The PB&J Sandwich that Almost Killed Me: Fear in Recovery

Throughout my battles with mental illness, I’ve experienced a lot of fear. I’ve been afraid that I’ll never get better, afraid of talking to people, of communicating my needs… I often feel like my mind is spinning out of control and I’m powerless to stop it. It can happen anywhere, even the grocery store. Earlier this year, I was challenged by my treatment team to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Not only was I supposed to eat the sandwich, but I was supposed to buy the ingredients and make it myself instead of relying on my mom to make it for me. Peanut butter is my biggest fear food, and at the time, I was wary of even touching the container, so this was certainly a challenge.

Like many people with eating disorders, I have some issues and anxiety surrounding the grocery store. However, I also work in one, which adds a layer of difficulty every time I need something from the store. Luckily I still live at home, so my mom does most of the shopping and cooking, but I intend to take more responsibility for my food when I leave treatment. So there I was, still in my uniform after my shift had ended, standing paralyzed with fear at the end of aisle nine. Choosing which brand of peanut butter to buy was easy; I’d just get the kind my mom usually buys. Actually picking the container up was a different story altogether. I was tense with anxiety and wanted nothing more in the world than to drop my basket in the middle of the aisle and run to my car. Finally, I picked up the jar and placed it in my basket.

The peanut butter was not even half the battle. I still needed jelly. Although jelly has never been a fear food of mine, I was overwhelmed as I surveyed the seemingly endless rows of colorful jars. I began to wonder what kind of jelly I even liked. My eating disorder encouraged me to read the nutrition labels on each jar and choose the jelly with the fewest calories. My depression said I might as well not get anything because I’d never be able to eat the sandwich, so there was really no point. My anxiety had me wondering if my coworkers were laughing at me, wondering why I was talking to myself in front of the jelly. I started to berate myself out loud for my indecisiveness.

As I started to descend into panic, a coworker approached me. Surely he was going to ridicule me for my anxiety. At the time, none of my coworkers knew about my eating disorder, and I feared that this one would just know, and then everyone would know, and I could see no other outcome than disaster. My coworker looked at me with a slightly confused expression. I braced myself for whatever humiliating statement he was preparing to deliver, and could have cried with relief when he said, “You know the bigger jars are on sale, right? Have a good rest of your day.” He walked away, and I left with a large jar of grape jelly.

The story of the PBJ Sandwich that Almost Killed Me ended as I bought my ingredients and successfully ate the sandwich, but the fear doesn’t end there. Today, while still in residential treatment, I am scared of both weight gain and relapse. I am using my second fear to overcome my first. Fear does not always have to be a bad thing. It can be an incentive or a motivator. I have a very clear memory of what it feels like to live with a starving brain. I know how miserable it is to be in the depths of an eating disorder, and when I think about the very real possibility of spending the rest of my life the way I have been living, I get scared. I let that fear motivate me to give recovery my full effort. I will not relapse into unhealthy behaviors. When I think about what I want out of life, I do not envision a lifetime of underweight misery and aloneness. I think of realizing my dream of becoming a cantor, getting married, and writing novels. My eating disorder has no place in those dreams. As one of my friends from treatment is fond of saying, my eating disorder is not an option.

The Reframe Game

Yesterday, at the beginning of my second week in treatment, Claire, a former patient of my treatment center came to talk to us about sustaining recovery in the real world. As she shared her story with us, I began to notice some common themes: always putting others before herself but never feeling like she’d done enough, numbing or “stuffing” of emotions, shutting out friends and family, and intense body hatred and shame. I listened to Claire tell a story that sounded very similar to mine, and I was eager for the part where she would reveal how she conquered her personal Warden, how she banished the eating disorder voice from her head. I was dismayed to hear that she hadn’t. Claire calmly explained to us that she still experiences eating disorder thoughts and urges. What had changed was that she deals with them in a completely different way than she has in the past.

This left me stumped and feeling a bit underwhelmed. What’s the point of all the hard work I’m doing in treatment if Ill never be free of the obsessive, destructive eating disorder thoughts that make me miserable? Claire went on to talk about the coping skills that work for her and repeatedly mentioned reframing as one of them.

Reframing is a way of thinking that involves acknowledging that you’re having a negative thought and trying to replace it with a more positive one. For example, if I have to write a ten page paper on a subject I don’t understand, I might think, “I’m going to fail this assignment because I am too stupid to grasp the concept.” To reframe this thought, I must first acknowledge that it is negative. During my senior year of high school, I spent several months in an intensive outpatient program where I learned to simply say, “I am having the thought that I am stupid.” This takes some of the power away from the thought and puts some distance between you and it, inviting you to examine whether the thought is really true.

The next step is to come up with a positive or neutral statement to counter your original thought. It doesn’t have to be something so over-the-top that you’d never believe it. I wouldn’t tell myself, “I will get an A+ on this assignment because I am smarter than my professor.” Rather, a good way to reframe the negative thought would be to tell myself, “I may not understand the material now, but I have the study skills to learn it, and I am a good enough writer to make this work.”

As Claire continued with her story, telling us how she reframes her thoughts on a daily basis, I realized that I often reframe my own thoughts without meaning to. The way Claire talked about reframing made me want to incorporate it into my own life more often. I imagined having as many positive thoughts as I do negative ones. That’s a lot of positivity! Someday, Claire and I, and all the other women with me in treatment will be free of disordered thoughts and urges. But in the meantime, recovery is having the thoughts but responding to them differently. To be in recovery I will still hear what my disorder tells me, but I will choose not to believe its lies, and not engage in disordered behaviors. Someday, I will be fully recovered. Until then, I will reframe, reframe, and reframe again.