Dianna Chillo, LCSW-R
Recovery: Making Room For Life
Originally published for Project HEAL as a member of Project HEAL's Healer Circle
Early in my career I had the opportunity to work with many different people and gained experience with a wide range of individuals with varying life struggles and mental illnesses. Addiction was an unfamiliar field to me at the time, but I got an up-close look at that recovery process through my therapeutic experiences with those clients.
I remember one distinct moment with this one client who said,
“There’s a big difference between abstinence and recovery. To just abstain from using drugs and alcohol is one part of the journey, but recovery is a willingness to show up and endure all of the work and emotions that hide beneath the addiction.”
Those were wise words from a gentleman who had been down the recovery path several times. That concept has been a mindset I’ve held onto in my own recovery journey as well as the work I do with my clients.
Recovery of any kind is an ongoing consistent process that requires persistence, patience, a lot of self-reflection and time.
It’s painful and scary, but also rewarding.
I would never minimize the struggles that come with addiction, but as both someone who has struggled with an eating disorder who also treats them, the recovery journey feels a bit more complicated.
Learning to integrate the one thing that is necessary to live, but at the same time is the focal point of your disease seems almost impossible.
However, it is possible, and people do recover. I know this first hand. There was a time when I wasn’t sure about recovery. I was angry and resentful that this mental illness was bestowed upon me.
“Why couldn’t I think normally?”
“Why couldn’t I feel good about myself?”
“Why couldn’t I just eat and not care?”
And a hundred more questions and self -deprecating thoughts that swirled my brain like a revolving door.
Our culture ,between diets, standards of beauty, health and fitness, all seeming to normalize my thinking made it hard to figure out what was disordered and what wasn’t. Even after some time in recovery, and feeling stable, these thoughts often haunted me, and the frustration remained.
By 24, I started my career and after a short time, I began treating eating disorders. I found that I truly enjoyed the work. At the same time, I began sharing my recovery journey publicly, as part of my healing and recovery. It helped me move further along in my own journey, and a lot of good came of it. I was helping people both professionally, and in my personal experience, and I started to feel better in my own skin.
Fast forward to about four years ago. Working full time in a thriving group private practice, years of experience under my belt, I relapsed in my eating disorder, after close to 17 years in what I felt was recovery. I believe I was in recovery, but looking back, probably not as fully as I could have been.
My relapse was the result of a series of emotional and physical stressors that culminated into the perfect storm and hit me like a ton of bricks. It was a painful, dark and challenging time.
However, I think it took falling on my face to experience that internal shift that had yet to happen. It was then that my experience in recovery began to change.
I learned to make room for all of my feelings, not just the ones I thought people wanted to see. I learned that it’s ok to not be ok and that I never want to feel that invisible again. I started to truly see the parallels that played out between my eating disorder symptoms and the way I handled my emotions, relationships, and life overall.
This was a therapeutic process I was well aware of with my clients, but now one I was actually feeling and going through again. It was in this recovery process that I developed and even greater empathy for my clients and their individual struggles to heal. I also developed a deeper passion for this work and wanted to do more in addition to direct care, like advocacy and writing, because I faced obstacles in getting access to the care I needed.
I felt myself shifting.
I was healing but uncomfortable.
In my work with clients, I had always normalized the discomfort in recovery and encouraged them with coping skills while challenging them to take risks.
Leading by example became an important next step for me.
My recovery is in part what made me decide to leave the group practice I had been working in for 10 years, where I felt comfortable and safe, and take a risk to pursue a dream, I thought was long gone.
It’s been in my recovery journey that I discovered how resilient I truly am.
I feel this has all helped me become more authentic and connected to the work and my clients. I started my own private practice a little over a year ago, and many amazing things have occurred since. However, within this year, I’ve also faced more personal adversity than I’ve ever imagined.
Although these hardships are certainly not ones I wanted to endure, they are the hand I’ve been dealt. It’s been a time where I could have slipped right back into my eating disorder, but recovery has made me realize what I’m truly made of, and the good things that can come out of life.
This is an experience I hope to help my clients and anyone who is struggling with an eating disorder see.
That life is not without struggle.
Learning to tolerate and cope with the darker more challenging times by giving voice to the feelings that come along with it are necessary for growth and development.
It’s ok to not be ok.
We may not be at fault for the struggles we are faced with, but we can choose how we are going to navigate through them.
That’s not to suggest it will be easy, or that we must face every day with a smile. Your eating disorder may trick you into believing it’s protecting you from life’s challenges, when it’s only making your life smaller and smaller, while it slowly kills you.
In recovery, when people learn to make room for all of their feelings and less room for their eating disorder, life, although hard at times, can become full of great things. Recovery will show you how much your eating disorder has taken away. Recovery is a long process, and for some longer than others. It can be incredibly grueling and for many, the obstacles seem unsurmountable.
In the end, it’s truly worth the climb it takes to get there.