From the age of 8 to 38, my eating disorder lay undiagnosed, including chronic restricting, compulsive eating and excessive exercise. These behaviors were not just my normal — they were my survival, and they only intensified during my four periods of pregnancy, birth and postpartum recovery. Managing hormonal shifts and bodily change only grew more complicated as I attempted to balance motherhood stress with my eating disordered behaviors.
Along with pregnancy came a spike in my perfectionism, control, obsession, compulsion, anxiety and depression. But it wasn’t until my diagnosis in 2010, and subsequent eating disorder treatment in 2011, that living life differently became a reality. My kids were ages 2, 4, 7, and 9 when I decided to make the commitment to treatment and recovery, and kissing their tear-stained faces goodbye was one of the most difficult parts of that journey. Today, as I look upon these children, now ages 17, 15, 12 and 10, I reflect on the ways that recovery has brought value, meaning, and a renewed sense of purpose to my role as a mother, and our relationship with one another.
Here are 5 mom lessons I learned through choosing life in recovery.
“Is this recovery?”
Shortly after returning from treatment, I was sitting on the swing with my littles. And for a few seconds, for a few swings, I felt nothing but joy. I felt the sun on my face, the breeze in my hair, I felt my hands connected to the chain and my legs as they kicked. There were no numbers or body thoughts, there was no shame or fear that the swing was going to break under the pressure of my weight, and I thought, “Is this recovery? Is recovery from my eating disorder the ability to not count and criticize, but instead, just be?” And for me, it was! Through commitment to recovery, those moments turned into minutes, which turned into hours, which eventually turned into days. The gift of my recovery was the ability to feel joy.
“Never say never.”
I was two weeks into inpatient treatment when my husband of twelve years and father of my children announced divorce. Not what I wanted, not what I planned, but for me, separation and divorce walked hand-in-hand with recovery. As I imagined the future, I could not fathom sharing my children, having a single Christmas morning and not waking up to them.
And yet, through recovery, I was able to find the ability to handle all of that through self-care. I discovered, there was beauty in a life I could never have imagined. I had tools, I had support, and although there are days that look different than what my mother heart would have chosen, the gift of recovery came through the value of self-care.
“Mommy makes mistakes, too.”
As a newly single mom, the five of us were sitting around the table and one of kids spilled their milk. In the same moment, their four little faces whipped towards me, flashing expressions of fear. Living in my eating disorder, I was wound so tight, physically, emotionally and mentally, that one small inconvenience could ruin an entire day.
Living in recovery gave me that moment of pause. Even though my programmed response was rage, I instead had the time to recognize the emotions that my kids were experiencing as a result of my patterns. I took my glass of milk, and I spilled it, and I said, “See guys, Mommy makes mistakes, too.” The memory of their relief, the permission I gave them to be imperfect, is immeasurable. The gift of recovery is the ability to be, perfectly imperfect.
Through my first years in recovery, I discovered an artistic side I never knew existed. My passion came from finding roadside treasure, pieces of furniture or accessories that had been discarded, unwanted, or forgotten. And through restoration, breathing in new life. The kids and I were on a hunt, and together we found such passion through the recycle and regeneration. We called our business, “Everything’s Chippy!” and filled our home with furniture pieces that were indestructible for that runaway Matchbox car or glow-in-the-dark slime recipe; perfect for a home with children, already shabby and dented — already chippy! The gift of recovery came from the ability to see beauty in the broken, the togetherness, the creation, and the lesson that “Everything’s Chippy.”
“It takes a village.”
From the earliest years of my eating disorder, I operated as a solo perfectionist. I knew what had to be done...and I had to do it myself. I carried this self directed demand of not needing anyone's help into my relationships, my marriage, and my motherhood. I had to be perfect, and I had to do it alone.
Just one of many examples, inviting over 100 guests to my son’s first birthday, the months of planning and coordinating, sleepless nights, having the make the food, the decorations, the party bags, all by myself, and all on my own. I needed that recognition, I needed external validation, and my perceived worth came through what I did, not through who I was. What the guests didn’t see was the madness that laid behind those “perfect” parties, the screaming, yelling, ordering. Recovery has taught this mom that we can’t do it alone. My greatest gifts have come through my mom friends, those who I can be most honest and vulnerable with. Choosing recovery forced me to identify those in my tribe who allowed me to be me — those who welcomed my venting, my rants, and my stories. Those who were willing and able to listen, to advise, to cry beside and laugh along. The gift of recovery was the lesson that I was never alone.
These gifts did not come overnight, and they did not come easily. They came through every decision over the past eight years to partner with my treatment team; every therapy appointment, dietary appointment, 12 Step meeting and Higher Power connection. Through my honesty, vulnerability, connection with others and through the steps taken to begin to trust myself.
These gifts have redefined my spirit and my soul, and they have redefined that of my family. Recovery was not a gift given to me alone, it was a gift shared with each of my children. The sacrifice was real, the decisions brutal, and the reward immeasurable. As I am reminded of these gifts, I am reminded of the why, as a mom, for choosing recovery. I am grateful for these lessons, and I celebrate these gifts.
Dena Larsen Gazeley
Lead Educator, Ophelia’s Place