The first rule is that you must understand that it will sometimes feel impossible.
It will feel, at times, like you’re in a relationship with two people. The girl you have gotten to know, the one you fell in love with, and then a stranger. When she talks about her past, you will feel like she’s talking about someone else. It is a personal history told in third person, laced with numbers and anxiety. These things could not have happened to her.
But they did happen. And they could happen again.
Recovery exists in present tense only. Recovering, not recovered. Even if she doesn’t exhibit behaviors, and even if she never restricts her caloric intake again, it will always be present tense. Ana, Ed, whatever you wish to call her disease – it will forever be engrained in who she was, who she is.
Don’t let this depress you. Don’t be consumed with sadness by the battle she will have to fight forever. Know that she’s fighting because she’s strong, and that she wants to be strong for you. Don’t dwell on the longevity of the illness, don’t focus on the fact that it’s lifelong. Don’t look for the root, and don’t look too far ahead. Be in the now.
Educate yourself. Know what anorexia is, and perhaps more importantly – what it isn’t. Know that it’s not all about wanting to be thin, that it’s not some illness fueled by vanity. It’s not the media’s fault. It’s not the supermodels’ fault.
For many, it is about need – the desire to not need anything. It is about the rejection of excess in a society full of over-consumption. It is about looking for ways to be as simple, and as minimal as possible. It is about control in a world that is uncontrollable. It is about crafting something so precise, so personal, so raw and unique. It is a way to say – I have made myself. I am all I need.
Find a way to prove she needs more.
Understand that she will miss her anorexia. It sound ludicrous, and deep down, she knows that it’s unwise to dip even a toe back into that rabbit hole, but there will inevitably be aspects of it for which she’ll have the greatest nostalgia. This is something she is not supposed to talk about, but if you are brave, you will ask her about it. If she trusts you, she will tell you why.
She misses the perceived sense of control – the beginning of it all, when every pound dropped was like exploring a new country. The emotional highs of starvation. The exhilarating feeling that she could keep going, and that she could do anything. The sensation that she was crafting a new identity from the inside out.
In a way, she will always miss this – not necessarily the experience, but the feeling that it created.
That may scare you, and it should. But don’t let it force you to run – be sure she knows that it’s better now, on the other side, with you.
Be comfortable with the fact that our world will forever give her anxiety. Take her hand when you’re at Starbucks and you can tell she’s wrestling with her drink order because the calories are printed in huge font on the menu. She wishes she could exist in a world without numbers, but she’s forced herself to memorize so many of them. If she could carve out that part of her brain and eliminate the knowledge of how many calories are in certain foods, she would gladly erase that memory.
Don’t be afraid to combat bad days with her. If you’re lucky, they will be few and far between, but you will encounter them. Understand that bad days are not steps backwards, but a part of the future.
Embrace all of this, not as a flaw within the woman you love, but as a crucial part of her identity. It is not her entire identity, but it’s also not separate from her soul. Accept the illness as part of her story, and choose to fight together.
Choose the battle, and you will win every time.