When I try to explain what the process of recovery is like for me, I’m not sure I ever really know what I’m saying. I don’t want to make it so complicated that no one can understand what I’m talking about, but I don’t want to simplify it so much that I’m making less of it than what it is. It’s a very confusing process, and it’s one that I’m slowly getting better at. Very slowly.
But this morning as I sat in yoga class, twisted up like a pretzel, the thought came to me. All of a sudden I knew exactly how to describe it using a comparison that almost anyone could understand! I mean, granted, having that realization meant that I wasn’t exactly practicing successful yoga, since I wasn’t fully present and mindful of the moment. I feel as though my yoga teacher would not be thrilled to hear that her class is where my revelation occurred…but in any case, this is what I discovered:
Recovery is like learning to drive stick.
Now, I realize that is not the most graceful of metaphors, nor is it one that has probably been used very often. But it’s so very accurate for me that I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. It perfectly sums up all of my fears, insecurities, hopes, and experiences. And I don’t mean in a silly, cliché way that’s like, “Driving down Recovery Road” or something like that. No, this is the real nitty-gritty, emotional center of my experience of recovery. Of course this comparison simplifies it – it is impossible to fully understand the depth of it unless you have personally been through it – but it is my hope that I can shed some light into this process for all those who feel in the dark.
To fully understand where I’m coming from, first let me explain what it was like for me to learn to drive stick. Some people find it very simple, and for them this comparison would not work at all. For me, however, it was one of the most emotionally exhausting things I have ever tried to do. If you were to ask my father about it, he would probably get a good laugh out of telling you the story (so, Dad, if you’re reading this, I hope I do justice to the comedy of the experience). I will start out by saying that I am already a fairly high-strung and anxious individual with perfectionistic tendencies, and that is probably an understatement. So maybe you can start to see where this is going.
When I first sat down in the driver’s seat, my father began by trying to explain to me how a manual transmission differs from an automatic transmission. Now, I love my father dearly and I appreciate that he is so intelligent and mechanical-minded, but I felt a little bit like he was speaking a sort of Norwegian-Russian hybrid language. No matter how hard he tries, bless his soul, I will never care how things work, hence the reason why I am not an engineer. However, he did succeed in making me even more stressed out because I was trying to understand all the words he was speaking. By the time he was ready for me to back out of the driveway, my mind had spiraled out of control into a whirlpool of “what if”s.
What if I stall the car and everybody starts honking at me?
What if I accidentally switch the car into reverse while I’m driving?
What if I roll backwards down a hill and cause a huge pile-up and everybody hates me?
So, naturally, my solution was to refuse flat-out to step on the gas pedal. It makes so much sense, right? I just pushed in the clutch and let myself roll, painfully slowly, backward out into the street. That’s a pretty short-term solution, though, because eventually the car just sort of comes to a stop. And then you’re stuck.
At this point I wasn’t going anywhere at all. I was stopped at this awkward diagonal angle in the street that would have been a huge inconvenience for any other drivers. And yet my feet were stretching forward, pressing firmly on the clutch and the brake, not taking any steps toward solving the new problem – that I was blatantly blocking traffic. My dad was clearly starting to get impatient with my irrationality, which only succeeded in making me more stubborn. So we finished for the day. He pulled the car back into the driveway with great ease, and I cried.
The next day I decided it was finally time to try actually driving the car. With practice, I began to feel comfortable engaging the clutch and getting the car moving, however slowly. My father tried very hard to be patient with me, instructing me calmly when I needed to change gears or stop and start over again. We spent hours driving in circles around the cul-de-sac, which I’m sure greatly entertained the neighbors. And of course, like any true mental case, I was in tears for at least half of the time I was sitting in that driver’s seat.
When my dad looked over at me and told me he thought I was ready to try the main roads, my blood pressure skyrocketed. Well, actually, I don’t know that for sure, but I feel like if anything were to cause my blood pressure to spike, it would have been this experience. Me, ready for the main roads? Fat chance. I was still cautious and slow starting out because I was so terrified of stalling. The thought of having to make a hill start made me want to throw up. How could I possibly be ready for something that scared me to a level of physical discomfort?
“If you wait until you feel ready, Gwen, you’ll never do it.”
So I did it.
