Recovery is a word with a positive connotation, but the simple truth of it is that recovery is not always an easy or even positive experience. Being in recovery oftentimes makes me feel uneasy and stuck in the here and now. Today I am not at my worst. I am no longer constantly denying myself the care and self-compassion that I deserve, but today I also slip up more than I would like to. I often find myself falling into mental traps that lead me in a dangerous direction, and one of these is the trap of comparison.
I am certain that everyone compares their own lives and accomplishments to those of others. I have trouble avoiding comparison every time I scroll through my Instagram feed. However, I definitely noticed myself doing this a lot more right after I started recovering from my eating disorder. I graduated from college a semester early so that I could go to treatment, and was set free just in time to head back to school to participate in senior week: a last week of debauchery before graduating seniors entered the real world, whether they were ready to or not. Nothing was better than seeing my friends and showing them the progress I had made, both physically and mentally. However, the experience was also jarring. My friends picked me up from the airport when I landed in Indiana and we promptly arrived back at school to a parking lot full of partying seniors. Their solo cups were full and the speakers were blaring, and my stomach quickly sunk.
For the months leading up to that week, I had settled into a routine that was drastically different than how I had been living in college. Instead of attending class, I went to therapy with other men and women who had put a pause on their lives to take care of their eating disorders. Instead of going to the dining hall with friends, I ate with staff supervising me. And instead of studying for finals, I wrote about my emotions in a journal. In that moment in the parking lot, I was overwhelmed with insecurity because I felt so out of place. In my head, I was wondering why I hadn’t been able to keep up with my classmates, and why simple things that came so easily to most people, like eating a meal, had tripped me up so profoundly. I found myself spending that week trying to make up for lost time, and pretend like nothing about me had changed. As a result, many of my days that week were spent recovering on my friend’s futon after staying out far later than my body was capable of handling.
Had I accepted that my body and my mind, which were still very much recovering from years of abuse, required my new structure and routine, I would have been able to spend my days reconnecting with those I had isolated from so much when I was a student. Instead, I compared myself to a standard that did not align with my current situation.
My first couple of years in New York, I found myself falling into the same patterns. At work, I expected perfection out of myself, comparing to those who had worked in the industry for much longer. On the weekends, I tried to make up for the college semester I had lost, which only resulted in headaches and embarrassing text messages. I also thought I was supposed to be in a relationship, because others my age had found people to be happy with. These types of thoughts and behaviors only lead me to more misery, and that misery would cause me to turn back to my eating disorder time and time again.
The funny thing is, is these sorts of comparisons are pretty universal in the circles that I find myself in. Mental illness or disorder doesn’t play any factor in the actual comparison—my friends and I all have moments when we feel we should be doing something differently. And as a result, we end up hating ourselves a little bit. Where’s the solace in that?
I still make comparisons every day, either to others or to some imaginary bar that I have set for myself. However, I am also learning that if I sit in the here and now, tolerating the discomfort, I end up feeling better. At work, I am patient with myself, because it is normal to make mistakes on occasion. It’s also been quite a while since I’ve stayed out until four in the morning, because quite frankly, I need to be able to wake up in time to eat breakfast. Finally, and this is the hardest one, I try not to punish myself for having to spend much of the past three years in and out of treatment. I have to remind myself that for some reason, this is my path, and though it is taking a while, I am headed in the right way.
I in no way write this because I want to judge any type of lifestyle, or think that what I am doing is the best for anyone but me. For instance, for some people I know, staying out until four in the morning is really fun. For them it isn’t dangerous, and oftentimes results in hilarious stories that we all get to enjoy. This sort of enjoyment, an appreciation of where I and others are at in any given moment, is something that I strive for. When we take away comparison, I think we take away some of the anxiety of the present.