Trying to summarize my experience of being in recovery feels impossible. The last 12 months of my life have not been easy by any stretch. Of all the challenges I’ve faced in my life, recovering from an eating disorder has undoubtedly been the toughest.
Recovery is a choice to be made every single day. It demands a huge amount of strength, hope, and, at times, blind faith. But the internal demands are just half of the challenge. The rest comes from external sources. To put it simply, the world we live in is not conducive to recovering from an eating disorder.
No such thing as a perfect recovery
Through the recovery process I’ve learned a whole lot about my relationship with myself and my body. I’ve also become cognizant to the trials and tribulations of attempting to completely rewire your brain when the world around you is enforcing your old, disordered thoughts. By sharing the frustrations that can stem from recovering in the current social climate, I hope that this may help to re-enforce the very important fact that there is no ‘perfect’ way to recover.
Recovery is an immensely uncomfortable and difficult process. But, if you can get through all that (and you can), you’re on your way to living a much fuller life. Free from your eating disorder.
So, without further ado:
Here’s what I’ve learnt from recovering from an eating disorder in a world of disordered eating:
1. Full recovery isn’t about having a ‘normal’ relationship with food and your body.
It’s about having a better relationship than the majority of people.
Let’s take calorie counting for example. Your body is not a calculator. It has its own in-built mechanisms to detect hunger, satiety and cravings. Intuitive eating is natural. Enforcing specific limits around food, through counting calories and creating rules around certain foods, is not.
A huge part of the recovery process is learning to trust your body.
As I mentioned previously, this is often where feelings of blind faith have to kick in. Using other people’s behaviors to justify your own is a way of keeping the door open for disordered thoughts and behaviors.
“She tracks her calories, why can’t I?”
“They do X workouts a week, why can’t I?”
“He engages in fasting, why can’t I?”
Why can’t I?
Because recovering from an eating disorder doesn’t leave room for engaging in disordered behaviors, regardless of whether they are normalized.
Different minds, different bodies, and different paths.
Being honest with yourself and your intentions behind things such as exercise is crucial in recovery. I’ve found that if you give your eating disorder an inch, it’ll run a mile.
Recovery isn’t about establishing a relationship with my body and food which is ‘normally’ disordered. It’s about developing a relationship beyond that, free of any restriction.
2. Grieving your eating disorder is completely normal
Recovery is a process of feeling uncomfortable and doing it anyway. Weight gain is often an essential part of that process. The physical changes that come with recovery, whilst necessary, can be particularly challenging.
In a world where weight loss is praised and being thin is idolized, going against that can be so incredibly anxiety-provoking and terrifying.
When I was in the deepest point of my disorder- I received the most compliments on my physical appearance. It completely re-enforced the idea that the less I weighed, the more I was worth.
Being at a point of complete physical restoration, I often find myself ‘grieving’ for my eating disorder. Looking back at photos taken during the lowest points of my illness is incredibly difficult for me. At the lowest points of my illness, as much as I was insecure in my body, ironically, I also felt the most confident.
Besides the physical aspect, I also experience grief for the mental aspects of my eating disorder. Remove the incredibly dangerous side effects, and an eating disorder is actually a somewhat effective coping mechanism. It provides quick relief from anxiety. And in the short-term, it adds an empowering (yet false) sense of control over a situation.
When it comes to recovery, your eating disorder has a very helpful way of reminding you of all its efficiencies, in the absence of the emotional and psychological pain that it also brought. So, on days where relapse seems idyllic and the perfect solution to all of life’s problems, reminding myself of all the negatives that came with the illness and questioning the validity of ED thoughts continues to be a pivotal strategy for me.
3. Recovery is based on visible physical signs…
… despite the fact that it’s often a totally invisible mental illness.
Recovering from an eating disorder requires a whole heap of unlearning and neural re-wiring to completely adapt your ways of thinking.
What I have found to be an intensely frustrating aspect of recovery is the fact that physical restoration often comes well before mental recovery.
And, what adds to that frustration is the reliance on physical signs to establish when someone is ‘recovered’.
Since being weight restored, I’ve had to endure a lot of uncomfortable conversations surrounding weight loss, calories, exercise and dieting. Which likely wouldn’t have been initiated with me when my eating disorder was most visually apparent. Learning to deal with those uninvited comments and conversations has definitely been a big part of my own recovery.
What I have found to be important in navigating this process is reminding myself of the lack of understanding that comes from not having experienced an eating disorder first-hand. As obvious as it may be to you that discussions around weight loss, calories and restriction are a complete no-go, it isn’t necessarily so obvious for someone who doesn’t share the same thought processes around food and body image. Your interpretation of a comment made doesn’t always match the true intention of the person making it, whether its from a family member, friend, or stranger.
There are a million and one other lessons I’ve learnt from my recovery which I wish people understood. And there undoubtedly remains a long way to go in terms of eating disorder education.