Recovering from an Eating Disorder: 10 Tips, Tricks, and Truths
Although I could write for days about the hows and whys of recovery, here’s a (relatively) short, simple list with some things I've learned in my journey to recovery. Whether you’re recovering from anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, EDNOS or anything in between, this applies to you.
NOTE: I am not a doctor, nutritionist, or psychotherapist. I am simply a person in successful recovery from bulimia.
1. Recovery is not linear
Don’t expect that when you make the decision to recover, and start putting plans into place and following them, that your progress will continue until you are recovered. You’re right to think that the recovery process happens step by step, because it surely does, but there will be many missteps and some backtracking along the way. You will relapse; once, twice, maybe innumerable times. What’s important is to maintain the sincere wish to recover, and to continue to make efforts towards recovery. If you really want to recover, you will, even if it takes you several months or years.
2. Therapy may not help at the start
Therapy is certainly a valuable and important part of recovery, but jumping right into seeing a psychotherapist in the early stages of recovery is a bad idea. Why? If your weight and disordered eating patterns are not yet managed, you will relapse harder than ever from the emotional stress of therapy. If you have not regained your physical health, you cannot regain your mental health. Start with the basics (food, weight management if you are underweight, rest, learning to quiet disordered thoughts), then work your way up. Your first priority should be managing your disordered eating and immediate physical health. Once that’s managed, you can begin to repair your mental health.
3. You cannot micromanage your recovery body
You simply cannot. I know you want to, and I know you will try to, but you will find that it is not possible. Depending on the length and severity of your eating disorder, your body may in fact be clawing its way back from the brink of death. Even if you have not had your eating disorder for a long time, know that it has affected your body in a myriad of negative ways already, and your body is nevertheless in the process of restoring itself and its systems, so you must give it the tools it needs to recover. Namely this means proper nutrition and proper rest. Avoid mirrors for months, if you need to. But allow your body its time to heal, without judgment, and it will eventually reward you with renewed energy and vigour.
4. It is normal and okay to have bad days
It’s okay to want your “old” body back. It’s okay to want to be “skinny” again. It’s okay to “feel fat.” It’s okay to want to binge. It’s okay to want to skip meals. You’ve had these thoughts and urges for so long that they are a part of your thinking process. You are not failing in recovery for having these thoughts. Recognize these thoughts as disordered thinking when they come up, label them as your eating disorder talking, and not you, and tell them to shut up, replace them with positive thoughts, or distract yourself, whatever works for you, and let the thought go.
5. You are not your eating disorder
It is crucial to separate the thoughts, compulsions, behaviours, and values of your eating disorder from your actual, wonderful self. It is your ED that tells you not to eat, it is your ED that tells you that you’re not thin or sick enough, it is your ED that tells you that if you could just get thinner, your life would somehow be better. Who are you, then, when your ED has become your life? You are the desire to get better. You are the recovery process. You are the person who is loved by family and friends, at any weight. You are the will to live. You are the fight. And through recovery, you will grow stronger; you will rediscover who you are, and your eating disorder will fade into obscurity.
6. Put your recovery first
As you recover, you will figure out what triggers your disordered thoughts, and it is important to avoid these situations as much as possible in the early stages of your recovery, until you’ve learned appropriate ways of dealing with them. You might discover that going out to eat is a trigger, or being around friends who are skinnier than you is a trigger, or watching television or wearing certain items of clothing are triggers. Naturally, you will want to avoid them, and you should, for a while. The people around you may take this change of behaviour as strange, especially if they are unaware that you are in recovery. You may have to field questions of why you’re wearing so much baggy clothing lately, or why you don’t want to go out to your favourite restaurant. It is your choice how to respond to these questions, but you do not owe it to anyone to trigger yourself for their comfort or benefit. Your physical and mental well-being come first.
7. There is no single road to recovery
Every person’s journey to recovery is different. Of course there are mandatory aspects of recovery: learning how to eat again, monitoring your eating habits, challenging and eliminating disordered thoughts, and learning to live and love your body and being. However, the path to recovery is not a single one. Some people in recovery benefit from in-patient treatment, while others benefit from living at home and being surrounded by the support of family and friends. It’s important that you take whatever path is the most beneficial and sustainable for you. However, be ready to recognize if a certain mode of recovery is not working, and may need to be altered or changed. There are always many options available to you to facilitate your recovery journey, and you may pick and choose among them.
8. A meal plan, however, is necessary for recovery
This really is one of those no-choice aspects of recovery. Eating disorders create toxic relationships with food, and recovery is a process of learning to eat again, just like a child would. When, what, and how much to eat are things you need to relearn, and so you will absolutely need a plan in place to guide you in your recovery. It is your choice whether to see a doctor, dietitian, nutritionist, or to read up on nutrition yourself, but you need to have a plan. Tackling your disordered eating day-to-day and developing a healthy, sustainable alternative is the first step in recovery.
9. Get angry
In the throes of an eating disorder, it is difficult to find any will or motivation to live, never mind to undertake the arduous process of recovery. This is where anger can be your best friend. Though many discredit anger as the basest of human emotions, it is remarkably helpful in recovery, especially if you start to consider relapse, or find yourself having disordered thoughts. Get angry at your eating disorder, as angry as you need to get to choose not to relapse, to choose to eat, to choose not to try on those pants that you no longer fit into that trigger you. Yell at it. Curse at it.
Think of all the social events it has kept you from, think of all the family and friends it has hurt in the process. Think of the energy it has robbed from you, the focus it has stolen, think of all the nights it has made you stay up crying, all the wasted moments spent in self-hatred. Think of all the times it has made you want to die, want to cut, want to sleep and never wake up. Think of all the things it has taken away from you. Make a list, if you want. Once you realize how much it has robbed from you, you will want to get all that back. And you can. Think positively. Follow your eating plan. Don’t scrutinize yourself in mirrors. Use your support systems. If you fight, you will win.
10. Recovery is the process of letting go
This is really the best way I can think of to summarize what recovery means. In recovery, you learn to let go of thoughts and behaviours that no longer serve you or benefit you. Recovery means letting go of restricting, of calorie-counting, of binging, of purging; of letting go of your “ideal body image” in your head, of letting go of the quest for thinness, of letting go of wanting to be comforted by food, of letting go of perfection, of letting go of the way you think your body should look. It is a long, agonizing process, but the freedom you will feel from letting go of these things that hinder and hurt you is worth the work of tearing them down.
A final note
The most important thing to remember is that recovery is possible. For everyone. For you. It is a pain and half, it is hard, and some days you may question why you're bothering at all, but soon the good days will outnumber the bad days, and you will learn how to live in your skin.
Much love and best of luck. Remember that you are wonderful, always, and very much worth it.