitey do not think I am perfect!
When we are perfectionists, we idealize ourselves. You are making yourself stand on the head of a pin. It is a grueling balancing act. You do not allow yourself to make any false moves, any mistakes. You have no freedom. You must earn top grades…excel in extracurricular activities…be liked by every single person…look a certain way…maintain a dangerously low weight, or you fall off the head of a pin.
Recovery is an often painful process of allowing yourself and others to imperfectly make mistakes as well as be impeccable with their words and actions.
(Side note on where I do hold an absolute position as someone who recovered myself before working in the field professionally: if you are working professionally in the field of recovery, you need to be recovered from behaviors and have your own support outside of work. Professional supervisors and colleagues must ethically check and support each other in maintaining this necessity. This is NOT EVER, EVER the patients’ responsibility and mirrors dysfunctional family dynamics in treatment settings when it occurs.)
Coming to Peace with Santa No-Longer-Being-Real
One of the most poignant scenes is when Jennifer has Christmas while she is still in treatment. She goes on a pass outside of the hospital to see her parents, who come to visit her in a hotel nearby. It is a disjointed family making the best of the pain they are living through. It is the beginning of Jennifer no longer being a child and unaware of her family system’s imperfection. There are all kinds of uncomfortable feelings, communications, and dysfunctions. It reminds me of when kids discover there is no Santa. Painful.
Recovery is kind of like that: it is about letting go of magical thinking and taking responsibility of your own happiness. There is sadness in letting go of the illusions. Being aware of how everything is not perfect in your family is painful. Discovering that Santa will not come and deliver presents magically (because he is able to read your mind), and travel down the chimney (even if you don’t have one), is painful.
Jennifer’s clothes are becoming too tight as she gains weight. It is too painful for her to go clothes shopping for new ones yet, and she can’t have diet soda anymore. I remember the pain of this weight gain 20 years ago in my own recovery process. I now work with women every week bringing their ED (Eating Disorder) clothes into my therapy office to ritualize the sadness of letting them go. They cut them up, write goodbye letters, turn their ED clothes into art or journal projects in order to support their larger life in recovery.
The good news is recovery is freeing, too. You are not responsible for anyone else happiness. You don’t have to take care of anyone but you. You get to have your own anger and joy. And you get to make your own decisions. Jennifer discovers she is not responsible for defending her mom, that her dad is not “all bad,” and that her brother would rather be skiing that be with them for Christmas. And she gets to choose to never go back to treatment again and to do whatever it takes to stay in recovery.
Do or Do Not. There is no try.
At one point early in her hospital treatment, Jennifer discovers that her psychiatrist is not just a clinician. She is also a human being who is able to quote relevant material relevant to the recovery journey. When providing compassionate awareness to her struggle, her psychiatrist notices that she is very hard on herself and that she is in the early stages of learning how to be assertive with her needs. When Jennifer has cried and screamed at what she (rightfully, we discover later) feels the nurse accuses her of being untrue, her doctor provides perspective and throws in a lovely quote. (I thought this to be timely as this week clearly Star Wars continues to inspire the next generation…)
Jennifer needs to know her fate. She searches Dr. Prakesh’s face for answers. “[The Nurse] said I’m going to have consequences?”
“I do not believe you have done anything that requires consequences.”
“I had a tantrum.”
“You certainly did. Dr. Prakesh raises her eyebrows. That is something I would like you to work on. Communicating your needs, assuring yourself in a reasonable manner?”
“Good,” Dr. Prakesh says. “Now scoot off to breakfast. And do not let this ruin your whole day.”
“I’ll try.” Jennifer says.
“Do, or do not,” Dr Prakesh says, “There is no try.”
Even if Jennifer hadn’t been inclined to like Dr. Prakesh before, she would now. Her psychiatrist just quoted Yoda.
This holiday may you celebrate your recovery. May you remember the hard times and the work you have done, may you honor the ways you are no longer suffering, may you help someone who still is. Though Santa is not real, it’s possible to find a whole new magical life, based in the reality of you learning to be YOU, one day at a time. It IS possible. So many of us have made the journey and calling you to continue. As J. J. states in the addendum:
” GET. HELP. I’m not kidding. If you have even just a glimmer of a spark of a thought that you might have an eating disorder, then your eating is disordered enough to need help. The End. Full Stop. No arguments.
“There is SUCH A BETTER LIFE FOR YOU. Recovery is not easy, but it’s worth it. I promise.”
I could not agree more. Amen.
* Melonie Klein Click here for info on Melanie Klein theory