• Leah Quinn

Life after recovery and the stranger in the mirror

Updated: Jul 17, 2020

It’s been five years since I stopped eating.

It’s been four years since I started eating again.

Mental health is discussed more and more now than it ever used to be – which is amazing. We talk about depression and anxiety, and the male mental health crisis. We know the statistic that one in four of us will suffer with a mental health problem at some stage in our lives. Progress is being made. But what you rarely hear about is the aftermath.

That bit afterwards when you’ve been discharged from therapy. Maybe you’ve regained some of the weight you lost. Maybe you’re gradually changing some unhealthy thought patterns. Maybe you’ve learnt some healthier coping mechanisms.

One of the big misconceptions I’ve found since my recovery is people thinking that a recovery means you have recovered.

Recovery is a misleading word and maybe we shouldn’t use it but smarter people than me can decide that.

One thing about living with a mental illness is that it makes you very aware of others around you who are also living with a mental illness. When I was ill, and ever since, I have noticed disordered thinking in so many people I’ve met. I can see it everywhere – it’s like a ticking clock; once you notice it, there’s no finding the silence again. I see people I went to school with actively disliking their bodies. I see others who definitely should have been in therapy years ago and, whether it’s that a GP never referred them or they couldn’t get on a waiting list or maybe it’s just that no one noticed their unhappiness was actually a disease, I see the pain in so many people so often.

Because whether you struggled with mental health in your teens (like a lot of us did) or you’re still living with it, every day without a relapse is a recovery in itself.

I can’t talk about a lot of other types of recovery because I’ve never lived those, and I can’t speak for those who have. Instead, here’s my thoughts on eating disorder recovery.

As much as I am healthy now and I am very aware of the bits of my brain that are disordered thinking and those that are myself, looking in the mirror remains a huge thing for me.

You might have noticed I take a lot of selfies. You might have noticed I never look comfortable in them. If you have, you’re observant and you’re correct. For me, eating disorder recovery means you are permanently dislocated from the body in the mirror. My mind in the past five years has of course evolved as I’ve gotten older but I remain me and, when I think of me - of myself, of my mind, of my body – I think of the sixteen year old with her collarbone sticking out and hipbones so prominent she can’t lay on her side in bed. I’m not upset when I look in the mirror and see my actual body. I’m just surprised. Every time, I forget I am no longer that girl. So, for me, I think taking pictures helps me remember that the stranger in the mirror is myself and she isn’t fat or unattractive; she’s just different.

One thing that does remind me is the way the world sees you when you’re ‘skinny’ or ‘fat’. I hate these words but please take them with a pinch of salt while I make my point. The Body Positivity Movement has already noted that a person’s body-type massively impacts the way they are treated in society and I am not saying ‘skinny’ girls have it easier – only that, in my experience, people were nicer to me when I was ‘skinny’.

I used to walk into a room and know I would be the smallest girl in there; I’d get a messed-up kick out of it like I’ve won gold at some silent and utterly ridiculous competition. This also coincided with the time in my life where I got the most male attention I’ve ever gotten and guys that I never would have expected to even look at me did look at me and speak to me. Weird. This coincided with a time in my life where I made the most friends (girls and guys) and where I could walk into any clothes shop and know I wouldn’t be too large for any piece of clothing in there. This feeling of superiority is hard to escape; it’s a terrifying addiction because you’re addicted to the ego boosts you receive from the rest of the world and, as you begin to eat again, you lose that feeling.

In the time since I’ve regained my mind, I feel like I’ve lost my connection with the body I inhabit.

So, four years on, my recovery is very much an ongoing process. While I know my mind better than I did at sixteen, living in my body continues to feel like living in an Airbnb for which I need to return the key. I’m working on it. And I know I’m not alone in that. To all the people who have recovered, or are recovering or are living with mental illness:

I see you. You’re doing amazing. Keep going.

(This is purely anecdotal so if you want to hear from people who actually know things for real: Mind provides advice and support in England and Wales for anyone experiencing a mental health problem; Beat is the UK's leading charity supporting those affected by eating disorders.)

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