Spotlight on Lasting Recovery: Alumni Profile with SharonLee Langsford
In sharing your stories about the recovery journey, we hope to offer inspiration, hope and support to Eating Recovery Center and partner program alumni. This month, SharonLee Langsford, an Eating Recovery Center of Washington alumna, reflects on the journey of lasting recovery and why she says, “My ED is my Early Detection System. It detects emotions that need to be addressed, and it alerts me when I need to deal with them.”
It will be fifty-four years ago next week when I began my problems with disordered eating. When I was born, no one knew that I had congenital hyperinsulism, a condition that causes, among other problems, obsessive hunger and obesity. My mother will tell you that when I was a toddler, she could see that I had “an unusual relationship with food.” Between this condition, and childhood traumas that left me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), I quickly fell into my Eating Disorder (ED) to cope with it all. Now here I am, a middle-aged woman of extra huggable proportions with a lifetime of ED and more recently diagnosed diabetes. Hopefully, you cannot relate to anything I have described so far. However, if you are reading this you probably have your own ED and will find plenty to relate to in this article.
1. What does lasting recovery mean to you?
FREEDOM from; the impact of the things that trigger or fuel my ED behaviors, the vigilant policing of my thoughts, self-sabotaging beliefs and destructive actions, and from my feelings of shame, guilt and sheer ugliness.
HOPE that I will live a life; buoyed by an elevating inner peace with self-acceptance and self-care, with connection, love and the ability to quickly discern safe and healthy relationships, and with greater physical health and experiences in life I never thought I could have.
2. What advice do you have for fellow alumni as they navigate their recovery journeys?
For decades I have been frustrated by all the classes, seminars and books that teach facts, give “how to” advice, and instructions to keep going, keep eating, keep expressing and keep following your training. I am an intelligent woman, able to absorb factoids like a sponge, recite nutritional data until the cows come home, and follow instructions to the letter. I have crashed and burned at every turn and then heaped even more self-recrimination upon my already demoralized self. FAIL!
There was a lot missing for me in that scenario including context. What can I tell you that you have not already heard and practiced yourself? For better or worse, here are some things I wish someone had explained to me in aid of my learning, realistic expectations of myself, and what all of this looks like in daily life.
- You cannot think your way out of your ED. You have to FEEL your way out – and that means the feeling of your emotions, AND the feelings you experience when you use new healthy coping skills*. The experiential learning was the most impactful for me. Lectures and book learnin’ have good value, but none of it mattered until I began to have success dealing with my emotions in therapy and on my own with my new skills.
- Keep trying new and different coping skills, no matter how outlandish or unnatural they seem to you. You never know which ones might bring you satisfying visceral experiences that really help you process your emotions, reconcile your complex or conflicting needs, and empower your recovery and the avoidance of your ED behaviors. Some of the best, most powerful collection of skills for me came under self-care. Listening to my body – what does it need, or what is stressing it out – has been an amazing experience for me. It never occurred to me before the age of 51 that I deserved anything like self-care. What a sweet concept! The more I substitute healthy coping skills for burying my emotions or using my disordered behaviors, the stronger those skills become. The more I experience the amazing results attained through the use of these skills, the more successful I am in breaking my ED thought and behavior patterns, and the more confident I become in my recovery. (Read below for a list of my favorite coping skills.)
- Do not let yourself isolate. The minute you have the urge to do so, phone a friend! Keep communicating with your circle of care and support through whatever means you can. Why not bring some of your supporters along on your self-care or coping skills adventures? This can be fun! It does not have to be a serious drudgery. Share some fun as you share what is new with your friends. This was a big step for me.
- Eat! Work that meal plan for all it’s worth. Keeping up your health – including your mental acuity – is so important! No matter what type of ED you have, or what your meal plan looks like, you have to keep yourself well fueled to deal with your triggers and your inner ED Voice. I never knew that. I had no idea that my level of nutrition or lack thereof, has direct impact on Mr. Ed Voix and on my urges for my ED behaviors.
