Dentistry is one of the unfortunate realities of life, whether you’re eating disordered or not. A few times a year, you have to go get your mouth forced open and prodded, and, occasionally, you might have to undergo more intensive procedures with longer recovery times. These types of procedures entail unique difficulties for eating disordered patients.
For ED sufferers, especially those in the early stages of recovery, having a strict meal plan that details what one must eat and when is a vital part of physical and psychological recovery. It is by adhesion to such plans that ED patients regain normal hunger cues, increase the variation of their food choices, and slowly start rebuilding healthy eating behaviours. Major dental work of any kind can throw a monkey wrench into meal plans, especially when sedation is required.
With IV sedation, the general rule is that no food should be consumed 12 hours before (and often for 4-6 hours after; or even up to 12 if you have a sensitive stomach). With certain procedures, a liquid or soft diet may be prescribed, which have a temporarily slimming or water-weight reducing effect on the body. The tricky question is…. how do we keep ourselves from being triggered when we’re forced to skip meals or restrict our food choices? How do we ignore the effects these things have on our bodies? What about post-operative pain? It’s not hard to make food (and your body) the enemy when it hurts to eat.
Tomorrow, my jaw will be surgically broken and wired shut, meaning two days of nothing but clear fluids in the hospital, and six weeks on a liquid diet. The operation comes at an inconvenient time, as I’m finally at a good place in my recovery; I’ve been recognizing hunger cues, eating enough, eating a variety of foods, and cooking full meals for myself and others. One of my biggest fears about surgery tomorrow is that the next six weeks will jeopardize my recovery and the progress I have made.
I expressed this fear to my dietician, who gave me a valuable piece of advice. She said, “Remember, this is only temporary. It’s a vacation, not a lifestyle change.” Embracing this perspective will be my greatest tool during my extended surgical recovery. Every day, I will remind myself that the next six weeks are not a part of my ED recovery process, but a mini-vacation, where all I have to worry about is resting and feeding my body as much quasi-food as I can stomach.
Recovering from an ED and recovering from surgery are similar, believe it or not. It would certainly be fair to compare the level of trauma caused by an eating disorder to the hit your body takes when you undergo major surgery. In both situations, your top priority should be nurturing your body and allowing your body to rest so that it may heal. Remember, your body needs calories to recover properly. You may need to eat more often than normal, and you may feel guilty because you’re having less active days. It’s also important to keep in mind that if you’re eating less, do less. You may not be getting enough calories to have busy or active days… and that’s okay. Pushing yourself to get back to “normal” can result in injury and an extended recovery time. If you are on a liquid diet and experience changes in your body – including (but not limited to) weight loss – don’t fall down the rabbit hole. Remind yourself that the limited diet (and its effects on your body) are temporary, and would be unhealthy as a lifestyle. Keep yourself grounded by treating yourself. I, for example, will be blending peanut butter and bananas and chocolate together at least once a day (perhaps a slight over-exaggeration) just to keep my spirits up. The point is, I will remind myself daily that no matter how a restrictive diet and weight loss make me feel in the short-term, they are temporary and unhealthy, and freedom from ED makes me feel so much better.
Even minor oral surgeries and non-oral operations that require sedation can keep you incapacitated for a few days, and they can certainly mess with your newly developed, healthier eating habits. Just remember that taking care of yourself requires more than following a full, dietician-approved meal plan with regular, complete meals… it requires rest, relaxation, and perspective. Even the most basic nutrition plans can sustain you for a little while, and they certainly don’t have to derail your ED recovery.