Treatment

The Value in Surrendering

Olivia Epley

Founder of Millennial Girl, Interrupted, a senior in a small Connecticut high school. I've been through many treatments and recoveries and am eager to share the lessons I've learned!

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The easiest and hardest things I’ve ever had to do all involve the act of surrender. Struggling with surrendering composes much of the human condition, but I have had to surrender to the following.

I can’t restrict anymore; I must surrender to my doctors. I have to eat much more than what others of my BMI would have to eat in order to maintain a healthy weight; I must surrender to restaurant portions. I can’t be intimate for a little while; I don’t know how to keep parts of me for myself. I can’t harm myself anymore; I must write words, not carve them. I can’t duct tape or love my family back together; I must surrender to their limitations. I have to take all of my medication, always; I must surrender to my psychiatrist. I have to go to therapy; I must surrender to my therapists.

The following are some conflicts that many of the folks I’ve encountered in treatment have difficulty with, speaking broadly (and I’ll get more specific). Humans won’t surrender to higher powers and/or wisdoms. They won’t surrender to treatment. They won’t surrender to truth telling. They won’t surrender control. They won’t surrender what they want, or what they want to know.

I’ve watched a girl sit in a chair by a nurse’s station for six hours straight because she refused, despite all threats possible, to eat. I’ve seen women my height, five foot six, weighing no more than one hundred pounds, balk at the idea of white rice, versus brown. Or rice at all. I’ve seen relapses in self harm after years of dedicated cleanliness. I’ve watched those I love and those I barely know compose lies complex and objectively unbelievable in order to grasp onto worlds they won’t surrender. I’ve seen girls and boys so desperate for those around them to understand their unexplainable pain that they put it in false terms that they know will be understood, instead: abuse, starvation, trauma. I’ve seen people who’ve endured those things unable to unlatch themselves from the ways they cope with the resulting pain: alcohol, drugs, companionship, addiction. I’ve watched my classmates run to the bathroom to Juul between nearly every class because they couldn’t face the anxiety-inducing world without a thin, black stick. Attempts by adults to make them surrender were fruitless.

Attempts to make anyone surrender will be fruitless, anyway.

My last post was centered around goals, but as I posted it I noticed a somewhat hollowed quality to its message. Why should you give a damn? Why even want different, better? The kids at my therapeutic school rarely wanted to actually change. They wanted to be shuttled to a place where Juuling and skipping class was easier to get away with, where they could coast. There’s something to be said for simply persisting, but persistence must eventually be replaced with improvement, healing. The children wanted to skate by without having to dig deep into their suffering and understand what kinds of strides they needed to make in order to better themselves. It was easier this way, of course. Change is harder. The adults were willing to let them do so, self examination be damned.

What was missing was the personal, intentional commitment to recovery, and recovery requires surrendering.

One of the most powerful concepts explained to me in treatment is irritatingly simple. If any of us find ourselves in treatment, or needing treatment, or facing any hardship at all, that is a signal that a change is necessary. In short, “none of you would be here if what you had been doing was working, so let’s change what you were doing.”

“None of you would be here if what you had been doing was working, so let’s change what you were doing.”

Change is terrifying, and we’re all familiar with the cliche. We somehow, yet, manage to split our daily lives from the part of us that understands this. Sure, I know this is unsustainable, a part of us knows, but I know what this gets me, and I don’t know what not-this would get me.

I’ve seen many people succeed in treatment, and even more people relapse. Recovery is not success or failure (such a black-and-white attitude is a guarantee of failure, and what a colossal collapse when it does come), but some bouts work better and faster than others. Some people do 90 in 90 in AA, never shell out a dime, and never so much as use mouthwash ever again. Some people spend many thousands of dollars on rehabs, never able to find a sticking place. Some of those people cause great harm to themselves and those around them. Some of those people die. Some people pay a therapist fifty an hour for a week and a nightly pill and can get out of bed every morning, again. Some people go in and out of mood and eating disorder centers, spending enormous amounts with their eyes wide open but ears clogged, “yes-“ing and nodding their way to discharge. Some people are sent for months or years to centers, schools, wilderness programs in deserts, forests and mountainsides, and still cannot surrender their old, destructive patterns to experts. Some of those people cause great harm to themselves and those around them. Some of those people die.

What differentiates those two subsets of people? Why can some recover with seeming ease and others spend their whole life apparently and destructively chasing some panaceatic (hush, it’s a word now!) elysium they’ll never catch? I believe it comes down to ability to surrender.

