What Peer Support Means to Me
Hello, Full of Bean listeners... and now readers!
How exciting that the podcast now has a community blog. I have to admit, I jumped at the chance to write something for Full of Beans, because I gain so much from the words shared in each episode, and I was so keen to contribute my own square to this patchwork of recovery experience and insight. I am forever sharing nuggets of wisdom from the pod with the support group that I host each month, and I’m sure members can see on my face when I’m about to pipe up with “Ooh! I heard something about what you’re describing in a Full of Beans episode…”
And that’s truly a similarity between what I’m doing and the pod, they both exist to provide an element of peer support, which can exist as an extra tool in your recovery armoury. It’s true that we all have unique experiences of eating disorders, the recovery environments that we inhabit, and the resources that we may (or may not) have access to.
As individuals and as a collective, we all face injustices that make recovery that much harder. Whether we are navigating recovery in a fat-phobic office environment, denied services based on BMI, facing racial discrimination, refused inpatient beds due to our biological sex assigned at birth, unable to access groups because the built environment is inaccessible, discarded from services due to multiple diagnoses, or misunderstood due to the lack of sensitivity to the needs of neurodivergent characteristics… My list could go on and on. But, I think it is fair to say that recovering from an eating disorder (which is a phenomenal undertaking in itself) is made harder by trying to do so in a world that sometimes feels that it’s been designed against us.
And how - how on earth do you articulate that to a person for whom this is not their lived experience? How can even the most well-meaning, kind-hearted parent, friend or colleague truly understand how difficult any of this is, if, despite their best efforts, they can’t seem to grasp why we can’t “just eat” and have no idea of the ferocity of the demon in our head? I remember the first day in my recovery that I ate a sandwich at lunchtime. I was so scared in those early days, and it was a big deal. I texted my friend. I phoned my mum. “Well done!” came back both. Months later, I was doing much better, and I was eating sandwiches at lunch every day. Someone in my office made a comment that they’d never eat bread in the middle of the day, and made a comment about my body. I texted my friend. I phoned my mum. Their responses were similarly unhelpful: “I thought you were kind of over all this. Why is it still upsetting you?” “Maybe try taking a couscous salad?”
I just thought: you don’t get this, do you? My darlings, you love me, and you’re trying to help, and I love that you don’t know this pain. But at that moment, I needed validation and reassurance. I needed someone to stand up with Hannah that was trying to recover, hold her hand against the demonic eating disorder thoughts that were beginning to rise up and say: “that’s a load of s***”. And you know what, all over the country, there are people in recovery who just need to hear that voice of reason, to quell the eating disorder thoughts when it rises and go: “hey, I know how that feels”, or “you know, I faced that situation too” or “Ooh! I heard something about what you’re describing in a Full of Beans episode…”
For me, that is where peer support comes in. Before the global pandemic, there was a local peer support group which had to be disbanded due to people moving around the country and changing life circumstances. Not wanting to let it go, I decided to host a space online for people in my city in the UK to join up, for an hour a month, and talk about this recovery lark. We are all different, with different eating disorders, at different stages of the (non-linear) process. There's no requirement to have a diagnosis to come to our small, but friendly group and everyone is welcome. There's no pressure to talk or have cameras on and members are encouraged to join in as much as they'd like.
In the group, we focus on a different recovery-related topic each month. In the past, we have covered healthy distractions, expectations in recovery, coping with the unexpected, creating a recovery environment at home, and perfectionism. The group does have some guidelines to keep it a recovery safe space for everyone - such as avoiding talking about weight, calories or specific behaviour related to the eating disorder. We invite members to contribute to the group boundaries and to share ideas about how they want the group to function.
The space truly is something incredible, and I am often utterly humbled by the support and wisdom that people offer. Last month, we had an in-depth discussion about isolation and loneliness. It can be hard to make friends as an adult. Having an eating disorder often means that we devalue ourselves with that negative self-talk, and so it can be tempting to feel that we have to almost persuade others to spend time in our presence. Many of the group shared that we have felt that we have to work hard to win people around to want to spend time in our company. But, this group consists of so many kind, witty, clever, funny people who deserve all the kindness that they give out - and I’m sure that you do too, Full of Beans reader!
We often hear that it is the illness that breeds isolation, but I often wonder whether trying to recover into a diet-culture-infused fat-phobic society is any less isolating. Most people are nervous to come at first, and I encourage people to take things at their own pace. I always suggest to people just to join the meeting and they can always leave after 5 minutes if it's a bit much, or not the right thing at that time.
If you have a support group near you, whether in-person or online, I would recommend giving it a go! There is so much kindness and wisdom to be shared.