What recovery has taught me about my marriage
When I offered to write this blog, I was in a very different place from where I am now.
This blog was intended to be a joint post about long-term relationships in eating disorder recovery. But, things took a turn and I’ve done a lot of work to realise that I need to use my own voice.
Eating disorder recovery is hard. I know. I’m there, at the start of the journey for the umpteenth time. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I’ve lived through trauma, providing end-of-life care to parental figures and I’m doing a PhD part-time (that’s a close second and by the time this is posted, I may have quit).
Eating disorder recovery is hard. And it’s really hard for a partner in the journey too. That’s why I started my Instagram, @recoveryinpartnership. I knew it would be hard for my husband, Steve, as it was only 8 years ago, I was supporting him in his recovery with OCD.
There are so many parallels between our two disorders and in some ways I’m grateful. I would never wish an ED or OCD on someone else, but I know what it’s like to be the partner in a recovery journey and he knows what it’s like to be overwhelmed with thoughts and compulsions (like the ED noise and behaviours).
I have been with my husband now for 12.5 years all-in. We met as teens and have been together ever since. He took a gap year as he was the year above in sixth form so we could go to university together and live together instead of going to halls.
Our lives have been intertwined for 12.5 years. But, he never knew about the ED I was hiding until 4 years ago.
Steve was aware I had ‘recovered’ from anorexia as a young teen, first being diagnosed around 12 and discharged at 14. My ‘odd’ eating behaviours and habits, or my inability to understand what lunch was (honestly, still don’t understand meals or snacks, but I’m getting there) were all quirks.
What he didn’t know, was that in our time together, I had been secretly battling with BED, BN and ‘atypical’ AN. I’d go through cycles, flipping from one to another in secret for years at a time; on reflection, each ED was a coping mechanism for a different experience. I only realise that now through doing the hard work of looking deeper.
The ED had always been part of our relationship and our marriage. But it was manageable. As long as he didn’t know. As long as I could hide it.
One day whilst at uni, Steve caught me mid-binge. I managed to play it off and for years after we used it as a running joke with friends, unknown to him the shame I was feeling for my chaotic relationship with food and my body.
The ED officially joined our marriage as an active partner when I fell back into AN and there was no more hiding it. I couldn’t manage. I reached out for help. That outpatient help took time and in the end, was extremely traumatic. I had to leave the services and have since registered a complaint with the ED service and with the therapist’s accreditation.
Since December 2021 we’ve been ‘going it alone’ and Steve became my primary carer and manager. But a partner cannot take sole responsibility for someone with an ED.
Steve has engaged in workshops with BEAT and read every book on EDs, from what they are to methods of self-help. We both have. But that does not replace a professional. Sure, I had weekly GP appointments and blood monitoring as my health was in a dangerous position.
From December to August, I had done a lot of work independently on the internal workings of my ED, figuring out what was keeping it alive and pulling me deeper. By the end of July, I got closure on a few fronts and began to engage in refeeding under the medical supervision of my GP and a professional dietitian. But Steve continued to take the main responsibility.
Before refeeding, I was called in by ED Services for inpatient admission. They took 5 months to respond to a referral by my GP that I strongly did not want but she was professionally obliged to send. When they called and learnt of the severity of my condition, Steve battled for days to keep me out, insistent that both of us had a recovery plan. We had it all written down, step-by-step. He was taking the lead; he had read all the books and was certain he could provide the 24/7 care in the month we had booked off to tackle the ED.
We were wrong. Because a partner cannot take that responsibility. The emotional burden is too great.
When we went ‘all-in’ and the ED amped up in my mind, when I cried and pleaded that I didn’t need to eat, that I needed a hike, or I could skip a meal, he saw the emotional pain and relinquished the responsibility. A responsibility that never should have been his. But we were both so sure. We were both so wrong.
Every time the ED was given permission, it got stronger. Our plan didn’t work. I restored physically. My body has changed a lot. Everything I did eat, of course, my body retained. The change from what I was eating was still vast. But the ED was strong. It’s at its strongest. We had planned for this, we knew that it would happen, but it was given too much power.
I’m now in an extremely difficult position. Every moment of every day feels like torture. And when it gets so bad, so dark, I become filled with resentment and anger towards Steve. I shouldn’t, but I do.
However, that experience and where I am right now have taught me so much. I knew that our ‘failure’ meant that I needed a greater level of support. I now have a recovery coach. And I continue to work on myself independently.
And with each ‘failure’ we learn. And I have learnt. The reason my struggles are so profound and the resentment towards my husband and so strong is because of me, my history and the ED.
A step back. I was raised by my grandparents, who instilled in me that the greatest value in life was a success and with that the ability to nurture. They taught me and made it very clear my purpose in life was to get the best qualifications, to make the most money so that I could support my Mum and sister. They told me I needed to be the breadwinner. They made me believe the only way I could have purpose and love was through success and making others happy.
Through my Mum, I inadvertently became her parent as she struggled with her own mental health, and difficulties with her body and relationship. It became my duty to also make her happy. I also learnt from her that to make myself happy I had to also take action to control my body and find a relationship.
Cue early adolescent anorexia. And a lifetime controlling my body, striving for success and trying to make others happy.
With my marriage, every decision, from the qualifications I chose to the career decisions I have made, homes I have bought, etc. have all been informed by what would make me the most money so that I could give my husband what he needed and wanted. My happiness has always been secondary and lived through others.
So, when I felt that, the only time I asked for care to be reciprocated, after a lifetime of Steve being a priority, I felt failed. And I felt/feel resentment for making my life one that has been lived for him and others. I don’t know how to make myself happy other than engaging in an ED. I don’t know what it means to be happy. Because my ED and my relationships have been the only secondary route to that feeling.
And the impact on my marriage? For the first time in 12.5 years, Steve and I separated. Only for a week. But the resentment and anger at every glimpse of his face and the pressure. The separation was enlightening. I learnt that I could be on my own. I could find ways to make myself happy. I could do hard things.
I learnt that my life is mine to own. I need to be accountable and responsible. I need to find out who I am. What makes me happy? What sets my soul on fire? What am I without success? Who am I if I’m not climbing some ladder? How do I live a life that prioritises me? So many questions to uncover as I strip back my upbringing to get to my core.
One thing I do know. I still want to live my life in service of others, but with meaningful impact. Right now, I share an unfiltered recovery journey to normalise the darkest moments that aren’t always shared online. To validate the pain in the journey for brightness. If I recover, I want to be able to spread the message and help others do the same.
Steve is home again. It’s hard. But we have learnt that a partner in recovery is a partner. They can support. They can offer comfort. But a partner is not the magic wand. They cannot ‘fix’ you. Only you can fix yourself through engaging in the hard work of therapy, challenging fears, working on acceptance and finding the true you.
I love my husband. But I now accept that he cannot fix me.
My next step? To find out who I am. So I can be free.
Jodie, @RecoveryInPartnership – hopefully one day in partnership with you