There are few things more agonizing. I’ve found little to be more painful in my life than moments in which I realized I had to start over, that I had to let go. With the inner wisdom I can muster, I know what resides in the nooks of my brain that need coaxing out. I know what needs scraping out, too. I knew I shouldn’t be self harming. I knew I should eat. I knew I should cut someone off, or invite someone in. I knew I had to be transparent with my therapists about past events, current feelings. It was the exact feeling of the desire to clutch on that tipped me off, in fact. My shouts when my parents begged me to eat, my tears when I disclosed the locations of my razors, my sobs when I knew I couldn’t help someone in pain, my wails when I realized that the people in my life weren’t who I thought they were, that I needed to let people come and go. That core, frantic need to hold onto something you can sense is destructive is a blaring, red siren that that thing is holding you back from recovery.

I use a specific piece of imagery to alert myself to harmful constructs I need to consider re-evaluating. I know exactly what my needing feels like, looks, smells like. I needed to starve, save, slice. My brain was (and is) turned into a TV screen when I needed those things, improperly tuned, the black and white, static screen emitting only a harsh buzz and electricity cackling in the air. The air is my set of neural pathways and my head is the screen. The static is all I can think, one maintained note: need. NEED. Don’t let go. This sensation, what I call fuzz-brain, is nearly unbearable. It makes me nauseous, I cry, I sweat while freezing, I recede into myself. I can think of nothing else but the need. It’s a universal human experience, only made more specific and acute by my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

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This is the way my body tells me that something is wrong. How could something- restricting, substances, lying, self harming, drugs, alcohol, Juuling, smoking, gambling, gaming, you name it- be good, helpful, if doing it, or more precisely, not doing it, sets off alarm bells? If your external body and inner wisdom tell you that an experience is hurting you, listen….

…. but if that isn’t enough, and it often isn’t, turn to your tangible goals and remember where your destruction has gotten you. Has cutting ever made you want to get out of bed? Has skipping dinner ever gotten you to a weight you’re finally happy with, ever made you finally love your body? Has playing Smash or Fortnite ever gotten you into college? Has frequently lying ever composed a world for you in which you feel freed once you do so (save for extreme disorders like psychopathy or factitious disorders)? Has exercising for hours every day ever gotten you to a muscle mass you’re pleased with? Have alcohol or substances ever won a girl back, earned a diploma, healed your marriage, lifted you from depression?

No. Point blank, no. We all know this, though. So recall those negative outcomes. In DBT, it’s called remembering the pain. What was your brain experiencing when you did something your inner wisdom told you not to do? Your body? Those around you? What color was the pain, did it bubble or blare? Did it seep into you or splash onto those you love? On a scale of one to ten, so they say, how far above ten did the pain go? How far above ten did you need relief? Crucially, does what you’re currently doing actually bring that relief?

If you’re in treatment or need it and haven’t yet surrendered to recovery in whatever form the experts say it comes in, the answer is no. Save some bad apples- I’ve seen both bad apples and good ones labeled as such- doctors/experts will recommend the right kind of treatment. More likely than not, if you’re balking at therapeutic advice you’re getting, it’s a part of your visceral reaction to having to let go of something intoxicatingly destructive. 

“This balking is the exact moment you need to dive in.”

Once you’ve noticed yourself doing this, and it takes practice, pause. This balking is the exact moment you need to dive in. It is in the moments that I most want to skip my therapy group that I know I need most urgently to attend. It’s the 99th person out of 100 whose terse or manipulative text makes me want to throw up whose role in my life needs to be therapeutically re-evaluated. It’s in my desire to not that I knew I needed to spend my first weeks out of ED treatment filling out detailed charts of my food intake.

What are your nots? Where won’t you go? What can’t you give up? Think about your not and imagine its color, sensation, duration. Does it feel good? I’m guessing it makes you feel, as the kids say, some typa way. Take that way straight to therapy, my friend. I took my fuzz brain straight to doctors and didn’t get better until I admitted that a PhD probably knew more about the amount of food a body needs to survive than I did. I surrendered to the PhD, to my inner wisdom and external observations, and in turn, I embraced a recovered life.

Your nots, won’ts, and can’ts are your starting points. As Ollivander says, use them well.

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One thought on “The Value in Surrendering

  1. Wow. I needed to read that just now. This is my first Thanksgiving in early recovery from anorexia and I started to lose my shit last night. I self-harmed for the first time in quite a while and I’m almost completely certain it’s because of the stress associated with the eating part of this holiday. The good news is that I’m not letting it take over (or I’m trying to not let it take over and am so far succeeding). I’m talking about what’s going on and have already checked in with my close friend who is an anoretic in recovery (and she’s coming over today… thank god). I’ve got DBT skills lined up and ready to go and am prepared to engage in self-care, as needed. As far as surrendering goes, I threw in the towel on my ED months ago. I trust my therapist and my support network. It’s just frustrating on days like this. I’m honestly at the point that I really want to be able to just sit down and eat ‘normally’. I’m not there yet, but I’m getting a little better each day. If I could make today easier by surrendering more, I would so do that. I think the thing I need to focus on most today is not shaming myself for whatever my eating might wind up looking like today.

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