I took a week hiatus at the beach with my son. It was a long overdue trip, and I needed it more than I can express. This year has had major ups and downs, and I longed for the kind of rebirth that only the ocean can provide. While there I spent hours playing in the surf, digging in the sand, and of course, contemplating recovery.
Ever since my first visit in 2001, the ocean has been my higher power. Its sheer immensity and force bring me to my knees with humility. I feel incredibly insignificant in its presence, and oddly enough, this is wonderfully empowering. Knowing that I am a small grain of sand next to its vast breadth gives me the strength to accept life as it is.
I learn something valuable every time I visit. In 2010 the ocean helped me see the power of letting go. I learned to break waves that year. I learned to surf them by letting them carry me. I learned that nothing is guaranteed in life. Nothing.
This year’s trip I found myself meditating on recovery at the ocean’s edge. The ocean is a living, breathing thing. The ocean is never the same from one day to the next. In fact, it is quite different from one moment to the next.
My first afternoon there, the water was cold and gray from a rainstorm the night before. Assorted debris had washed up, littering the sand far up onto the beach. By that evening the water had cleared and turned warm, allowing for comfortable water play up until sunset.
By the next morning, a sandbar had formed about 15 feet from the shore and swimmers were sitting on it, waiting for waves to lift them and carry them gently back to the sea floor.
The ocean was different nearly every time I looked at it, and I marveled at how similar this process of change is to recovery from binge eating disorder.
No two days in recovery are alike. One day hunger is minimal, life is full, triggers roll off easily. The very next day can seem like a struggle for survival. Every minute feels close to epic failure. Compulsive thoughts swirl in and foods that would normally have no power seem like Godzilla storming through carefully cultivated abstinence.
As food addicts we often wonder why we can be the picture of perfect recovery one day and an utter mess the next. How can food not bother us on Sunday but drives us completely insane on Tuesday? How can our friend’s rude body comment in the morning not bug us, but her joke about our muffin top in the afternoon drives us to the refrigerator?
Of course, the simple answer is that we are human. The more complex answer is that recovery truly is quite a bit like the ocean. Each day changes with each wave. Each pull of gravity. Each storm half way around the world.
If there was a foolproof method that allowed us to hover eternally in perfect recovery, I think we would all sign up, but then there would be nothing left to learn, or at least the motivation to do so would diminish greatly. If recovery is the process not just of becoming free from compulsive overeating, but of getting to know yourself, then imperfect days are essential to uncovering YOU.
In the end, though, the serenity that comes from solid recovery requires a complete abandonment of expecting the beach to be the same every day. Some days the waves will overwhelm you with their ferocity, and you fall into the surf again and again. Maybe you will binge or maybe you will white knuckle it from breakfast until bed time. Other days the tide will wash in gentle, bringing with it a light breeze, and you will float along as easy as anything. Maybe you will eat three meals with nothing in between, have no compulsive thoughts about food, and live in the moment from sun up to sun down.
It is when we accept that recovery is not perfect that we truly reap the rewards of this life-saving gift. Instead of raging against the imperfect day, study it. How did you sleep the night before? Is today a stressful work day? Are you having problems with your partner?
Be curious about your thoughts and behaviors. Instead of shaming yourself for craving a trigger food, try to figure out what set off the craving. Instead of throwing your recovery away and eating a bag of donuts, find something better to do with your time.
Not only is understanding the variability of living in recovery a powerful tool for getting you through the tough times, it is a good reminder to appreciate the days that go well. And generally, as recovery progresses there are more good days than bad ones.
As my son and I giggled into the rolling surf at sunset on our final day at the beach, I celebrated the joy I have found since I entered recovery from binge eating disorder more than two years ago. Not only had I not thought about food compulsively since long before my feet hit the sand, I didn’t even consider bingeing, which is truly wonderful for me, given that vacations used to be the perfect excuse for gorging.
Instead, I enjoyed every single moment in the sunshine, knowing that not every day in recovery is perfect, but it is mine. The recovery process shifts like the sand. If you try to hold it tight and force each day to be perfect, it will slip through your fingers. It’s own will is to be different. Let it be. You’ll come out the other side, changed, but still breathing.
Come on in! The water’s fine.
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