Recovery’s not linear, and your clothes aren’t that rubbish — what I learned in bulimia group therapy

Last week I finally completed three months of pretty intense NHS group therapy for bulimia, the tedious eating disorder that’s followed me around for the best part of a decade. (For more detail on what bulimia is and how it’s more common than you think, I’ve already written a couple of rambling pieces on it for the New Statesman and the i.)

Group was a strange experience. I was initially offered the choice of waiting six months for one-to-one therapy or pretty much jumping straight into a group session with other bulimia sufferers. My natural cynicism and fun-lovin’ tendency to avoid doing anything that seems vaguely new or scary made me want to opt for the one-to-one sessions, but I forced myself to confront that feeling and instead took the plunge with the group. Three months on, I would heartily recommend it to anyone who’s seeking help with this stuff.

Basically, group therapy involves putting you in a room with several other sufferers and two or three clinicians. The job of the professionals is obviously pretty complex and varied, but it essentially boils down to a bit of challenge and support — shaking us out of it and patting us on the back when we need it. Sometimes the therapists’ role was to frighten us with cold, hard facts about the damage we were doing to ourselves. At other times it was to take us to task when we slipped into self-deprecation or despair.

Sometimes they would simply congratulate us or cheer us on when we’d demonstrably faced down a fear or cut our symptoms — turning off the step counter to avoid overexercising, for example, or pushing ourselves to eat three proper meals a day. The therapists also sent us away every week with some homework to do, ensuring that we spent at least a couple of hours in between each session confronting the problem, digging into the detail, logging what we ate, and trying to understand how this learned habit could be unlearned and replaced with something positive.

“A bit of blubbing”

And then there was us lot, the patients. It’s odd to think that a room full of complete strangers sitting around talking about an intensely personal, often horribly lonely problem can in any way be an uplifting experience, but by the final few weeks, that’s exactly what it had become for me. As the sessions unfolded, we started to realise how similar our ways of thinking about the world were.

Many of us suffered from the same black-and-white approach to life, instantly assuming that everything was doomed if we broke one of our stupid, self-imposed rules about food or exercise or life in general. As the weeks passed, it felt like our collective confidence grew, and we became strong enough to encourage each other when one of us had had a bad week. When things got tough in between sessions, I would always remember something lovely that someone else in the group had said and draw strength from it. And while the sessions naturally started off a little awkward, we really did end up as friends— obviously with quite a bit of blubbing, but also with a lot of laughing, gently poking fun at ourselves and the ways we’d been thinking for years.

So what did I learn from three months of pouring my heart out and making collages?

I’ve learned that recovery isn’t ever linear. I am not better yet, but I am better than I was in February. I’ve spent a decade reinforcing these ways of thinking and crafting a series of faulty responses to life’s challenges — so it’s only natural that it will take me a bit of time to master this new way of seeing the world. I will fall down, have bad days, feel like I’m getting nowhere — but, for the first time in a long time, I feel like I will eventually get there.

I’ve learned that everyone deserves to look after themselves sometimes, even a ham-faced freak like me. I really have done a done a lousy job of taking care of myself over the past few years, whether through overwork or neglect. Taking a bit of time out to do something I like is not laziness — and having a toolbox of fun, fulfilling stuff like reading, learning, gaming, cooking and gigging to draw on when I’m feeling a bit frazzled is a big help. Taking care of myself also involves making sure I’m properly nourished, eating three good meals a day, staying off the booze (instead of letting myself lapse because I’m worried about what other people will think), getting enough sleep, turning the bloody phone off sometimes — taking all the steps I can to give my body and my brain the best possible chance of actually beating this for good.

“Boring and whiny”

I’ve also learned how liberating it can be to face down your fears and prove your bulimia brain wrong.

I absolutely did not want to open my mouth when I sat down in that room with this group of strangers. I knew for a fact that they wouldn’t like me. I knew for a fact that they would think I was the fattest, ugliest member of the group — boring and whiny, dodgy haircut, weird clothes. I knew for a fact that I didn’t deserve to be there, that I wasn’t ill enough or female enough or thin enough to justify my presence in the group. And I knew for a fact that my attendance would add nothing to the group, and that I would just make the sessions worse for everyone.

It turns out that I was just mistaken on all of these counts. I made friends. I spoke up. I cheered people up. And now I’m kind of addicted to that feeling. I want to keep on being wrong, again and again and again, until these rubbish, faulty predictions that have been getting in the way of my life for years are no longer a recognisable part of me— just some ill-informed stuff I used to spout before some good people taught me how to take care of myself.