I recently attended my first ever ED support group session in the position of a survivor and anorexia recovered. I was never exposed to hospital-based treatment, and never really spoke to another ED survivor in person. This was an eye-opening experience and I have learnt that I have much to learn. One particular participant, Grace (not her real name), taught me something through her very frank, yet emotional and genuine articulation of her feelings. She was in tears, and I guess she was scared and frustrated at the same time. But Grace, I hope you read this, and understand that you’ve taught me something so valuable, and I will remember it. And in the meantime, pick up your ED warrior sword and fight. It’s not over as long as you’re still with us today.
[All names are changed for the privacy of these beautiful people]
My first ED support group: Reflections
In Feb 2017, I attended an ED support group session at a hospital in Singapore. It was my first time, and I wanted or hoped to inspire people with my experience and give them advice on how to push forward in recovery.
We sat down in a little circle (maybe 6-7 people) and talked about what each of us was going through and how all of us fared through the festive season of Chinese New Year. I shared some of my advice based some of the concerns which the participants voiced (e.g. finding your bearings after recovery) and they looked comforted after that, which was heartening to me. Another participant, Kristen, who was far in her recovery, shared some of hers’ too. Amelia, a survivor and Anorexia recovered, came down with her best friend, Amirah, who had fallen into ED’s pernicious trap as well.
But most didn’t really notice the two remaining participants tucked in within the circle, Grace and Leila. Leila said that she wasn’t in the mood to speak, and before long she was in tears. Grace was quiet the entire way, until finally she spoke. That was when we found out, that she was in her 40s and had been battling her ED for more than 18 years.
Grace told us very frankly how she envied us, because we were able to detect our problem and start recovery (and for some of us, successfully recover) when we were so young. She even admitted to us that it made her feel uncomfortable and quite irritated when loving parents ask ED therapists how long recovery would “normally take”. Because in reality, there just isn’t a “normally”.
I looked down instantly and stared at the back of my hands as she spoke. I realised that I had not considered how vastly different Grace’s recovery would have been from that of the rest of us. I realised that apart from recognising the fact that EDs come in all sizes, recovery comes in all forms too. I felt very sad and a little disappointed in myself for failing to recognise that Grace had a different story to tell, and that her story did not necessarily coincide with the stories of the rest. And importantly, that the rest of our stories, no matter how inspiring and personal, could even serve to alienate Grace from the group.
I am grateful for Grace, and for the reminder she gave to all of us. Even though my ED story is highly personal, at the end of the day a single story won’t ring true and fit into the hearts of everyone. But you know what will? Knowledge and sensitivity. Always being open to learning how different people from vastly different backgrounds and conditions live their lives, and always gladly submitting ourselves to the fact that we don’t know everything, and have much to learn. When it comes to EDs and recovery, despite my personal and unique experience to me, it’s really not about me at all. Instead, it’s about us.
And the last very essential thing I learnt is the idea of privilege. Before the support group began, there was a mass sharing by a lovely couple who had a 14 year old daughter suffering from Anorexia. They chronicled her recovery process with the painstaking, unconditional devotion of her parents.
They were a beautiful couple and their eyes brimmed with the joy and nostalgic pain of parents who have lifted their child out of adversity. But one thing their sharing suggested- which initially made a lot of sense- didn’t go down well with me after Grace gave me the wakeup call. It was that good family relationships is the most important element in a successful recovery. I understand why this would be suggested. Relationships with others are powerful and that couple had first-hand insight into the healing properties of kinship. But perhaps they should have added that it wasn’t the most important thing or the one thing you needed. Because ultimately, even though familial bonds are precious and magical, they are not the one and only gospel truth in recovery. And it’s important that we let people know that. Because there are people like Grace, who’ve been struggling for years, who have lost their friends, and who slowly feel further apart from people. Many people do not have the privilege of full-on family love and devotion.
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m in no little way saying that family is not important. Family is so important. In fact, it is the most important for so many people. But what I’m saying is that some people don’t have this privilege. And you know what’s true when it comes to recovery, or overcoming anything at all? The real strength (and the most important) lies in YOU.
Grace, if you’re reading this, remember that the most important thing is within you. During my recovery, my closest of kin did not have even a bit of understanding of my condition, I admit. And there was never any good communication when it came to my ED or recovery. But looking back, I don’t blame them. Because I harnessed my own light within me. It’s possible to be MY own best friend during recovery. When you are true to YOURself, you can conquer anything. And Grace, if you’re reading this, please realise that your ED/ duration of recovery do NOT determine your worth. The fact that you’re still here with us after 18 years signifies that you haven’t given up. Even after 18 years, you’re still fighting. I just hope you know how amazing you are.