Silencing the “Shoulds”

Tapping In

Amid a therapy session, my therapist asked for me to think of an encouraging image from the last week to “tap in”. Tapping therapy is a tool therapists use to connect the mind and body. The practice reduces traumatic memories. It can also help to reinforce positive ones. As instructed, I crossed my arms over my heart. My fingers clutched my collar bones.

I thought.

A scene of my husband Gabriel began to play. The morning before, I had abruptly started my period. We were drinking coffee. I was still in my robe, pretending that work wasn’t looming. My husband noticed it first. The blood on my leg. Our eyes widened. I rushed to our bathroom–looking for the evidence. There it was.

High Fives in Order

Gabriel’s eyes glowed with incredulity and hope. He gave me a high-five. We hugged. Kissed. Cried.

It was my first natural period in over four years.

The eating disorder I’d developed as a 15-year-old was a thief. It stole Mimi’s homemade pie in high school, comradery at Steak and Shake in college, the beautiful curves I’d inherited from my mother after graduation. If that wasn’t enough, it seized the reproductive functioning of my body. My periods stopped at 17. They only reappeared when my pediatrician prescribed a jolt of birth control.


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Living in Denial

At 19 years old, my periods vanished again. After battling the anxiety of their absence for the next year and a half, I again leaned on the band-aid of birth control. I wanted to mask living underweight; ingesting estrogen for the illusion of safety was easier than confronting the underlying darkness.

A Much Needed Shift

At 24, I am now actively exposing what I failed to fight for so long. My increasingly healthy body is grateful. My recent period is proof that with a reliable stream of nourishment throughout the day, my organs can expend energy in less critical areas. My female body is reacting like it should when it feels safe–without the crutch of bottled hormones.

Continuing the tapping exercise, my therapist urged me to attach a title, an “I statement”, to my new menstruating memory. With my eyes closed and my fingers maintaining a steady tempo, I thought of how much my husband and I yearned to have children one day. Recovering my healthy body was a step toward that dream. I eventually murmured, “I…deserve a family.”

I’m relatively new to recovery. The last five months has been a series of torrid therapy sessions and nutritionist appointments. Though the road, no matter how exacting, has brought clarity. The most important thing I’ve learned about the sickness sabotaging my soul self is this:

Eating disorders will try everything in their power to minimize the victories of recovery

The Should’s Settled In

Mere hours after my triumph on our toilet, my eating disorder began to discredit the accomplishment. It snarled endless streams of “shoulds”:

·       You should never have even stopped having a period.

·       You should have started treatment years ago.

·       You shouldn’t recognize something that’s normally a given for a girl. That’s silly, ridiculous.

The “shoulds” undermine my other successes in recovery, too. When I finally told my older sister that I was seeking help, the eating disorder insisted I should have told her sooner. I ate a whole bowl of mac and cheese with my husband on our latest camping trip; the eating disorder smirked. It highlighted the adventures where I’d starved myself. I should have been able to adequately feed my body after exercise eons ago. I triumphantly walked by the scale in the work gym without impulsively stepping on it last week. Of course, the eating disorder recalled the time last month when I should have practiced the same self-control.

Shame is a powerful tool used by eating disorders. Between the lines, the “shoulds” are saying “waddle back to your destructive habits. At least you were successful at them.”

Enough is Enough

I successfully starved my body and mind of grace for years. Perfectly adhering to the rigid rules of restrictive eating promised a means to control the unknown and a way to smother crippling anxiety. Neither of these promises were realized. I may be imperfect at recovery, but I now measure success differently.

My new standard: if a decision brings me even an inch closer to a more whole existence, it is a feat worth celebrating.

Internalize the small successes. Tap those in with your health care professionals. Feel those truths flow from your head to your fingertips. Your days in recovery may not be perfect, but rest in the relief that perfection is not the goal. Find a support team who will cheer for you. These little strides deserve abundant praise.

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