It is a warm September evening and I'm sat in our clinic lounge looking out at a sea of expectant faces. Some familiar, some new, many fearful, others hopeful and excited. We are at a graduation - An event that we hold in honour of each client as she reaches the end of her treatment. Graduations are bitter sweet for me, they are the moment in a client's journey when we (the clinicians), are no longer needed and as much as we celebrate this, I always feel the loss when they leave.
Tonight the woman beside me sits nervously, twitching a scrawled piece of paper. Her big eyes dancing around the room, waiting for her moment to speak. I introduce her to the group and she finds her voice. Her plight? To share the truth of her journey, to answer the questions of trepidacious newcomers and to absorb the reflections of those that have witnessed her journey. She talks honestly about the darkness that has surrounded her for many years and how recovery offered her such an unexpected mass of healing relationships and lessons, that have changed her life forever. She describes the emotional anaesthesis of her younger years and the anguish of anger and self destruction. She prepares the community for the reality of how it feels to live with feelings, this is no tabloid before and after story.
Warmth rises in my chest as, once again, I'm sat in bewildered awe at the strength and willingness that these women have to be so honest and vulnerable; sharing themselves, knowing that they can be of service to others in pain.
The question of 'the relationship' for me is at the core of healing. Many of the women that we treat are unable to build intimate relationships with others, but upon admission they are offered a primary therapist with whom they begin to learn how to cultivate a genuine and compassionate relationship. They discover a space within which they can feel seen and heard. This nurturing bond between therapist and client provides the foundations for the relationship that they will go to have with themselves..
The woman continues to share her experience of emerging from the darkness, blinking into the light. She reflects that the first few steps are the hardest and someone in the audience asks how she was able to keep going? Pausing for a moment, she thoughtfully considers her response and her reply is simple: before she decided to pursue recovery, she did not want to live anymore...this was her only choice. I feel a sting behind my eyes as she states this candid but agonizing truth, I saw it at the time of her initial assessment but it feels impossible now to imagine the radiant woman before me reduced to such a place of despair and hopelessness.
I'm reminded how the community's (both staff and client) genuine and caring investment in one another is vital in allowing sufferers to release the shards of this corrosive illness - emerging into a place of self-acceptance, self worth and with a revived hunger and passion for life. This woman has rekindled a connection with her healing body and is feeling her way through the beginnings of a new intimacy with herself.
The graduation draws to a close amongst much applause, tears, hugging and laughter. I take a moment to stand back and to witness the scene. I have immense gratitude for my own recovery and for this place that together, we have created. I feel incredibly sad and frustrated that this opportunity isn't available to everyone.
I read recently that a new eating disorder service on the NHS had pledged to respond to enquiries within a week! We respond to all enquiries within 24 hours...why is it so hard to action efficient mental health services? During my 20s I set up meetings with my local MP and wrote to various people in senior positions within the NHS to try to demonstrate the efficiency and effectiveness of the clinic that I'd created, only to be patted on the head and sent on my way.
The clients pile out of the building, no doubt onto the nearest pub for further celebrating. They are being taught to embrace this dark period of their lives as an opportunity to learn, grow and to live a more compassionate existence. It's much more than learning to eat properly...whatever that means.
Sitting on the train home I recall the first time that I met the woman that spoke so eloquently tonight. She wore a bright yellow raincoat and her enormous blue eyes were cast down with an aching sadness which I will never forget. I return home humbled and grateful, reminded to hold onto my own wellness with both hands, determined never to let it go.