When I was in “early” recovery – which I now define as the first five years of overcoming my 7-year cycle of bulimic binging and purging, I didn’t really know if full recovery was an option because nobody knew anyone who had achieved that goal. I knew lots of people in my self-help group who were doing well, and who had as much as ten years of recovery (defined as no compulsive eating or binging/purging/restricting), but the idea of not worrying about food or weight for the rest of my life seemed like a faraway notion.
Thirty years later, in the full recovery I once thought impossible, and healthier and happier with every passing year, I think I now know one of the character strengths that is mandatory if someone wants to get into long-term recovery: grit. And to demonstrate what I think grit epitomizes, I’m including a picture of cross country skiers who have collapsed moments after crossing the finish line at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
It’s obvious that these skiers gave the race everything they had in order to finish and achieve their goal of trying to cross the finish line first, and that’s exactly what I learned to do as I battled my way back to health and happiness – not just for a few years, but for multiple years, through dozens of crises, countless parenting upheavals, multiple moves, decades of life changes and more. And if you want long-term recovery, you’ll have to “ski” over hills, through storms, coast along easier paths and stay on your feet, too. So let’s examine some of the ways you can become grittier, particularly if you want to win the race of not just getting into recovery, but staying in recovery.
There’s nothing easy about overcoming an eating disorder because of one major fact – you have to touch, smell, prepare,purchase
and throw away food on multiple occasions every day of your recovering life, whether you want to deal with it or not. There are no other addictions that demand this frequency of habituation with your “drug of choice,” so temptations abound and opportunities to slip occur constantly, and often long before you have the necessary role modeling or strength to guarantee success in dealing with these occurrences.
As a result, slips can occur, as they did with me. I remember in 1984 that I would test my newfound recovery by “trying” a well-known trigger food, or attending an all-you-can-eat restaurant that had always presented problems for me, to see just how well I was doing with my fledgling commitment to leaving my eating disorder behind. Predictably, I’d end up binging and feeling ashamed of my weakness when my risks were bigger than my strengths, wondering if I’d ever know happiness or sanity around food again.
Fortunately, I had purposely placed myself in a community of recovering people at that time who accepted me exactly where I was; they encouraged me to just get back up instead of dwelling on my failures, to start over with the next meal, and to find positive lessons in my slips. Failure was just an opportunity for growth, they said, every time I needed those words of support.
As I took their advice, righting the recovery ship over and over again, I learned more about how to succeed and take better care of my nascent healthy behaviors. For example, I asked my family to have Thanksgiving at a manageable time of day instead of in the middle of the afternoon, and I explained that I wouldn’t be able to help clean up because of the temptations in the unattended kitchen and the abundance of rich leftovers. I called restaurants ahead of time to find out what was on the menu so I could plan meals before the menu surprised me. I also took the acronym “HALT” seriously – meaning, don’t get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired, because those emotions usually predisposed me to low willpower and suboptimal optimism.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, I now know that I was exhibiting “grit,” which is “passion and perseverance in pursuit of long-term goals,” as defined by MacArthur genius grant winner, Angela Duckworth, in this popular TED talk on the topic. Resilience is what I needed to get through a few weeks or months of recovery, but grit is resilience times 100, and that’s what’s required to remain in recovery when life hands you challenges like illness, pregnancy, relationship and career upheavals, and hormonal fluctuations. You will need to dig deeper and deeper inside yourself to use positive coping mechanisms that don’t lead you back to the comfort of food or dieting, which has become a major problem with women at midlife who are now reporting epidemic levels of either relapsing into old behaviors, or reporting brand-new eating disorders in their forties, fifties and beyond.
How can you make sure you have enough grit to hang in there with big goals – like long-term recovery – that will require super resilience, AKA grit, over many years? (You can get your own free Grit Scale test here to see where you stand with this quality now.) Here are a few things that can help:
- Surround yourself with people who are not quitters, and who won’t let you walk away from a goal just because you are having a tough time
- Create positive self-talk for difficult moments, like easy to remember slogans such as “You can do this!” and “You can choose positive behavior right now.”
- Have regular stress-reduction rituals, like mindfulness meditation or yoga, that help you regain inner balance when you feel scared, tired or overwhelmed
- Remove all temptation from your life when you feel weak – our environments predispose us for success, so make the environment work for you and not against you
Just remember your recovery is one of your greatest gifts to yourself, and that keeping it will require daily acts of courage and confidence so that you have the joy and energy for a full, healthy life. Cultivating grit will not only help with this, you’ll discover that you have the gumption and willingness to go after bigger and bigger goals in a variety of areas of life.