Do as I say, not as I do.
It has often been said by many going through recovery that one day in the future, they want to help people through the struggles that they have endured. Many stories of people within a treatment team who chose their profession as they have battled an eating disorder and have been successful in their recovery. I am one of those people. Though unfortunately, I have not yet won the war. I am a registered nurse who works in a psychiatric hospital and one of the leading Eating Disorder Programs in the country. I am also battling an eating disorder I’ve had on and off for the past 8 years, the onset of which happened just shy of my 17th birthday.
In the years I’ve worked in this program, I’ve often had my friends and family question whether it is beneficial for my own mental health working so closely with something I myself have struggled so much with. I again listen to the same worries of my loved ones and I hear the question asked once more, always so tentatively, whenever I have relapsed or wobbled in my recovery. I agree. Struggling my way through my bachelor of nursing and then promptly choosing to work in an area focussed on treating the dark cloud that so plagued my late teens/early twenties, must have appeared a little counterproductive to my health. I can truthfully and wholeheartedly say, I have NEVER felt it to be a poor decision nor have I regretted it. What I see and deal with at work has not yet acted as a “trigger” nor negatively influenced my ongoing eating disorder recovery. If I sound defensive when making that statement, I can assure you it’s not me trying to convince myself something I’m not sure of or because there might be some truth in the assumption. It’s from years on constantly defending my truth. My answer has never wavered.
Though I hate to admit it, there can be downfalls to my situation. There are times I often struggle to keep my emotional boundaries at work. Finding that some days I may be feeling the emotions of my patients journey’s more than I should. The frequency of this happening and the ability I have to “leave it at the door” (though some days I’ll admit it can be really bloody hard to do), deters me from seeing this as a legitimate flaw in my nursing practise nor a sign for me to change specialties. I do admit, I do find having those experiences a tough pill to swallow. In my head, I think the “perfect”, professional nurse wouldn’t (and shouldn’t )struggle with this. They wouldn’t allow their work to emotionally “get to them”. In saying that, I am insightful enough to know that as nurses, we would be lying if we said work didn’t effect us emotionally on some level. We deal with the raw emotions of life, death and all the shit that comes in between. Besides, in my world, perfect is a swear word and something I shouldn’t strive to be.
I’ve come to accept that due to my own health issues, I will understand the anguish felt by my patients on a more personal level than some of my colleagues. I’ve been in their position. I understand the torment. The self hatred. The pure physical anxiety of being faced with food that deep down you so crave to eat but the rude, scary and self-deprecating voice in your head is screaming at you to refuse. Having what seems like an “alter ego” who lies, rages and pushes away the people that care for you and you care for, whilst deep down you’re crying out in loneliness and willing them to come back. Knowing how it feels to be so misunderstood. I truly believe you can’t possibly 100% understand the effects an eating disorder has on a person unless you have experienced one yourself. Once again, I understand. I’ve been there.
To be honest, I’m still currently there. I would love this to be an all positive, all encouraging, “braveheart speech” of a letter about how recovery is possible because I have achieved it. Your example to follow. I am on the right path but I’m just not there yet. I’m not perfect, nor should I be. And yes, I do have my bad days, weeks and even months. And no, I may not always practise what I preach. And yes, my illness has sometimes made my job difficult. It has often had an “imposter syndrome” effect on me. I have felt like a fraud in my own workplace. Like I shouldn’t be helping people engage in recovery that I can’t even manage to achieve myself. In moments like these, I have to remind myself that this is the nature of the beast. The little shame gremlins that like sitting on my shoulder, making me feel unworthy and attacking my self worth as a decent person and as a nurse. In these moments, I like to reflect on positive feedback I’ve received from my patients, read their little notes and kind words. I seek reassurance in the stories of patients that I can proudly say I have helped treat in the past but have not seen in months/years due to them not needing that high level of support, whether recovered fully or not. Felt my heart smile when news slowly filters back about someone doing well. Maybe they finally graduated from their degree they postponed however many times due to their ED. Maybe they finally travelled to the places throughout the world they always spoke about wanting to see. Or maybe by not only recovering emotionally, but holistically, they were physically able to start their own loving family they had craved for so long. Or they might be simply living. Living an ED-free life. Yes, my illness can make aspects of my job harder. But it is worth doing. Those stories. Those people. They are the reason why I continue to do what I do.
When I started this letter, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write or the message I wanted to get across. I think I wanted to validate myself as a psychiatric nurse who treats eating disorders. The fact that it takes a certain strength of character to be able to assist a person battle the beast that is an eating disorder, even more so if you’re currently entangled in that battle yourself. I hope one day I can treat and care for myself the way I do for my patients. I AM deserving of the recovery I so fiercely advocate.