- Get to know your inner ED Voice! Ed Voix is the barometer for my ED. What he says in the privacy of my skull comes before my disordered behaviors. Without his voice, I have no ED compulsions. However, for me to begin recovering, I had to recognize that Ed is actually my life-long friend and protector, and accept my emotions that trigger Ed to begin nagging me with ever more brutal self-demoralization. The secret to success for me is being able to translate this nagging into a loving caution from my subconscious, which is actually saying, “WARNING! You are experiencing an uncomfortable emotional reaction and pretending it is not there. STOP! BREATHE! Slow down and allow your emotions to bubble to the surface and be rendered harmless in the blazing light of acknowledgment and feeling – you Great Big Beautiful Doll!”
- NEVER GIVE UP! Keep your eye on the prize even when things unravel and seem impossible, because it IS possible to reach, fall-down and regain recovery. When things are darkest, ask your supporters for help. They will bring lots of light and warmth into the darkness.
All the things listed above have changed my perspectives on myself for the better. I now believe that other people can have positive views of me and they can value me too. To have reached the point of believing in my own value, in how others see me in a positive light, and in the helpful warnings from Ed Voix is a set of miracles I never thought I would see. All of this has changed my life. You have heard it said that, once a bell has been rung, you cannot unring that bell. Well, once I began experiencing the power of my new coping skills, I could not go back to my old thinking patterns or accept Ed’s whispers in my brain as literally true.
* The healthy coping skills that have worked for me at various times are:
- Conscious breathing slows me down and allows me to take stock of my inner world
- Picturing myself in my imaginative safe place, where I am happy, loved and comforted
- Writing as descriptively as I can to a trusted friend or in my journal. Once my troubling thoughts and feelings are on the page, I no longer need to replay them over and over in the theatre of my brain, and that is such a relief
- Talking with a friend I trust lets my emotions out, and I use their questions and input to try on different points of view, and to bask in the glow of their support and comfort
– A side benefit of this is that sharing with someone and asking for their support is a gift to them. It makes them feel special, and lets them know their friendship is something I really value.
- Working with a clinician that specializes in my cocktail of diagnoses
- Breaking my cycle of isolation and participating in a group of others with EDs that “get me.”
- Creating something artistic and meaningful to me – expressing my inner world; fears, motives, anything that is moving me.
- Using a containment book or box – I made a large scrap book that I use for holding my memories and emotions that hurt me the most, that drive my ED. I hold them in this external container until I am ready to open it and retrieve those often devastating feelings.
- Last on the list, but actually first for me is listening to music or going to a movie that matches my mood. Listening to music or watching films in a great theater are the only things I have found that can change my body chemistry as fast as my eating behaviors can. Instantly my disposition is altered. I am taken out of myself and put into another world altogether. I am wholly distracted and I am completely free of Ed Voix. In fact, I have never had any interest in eating in a movie theatre. The images flickering past on the big screen satiate my mind, body, heart, even every hair follicle. So, I have no need of my behaviors. And music you can take with you anywhere. With today’s technologies and a pair of high-quality earbuds, I can put myself into my own movie, with my own soundtrack. My emotions are validated by the melodies and lyrics I hear. Music is the best, most accessible tonic I have found for getting me the freedom I crave from my ED.
3. What is the greatest challenge you have faced since leaving treatment? How did you address this challenge?
I was very dedicated to my recovery process, and I had tremendous trust and faith in the treatment team I had had for some time. Unfortunately, several critical things occurred in the same month which catapulted me out of the program and left me in a state of terror and rage unlike anything I had experienced before. Prior to my leaving, I had been involved in intense trauma therapy that brought up excruciating emotions for me. This was great progress. However, when suddenly I was reassigned to new providers, all the immobilizing PTSD anxiety, the nightmares and the sense of horror I felt from the past was brought into a full blaze like gasoline being poured onto a fire. I could not get the relief I needed from my sessions with my new providers, as good as they were. I was utterly lost and felt that “the system” of program management no longer cared how I felt, or cared about my needs. Incredibly, the bottom fell out of my finances. I did not have enough money to buy gas to drive to the treatment center. And the core group I had been in for about two years was cancelled. So, I was out of the program, out of all treatment, and left to my own devices while in a state of crisis. It rips me up even now as I write this. I am down to my last tissue here.
