This past week during group supervision at Northwest Counseling & Wellness Center, we walked the labyrinth at Unity Church of the Hills. It was one of the most calming moments that I have had in quite some time, and I wanted to share my reflection on the experience.
Falling In - A Metaphor for Mental Illness
In case you have not walked a labyrinth before, here's something important to know: it is not a maze. There is no "wrong way" to walk the path. There are no dead ends. There aren't multiple forks in the road. However, it is a winding path, sometimes frustratingly so. In this particular labyrinth, you know you've hit the halfway point when you walk right along the inner circle - right next to your "goal" of the center - only to be led outwards again before coming back in.
Walking the labyrinth from outside to center brought me back to the first time I had ever walked one. At the time, I was suffering from an eating disorder, depression, and crippling social anxiety. But just like there is not one straight path from the outside to the center of the labyrinth, so too was there no one straight path from my "healthy" self to my "unhealthy" self. I didn't wake up one day and spontaneously decide to acquire an eating disorder. I didn't sit down and resolve myself to becoming socially anxious. No one suddenly thinks, "Oh hey, today seems like a great day to become an alcoholic!"
No. Instead, the fall into mental illness is the same as wandering into the labyrinth. There are twists and turns. In the case of an eating disorder, you can see your "goal" at the center - an ultimate low weight, a particular body shape, a relationship you lost and want to recover. You continue walking that winding path, knowing deep down that you are losing control but at the same time desperately wanting to gain control. You think that by counting your calories and restricting your intake and purging your dinner will give you the willpower to reach that goal. You think you're doing all the work.
You aren't. The labyrinth is. The spiral of mental illness is sucking you in. You have the facade of control but you aren't controlling anything. The ED side of your mind controls you.
Emerging Again - A Metaphor for Recovery
If walking into the center of the labyrinth is a metaphor for falling into mental illness, then walking out is the perfect metaphor for recovery. I fully believe that recovery doesn't happen without retracing your steps and exploring all the reasons you stepped into that labyrinth in the first place. Just like developing a mental illness is not linear, recovery is definitely not linear. You will have good days filled with hope and bad days where you relapse. Some days (as you walk the inner circles) you'll have dangerously close brushes with old behaviours and thoughts. Other days (as you walk the outer circles) it will seem like you are so close to seeing the light at the end of the tunnel but are still separated by persistent barriers.
I mentioned previously that falling into mental illness is a complex interplay of control - the illusion that you have it, but actually losing it. Recovery is much the same: you want to control your recovery. You want to do things your way. You want it to work.
But so much of recovery, especially with eating disorders, relies on trusting the process. You have to relinquish your voracious desire for control and trust that your care providers have your best interests at mind. You have to trust that some days it will get a lot worse before it gets better. The irony, of course, is that the more you let go of old thoughts and behaviours (that feeling of "letting go" of control)... the more control you actually have. The less you allow your ED mind to control you, the more you have control of you. By trusting the process, you are empowering yourself slowly, bit by bit.
Until finally - there you are, at the end. Emerged. Recovered. Ready to face the world again - a little stronger, a little wiser, a little better for the experience.