Graduation day is here for the sweet high school girl I’ve been treating for an eating disorder since she was in middle school. My client, who I will refer to as “Hadley,” is doing remarkably well in her recovery. I believe clinically, despite fears of letting go of the safe therapeutic nest where we’ve watched Hadley heal, that the time has arrived for graduation from therapy. (We typically refer to this as termination, but that kind of sounds punishing to me)…
Mixed emotions and many tears are expressed in our sacred circle as we each take a turn sharing the story of Hadley’s recovery. Hadley and her mom and dad have worked so hard over the years to get to this point. Mom and dad hug me and thank me for giving them their daughter back. I remind them that I was merely a guide and that they did the heavy lifting. Hadley and I exchange a warm hug, and her parents take a picture of us. I closed this chapter with my promise to them that I will be here should a need arise. They leave for a celebratory lunch where Hadley is eager to participate, rather than trapped in fear, as she once was. Their tear-stained faces tell the story of the battle we’ve just fought and won.
I close the door behind them and sit in my chair in silence. This outcome, a fully recovered girl who smiles again and has friends, and begins dating and going to formal, this is why I stay in this work. This outcome isn’t rare, but it always feels that way to me for some reason.
The rest of the day I feel weighed down. The truth is, I love Hadley, she is precious to me, and I’m so relieved that her life is in full bloom, but my heaviness has nothing to do with her and everything to do with the untold story of my recovery.
My clients know I’m recovered. Once comfortable enough, some will ask me, “Are you triggered by your clients’ eating disorder behaviors?” It’s a good and fair question, and my answer is not normally, or if I am, it is merely so superficial it’s just a little blip. I’m not immune to being triggered, but the eating disorder symptoms, as is true for all of us with this illness, were merely ways to protect myself from what was underneath. Hadley’s graduation reminded me that my underneath remains scarred and tender to the touch. I worry, and then accept all over again, that it may always be this way for me.
If I stood in my truth, I would say that Hadley walked out of my office and trailing behind her were two things that I’ve never had and that realization is what got triggered in the form of feeling like I was suffocating. She had a sacred space to heal and recover and she was lovingly supported by her parents while fighting her way to the other side of this illness. Her battle was known and witnessed, and she was nurtured by her parents as they pieced their lives back together.
My story, although mostly untold, would not have garnered the same type of support. I’m not throwing a pity party, or playing the victim; it’s just the harsh truth. The reality is my parents can’t be in the same room without me carrying around the tension of their story. Their story cast so many shadows I didn’t feel like I had room to have a story. Much like during a thunderstorm when the electricity abruptly goes out, going from light to dark without warning, my life did the same. Instead of getting to grieve, I pretended to be fine for a whole decade. And the day I moved out of the itty bitty town where I grew up between their two homes, hatred and a few blocks being the only thing separating them, was a sense of freedom and room for me to have my own story.
I backed out of the driveway and headed to college by myself. Hadley’s parents will walk her into her dorm room, and they will hug each other goodbye. Her parents will walk out, hand in hand and she will unpack her clothes. I, on the other hand, unpacked the uncertainty of not knowing how to live a life without sitting in the middle of chaos, so I unconsciously and unintentionally created my own.
There would be no therapy office with worried parents sitting in the waiting room and later saying, “Help us, something is wrong with our daughter.” Every single good thing that’s happened in my life has been overshadowed by their story. My graduations, my wedding, the birth of each of my three children, and each baptism, first birthday or first communion.
I’m loved immensely by each of them, but separately. Adored. I’m their only daughter, their first born baby. And when the lights went out, and I felt forced to shine anyway, my heart never really healed. This year as my eight year old daughter celebrated her first communion, which was the last ‘celebration’ of mine before the rug was pulled out, they were here. They lovingly supported their precious granddaughter and me, but when too close to the other, I feel their gritted teeth and forced exchange; even thirty years later. And yet…here we are.
This is but a thread of my untold story. Hadley’s parents know the secrets of her eating disorder, the way it manifested and unraveled, and why and how and where. Mine may not ever.
I recovered from a seven-year battle with anorexia and bulimia alone – as in all by myself; I had no one. I find it ironic that I bounced back and forth between these two disorders; the court must have appointed anorexia and bulimia joint custody. Much like the dutiful daughter packing and unpacking those suitcases every other weekend for ten years, I was equally disrupted by my loyalty to each disorder. I’ve birthed the painful story of my recovery retrospectively with my therapist and my husband. That is both enough and grossly inadequate – all at the same time. And so it is.
So my dear sweet Hadley, I am both incredibly overcome with joy that you made your way to this day, and also broken-hearted for my own untold story. Today, I make this promise to myself: Your story is worthy of being told. It may hurt the people who love you the most to hear it, but that is not on purpose. Just like it was not on purpose that their story hurt you. It’s ok for you to stand in your truth. No more pretending.
Sometimes I wonder about all of the untold stories that people carry around underneath their smiles and pleasantries. Why do we hide them? Is it because we don’t want to hurt people we care about most? Is it because we don’t want to face our truth? Or is it somehow just easier to pretend? Maybe D, all of the above. Let’s own our stories and love each other through the discomfort, and maybe, hopefully, the lights will come back on.
Love + Light,