I tried to find help elsewhere, but other clinics would not take my insurance. My employer would not give me any more time off for medical care. So, I sat alone in my condo and sobbed. I talked to an empty chair across the room as if my former clinician was sitting there listening. I raged and sobbed and sobbed and raged for hours at a time over several weeks. I did everything I could to express my emotions out loud to the universe, hoping that somewhere there was a caring, healing energy that would find me. I used my containment book to draw my grief and dejection. I sent long emails to my closest friends sharing with them what I was going through. They were sympathetic and kept close tabs on me to make sure I was alright each day. I started back to work fulltime and that was distracting and helpful. Over the summer months, the huge tidal waves of pain began to subside. My core group kept in touch until we were able to start up again as one of the free alumni groups. My friends bought me gas so I could get to group and bought me food so I could eat. Eventually my finances caught up and righted themselves, so that I could get to group without aid from others. It took months to get through all of that, and my ED behaviors cropped up more often than I would like to admit. But as my emotions waned, I put effort into getting back on my meal plan, keeping my work schedule as simple as possible and getting to bed at a decent hour.
Going through that crucible made me stronger. I was forced to use my coping skills – still in their infancy – as well as I was able. They proved more helpful than I could have imagined. I had to fend for myself and I did. I had to ask for help – something I NEVER would have done before – but I did, and my friends rose to the occasion magnificently.
4. Has anything surprised you about the recovery process?
I was surprised by several things during my recovery process. The fact that my intellect has been more of a hindrance than a help to me was a real shock. All my life I have overridden my emotions with logical thinking. It is my intelligence that has brought me success at work, and improvement in my communication and relationship skills. For whatever combination of reasons (time of life, crises that have come my way in recent years, the crushing blow of the economic crash…) I can no longer think my way through life. I have to include my emotions in my considerations, choices, self-analyses and general daily living. Without my ED behaviors to keep my emotions locked away, my internal Pandora’s Box has blown open and there is no ignoring my emotions. They are a kaleidoscope of unexpected, complex and irrational feelings. And guess what? That is OK!
Also, I was surprised by the power of my emotions and their ability to override my intellect. OMG! My old thought processes no longer work for me. I can no longer count on my mind to win the day. And one of the side effects of my ED is the lack of nutrition causing my brain to be less facile. I do not retain information reliably. Words, names, entire phrases just are not there when I need them. So, I am way off balance; unable to crisply cogitate, easily make informed decisions, or interact with people in the same old way.
Lastly, the potency of some of my new coping skills has been wonderfully impactful, giving me clarity in areas I have not had it before. I have mentioned this more than once, but the point can not be made strongly enough. THIS is where our hope resides, in the practice of our new skills substituting for our old behaviors.
5. Do you have any inspiration quotes, saying, or affirmations you would like to share with fellow alumni?
My ED is my Early Detection System. It detects emotions that need to be addressed, and it alerts me when I need to deal with them.
My ED has saved my life and gotten me through tremendously painful and frightening situations. It has been the glue that has held my life together, and I am grateful for that.
Give yourself grace and keep going!
6. Have you been able to attend the Alumni Retreat, and if so, in what ways was the experience beneficial?
I very much enjoyed attending the summer Alumni Retreat in 2014, as well as the gathering in December of last year. I really appreciated reconnecting with friends and staff I had grown close to. The sessions we had were informative and uplifting. These events were like touch stones, a time to take stock of where I am and continue on with greater focus and resolve.
I hope that some part of my story is helpful. I wish I could wave a magic wand over all of us and grant us full healing from our Eating Disorders with a recovery rich with self-knowledge and acceptance, to never again hear a negative thought in our heads about ourselves. Remember, the sexiest curve on your body is your smile!