It did not go terribly smoothly. I refused to shift into anything above third gear, and I stalled five times in a row at a stop sign before I realized that I was actually still in third gear (not the greatest way to try to get moving). And the one time I had to stop on a hill, I threw a fit of hysterics and refused to take my foot off the brake, even though that meant I couldn’t go anywhere. Thank goodness my dad took pity on me and used the handbrake to help me out, otherwise I’m convinced I would be at that stop sign to this very day. When I’d finally had enough emotional torture, we headed back home. And that’s when he asked me.
“Why are you freaking out like this? What are you so afraid of?”
A whole score of things ran through my head. Well obviously, I’m afraid that I’m going to forget to put the clutch in and stall and everyone will think I’m a terrible driver. I’m also afraid that I’m going to stall the car someplace really dangerous like a highway and there’s going to be a huge accident and it will be all my fault. And I’m afraid that I’ll roll back too far when I’m starting on a hill and hit the cars behind me instead of going forward and everyone will think I’m an idiot and the price of insurance will go up and you’ll never trust me to drive again.
As I watched my fears rush past my field of vision, I decided to take a second look. Alright, all of those things were possible. I would probably stall the car at some point and maybe make a couple of other drivers angry. But the more I practiced, the less often it would happen. And I most likely would not stall the car on a highway, since there isn’t really a lot of shifting going on when there’s a straight shot and a steady pace.
But hill starts…the bane of my existence. I hated that terrifying jolt of panic that pierced through my veins when I felt the car rolling ever so slightly backward; those awful few moments when my feet were half pressing the clutch, half pressing the gas, as I prayed for the engine to engage before I felt the sickening “thud” of metal on metal. It made me queasy just thinking about it. I tried to think rationally, to stick to the facts of the situation, but it seemed impossible. I reluctantly accepted that this was one fear I would simply never be able to conquer.
So how is it that just last week I successfully pulled out of an intersection on a hill?
The answer is complicated, and yet it is not. It can be summed up in a single word, but that word holds more meaning than it should. That word is “faith.”
For me, in those moments, faith was about hope and trust. It was about believing that even though I felt like I was moving backward, I would eventually change direction. It was about trusting that in the moment when I felt the most doubtful and scared, the engine would engage and things would turn around. It was about hoping for the best possible outcome instead of expecting the worst.
Alright, so that was my experience of learning to drive stick. Now what about recovery? I’m sure you have some idea of where this is going.
When I first went into treatment, I was scared out of my mind. It felt like I had to learn a whole new skill set just to go back to living a normal life, and my head was once again full of “what if”s. What if I can’t recover? What if I try really hard and still fail at it? What if I do recover and I’m not any happier? What if I can never fix the damage I’ve done to my mind and my body?
So at first I refused. I went through the motions, I did what I was supposed to do, but I was still too scared to really let myself move forward. When I finally did start taking steps, I did so very slowly until I got very comfortable at my level of care. And then at the thought of stepping down, I panicked. But my case manager echoed the very words my father had spoken before I took that leap onto the main roads. “If you want until you feel ready, you’ll never do it.”
I stepped down. And just like that first foray into real driving, it did not go smoothly. I was dishonest; I sunk into old ways of thinking and went through rough periods of time where I came dangerously close to relapsing. I still had a team of people ready to help me with the handbrake if I needed it, but it was time to try as hard as I could to lift myself up on my own.
I look at the fears I have about recovery and I understand that they, too, are irrational. Recovery is not a linear path, and there is no such thing as “failing” at it as long as you learn from your mistakes. And in reality, I cannot be any less happy than I was in the midst of my eating disorder – unless there’s something below rock bottom that no one’s informed me of.
Most importantly, I am allowing myself to have faith in the process. Even though sometimes I feel like I’m giving in to old habits and taking steps back in my recovery, I believe that I am still making progress every day. In the moments when I experience my deepest fears and sadness, I trust that something in me will allow me to turn it around. I work tirelessly to focus on all the great things that could come out of recovery instead of the remote possibility that things could get worse. I trust myself, and I hold onto hope.
Now, when I feel that pulse of terror as the car starts to roll backwards, I am reminded of the nonlinearity of life. Ultimately, I will be moving forward. And if I have to lose a little bit of ground to do that? The outcome will be worth it. In that I have utter and absolute faith.