Image: Kmilo MarinIt’s part of recovery that no one likes to talk about. Professionals are often quick to overlook it, and eating disorder sufferers are often embarrassed to experience it- I’m talking about eating disorder nostalgia. It happens and it can be quite dispiriting. And it is a normal part of the recovery trajectory.
Eating disorders are complicated illnesses. Recovery almost always involves some facet of ambivalence. There is a reason for that. Eating disorders do not just happen out of nowhere. They develop for a reason and they are maintained for a reason. What do I mean by this? Well research is pointing more and more towards strong genetic underpinnings for eating disorders. Meaning that, to develop one, an individual likely has the genetic vulnerability (coupled with environmental hits, such as our society, bullying, home environment, and the list goes on). Hence an eating disorder can develop in response to the interplay between genes and environment, and can be maintained because said response is beneficial in short-term coping.
The key word to note there is coping. Eating disorder behaviors tend to become a self-perpetuating cycle that involves relying on short term coping strategies to push away whatever else is going on in one’s world. Recovering from an eating disorder involves recognizing that these short-term strategies are actually deeply harmful, and then subsequently altering/replacing those behaviors.
Eating disorder behaviors tend to become a self-perpetuating cycle that involves relying on short term coping strategies to push away whatever else is going on in one’s world.
However-Rome was not built in a day. And these behaviors and thought patterns do not disappear overnight. During the recovery process, individuals experience peaks and valleys. Along with the valleys comes the tough stuff. Firstly, you begin to feel things again-sadness, loneliness, anger- all the emotions that you have been numb to begin to wake up. You thaw, but it is like frostbite. It hurts at first. You might also have to become aware of a lot of the underlying issues that you eating disorder distracted you from. And last but not least, you may or may not have to deal with the physical ramifications (i.e. weight gain, refeeding discomfort, etc.)-like I said-tough stuff.
So as all of this is going on, it is no wonder that nostalgia can begin to creep in. Because when you are feeling low, you are vulnerable to romanticizing your short-term coping skills. You might experience flashbacks to compliments that people gave you (“You are so tiny!” “I wish I had your self-control!”) Memories might pop up of the fleeting moments of happiness when whatever numbers you were tracking for the day added up to below whatever arbitrary threshold your ED had set. You may have thoughts about how much easier it was to just run from this stuff (l mean literally run from it-hop onto the treadmill and numb out instead of feeling these things) It happens, this nostalgia.
Eating disorder nostalgia can also tend to come on during the middle portion of recovery-when the support has dwindled.
Another complicating factor is this: eating disorder nostalgia can also tend to come on during the middle portion of recovery-when the support has dwindled. During early recovery, many people experience a great deal of support from others. However, later on, this support can tend to dissipate as weight normalizes or behaviors appear to fade. So during the middle phases of recovery, when you are really beginning to confront your demons, your support system may not be as strong as it once was, and, to top it off, you are becoming nostalgic for your ED.
Take comfort in the fact that you can be completely committed to your recovery process and still have these moments. Allow yourself some time to feel the nostalgia-but set a limit. Don’t wallow in it. I’m not kidding-set an actual time limit for yourself (i.e. “When I begin to romanticize my ED, I will allow myself three minutes to daydream and feel nostalgic.”) Then have a game plan set for moving away from the nostalgia. Because your eating disorder is in your past, it should be a reference point, not your residence. So visit it in your mind for a few minutes if you must, but DO NOT set up camp. You don’t live with it anymore, remember?
Allow yourself some time to feel the nostalgia-but set a limit. Don’t wallow in it.
A game plan could also involve forcing yourself to begin to recall all of the things that you don’t miss about your ED. For example, you probably don’t miss the harmful effects it had on your relationships. You don’t actually miss the constant preoccupation with food and numbers. You likely aren’t nostalgic for all the time that you spent missing out on life-staying home from the girl’s nights out, the restaurant trips, the movie nights, and the lunches with co-workers- to sit by yourself with your safe foods. You don’t miss the slow and insidious siege of your personality that your ED performed. Recall all of those things. The memories are cold and sad and uncomfortable but don’t run from them-that is what ED wants. Sit with them. Allow yourself to feel them.
Because the truth is that remembering these things will help you to both mourn the loss of what once was, while also relaxing into the internal beauty of the life that you are creating for yourself NOW through recovery. Additionally- make sure that you reach out if your support systems begin to feel less-than-adequate. ED might suggest that you begin to skip breakfast in order to convey how you much you are still suffering, but you are onto these tricks. You know that these methods will only turn out to be harmful to you-a relapse is not the way to garner support. Proactively rallying your troops, however, is.
In the end, know that feelings of nostalgia are not only normal, but expected at some point or another during the recovery journey. You are not broken for feeling this way, nor are you relapsing. You do not want recovery any less for fantasizing about the good times with your ED. But that doesn’t get you off the hook for addressing this nostalgia. Too much time alone with these types of thoughts might be the crack in the door that ED is waiting for to begin to creep back in. So sit with them. B r e a t h e. Address them head on like the warrior that you are. And one foot in front of the other, the nostalgia will fade, and you will make it through.