"The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live only as you can." Neil Gaiman

I’ve struggled with an eating disorder and other mental health issues for 13 years now and have only considered myself to be in recovery since I entered residential treatment for the second time as of December 2015. Until the fall of 2015, I remained pretty hidden and quiet about my struggles. Secrecy was fueled by the shame I carried about my past experiences.

It’s been 8 months since I was admitted to the hospital. This week marks a huge transition in my recovery. This week I can finally say that I am transitioning back to receiving treatment at the outpatient level. For the first time in 8 months [repetition for the purpose of emphasizing disbelief], I am not in residential or day treatment. While I am incredibly grateful for the help and support I have received, this transition feels monumental. I’m not sure I really knew when or if I’d reach this point. Given that, I’ve been in a constant state of reflection for the past few days, thinking about how far I’ve come and set goals for where I want to be.

One of the primary goals I’ve been focusing on in recovery is letting go of secrets because as my therapist constantly tells me, “secrets keep you sick.” In an effort to build up the courage and vulnerability to share my stories, I had to rediscover my voice and learn to trust my intuition again, both of which I felt like my eating disorder stripped me of. To do this, I started writing and making art again. Separately, writing and art each provide me with their own benefits, but I’ve found that the combination of the two is synergistically more powerful and healing.  

Words and language hold an immeasurable significance in my life. I have always been an avid reader, quote collector, pun-lover, and was a comparative literature major in undergrad. One of the reasons I went to graduate school for speech-language pathology was because I wanted to help people learn or relearn how to use their voices.

Words and their meanings have the ability to serve as a way to either empower or completely disempower us. Words have the power to clearly depict opposing truths such as love and hate, benign and malignant. Words can be inspirational or they can be detrimental. Thus, to me, words undeniably and profoundly dictate our lives – both in the words we use and the words we receive from others.

There’s a certain sense of power that exists in having your words be seen and/or heard that is so fundamentally important to me. I believe that each and every one of us has the right to have our stories told by no one else by ourselves. With such strong beliefs, it’s rather ironic that my eating disorder striped me of authentic voice. For months, I was unable to identify, articulate, and subsequently verbalize my thoughts and feelings.   

Recovery was not only the beginning of weight restoration, but it was also the beginning of re-finding my voice. For me, writing is truly an act of self-preservation. Words written on paper come to symbolize a truth that was previously unknown. Writing makes sentences in my head become a reality. This is often scary, but much of the time it is clarifying and is an initial way for me to process my emotions. There are times when I am feeling so much that I just have to grab a pen and my journal until my “word purge” is over. Through this act, thoughts that were cloudy suddenly become quite clear.

But words don’t always come so easily to me. In recovery, art has become another way for me to express my creative voice and tell my story. When a topic is triggering or I feel ashamed about something, I’m better at depicting my feelings through imagery, rather than words. That is how I developed my love for multi-media collages. As writing is the podium for honesty, art is often the very vehicle that leads me to be able to unveil said honesty. Often times, it feels like I’m actually able to better access my true inner voice that is so raw, yet so innocently genuine through art and images.

I created the first image quite early on in my recovery. In treatment we were asked to depict a map of our emotions. At this point, I was not able to easily identify what emotions I was feeling at a particular moment. I felt like I was perpetually caught in the vicious cycle of numbing and flooding. Every emotion seemed to hit me at once making it impossible for me to verbally articulate my experiences, which only led to me completely shutting down.

On the other hand, the second picture was created just a couple of months ago, when I was in day treatment. I had reached a point of utter frustration in holding myself to certain expectations regarding where I should be in my recovery. I realized I had been thinking about recovery as a linear path, when in reality, I’ve never been straight, let alone have been one to follow a straight line. I questioned why I was holding myself to such high expectations and through the process of creating this collage I was able to open a space of compassion for whatever my road to recovery looks like. It was around this time, when I felt like I was finding my voice, and when words began to hold significant meaning to me in my life again.

As I’ve progressed through recovery, my art and my writing have started to blend together. The evolution of images truly mirrors the evolution of the rediscovery of my own voice. The beginning pages are more image-based, more elementary in nature. Towards the end, the words are filled with multiple layers of complex images and words. Together, the merging of words and images cultivates an important sense of creativity that yields a deeper meaning than the mere sum of the individual parts. Such creativity has enabled me to feel a sense of revival and renewal in my story of continual recovery.

--- Jamie Bushell, blogger at thirdwheelED.com