Recovering from an eating disorder
Recovering completely from an eating disorder takes time and can be hard, but it is possible and happens for lots of people.
The meaning of recovery varies depending on who you speak to. For some people, recovery means the end of the symptoms of their eating disorder (eg starving, bingeing, excessive exercising, purging, etc). For others, recovery is the end to the physical symptoms, plus an end to feeling down, fear, guilt and your negative voices.
How long does recovery take?
Recovery time is quicker for some people than for others. It’s not uncommon to experience ‘set backs’ or relapses (return of unhelpful thoughts, behaviours or symptoms) during recovery, so the process can be slow.
Some people find the less time you’ve had your eating disorder, the easier it is to recover. However, try to remember that anyone can recover even if you’ve have had an eating disorder for a longer period of time.
What recovery might mean
The experience of an eating disorder is different for everyone, and the benefits and value of recovery might be hard to understand when you have an eating disorder. For many people, the behaviours associated with your eating disorder act as a reward, or serve a purpose in your life, and therefore it may be difficult to see a good reason for stopping these behaviours.Recovery might involve feelings and experiences that could be unknown to you. Here are some reasons that you might choose to leave your eating disorder behind:
- not having to live your life in fear or with self-hatred and sadness
- not having your mood or actions dictated by a number on a scale or the number of calories consumed, times purged, or sit-ups performed
- being able to form and maintain quality give-and-take relationships (both friendships and romantic)
- feeling comfortable in your own body
- not having the way that you feel about yourself stop you from doing things that you love
- being able to enthusiastically engage in study, work, and voluntary activities
- having energy to do the things that you do (or once did or might soon) love
- not having to feel guilty about the concern that your eating disorder stirs up from your family and friends
- not having to live a ‘secret life’
- being able to rejoin the world (emotionally, psychologically, physically) and leave behind the feelings of isolation
- recovery lets you feel good and that feeling of peace can have you smiling to yourself in moments you would least expect
Recovery might be a rocky road – often a case of two steps forward and one step back. The number of times you fall back into your eating disorder is not important – what is important is that each time that you do, you don’t let yourself dwell on it for too long. Try to pick yourself up and pick up where you left off. It might be a slow and frustrating process, but you will still be moving forward, and that’s what will get you there in the end.
Often something might trigger your relapse. It could be something as “big” as a break-up or a death or as “small” as the tone in someone’s voice or an unanswered text. Being able to identify your “triggers” might be helpful because it could allow you to look at how you originally responded to it, and to think about how you might respond in a more positive way next time. Identifying these things can be hard at first and may take some time, but with practice you will become a pro and be able to catch yourself in the moment.
Some people, depending on the type, length, and physical symptoms of their eating disorder, may experience long-term health issues. These can include issues related to fertility, bone fragility/density (osteopenia/osteoporosis), weakened heart muscle, damage to the digestive tract (usually caused through the misuse of laxatives), and other organ damage.
Some of these things can be fixed with time and/or appropriate treatment, while others are only able to be managed. It’s important to talk to your local doctor about these issues – if there is a problem, it is best to know what you’re dealing with and what can be done to manage or fix it.
Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues
Some people find that when they let go of their eating disorder behaviours and symptoms, they still experience things such as depression, anxiety, social phobia, or obsessive-compulsive behaviours. You might wonder why you would work so hard to give up your eating disorder, only to have it replaced with something else. The answer is that there is no guarantee that you will go on to experience any of these things, or that if you do, that they will be as bad to live with as your eating disorder has been.
One of the main problems and causes of these issues popping up post-eating disorder is that they have usually been underlying issues of the disorder. The behaviours of your eating disorder were a way to cope with the mental health difficulties and when you remove the behaviour, the underlying issues no longer have their usual outlet – the fall-back coping mechanism has been removed.
So, if you find that you are experiencing one or more of these problems during recovery, it is important that they are dealt with too.
What can help with recovery?
Things that might help you along the journey of recovery range from the big to the seemingly tiny, but they all play a role. Here is a list of things that some people have found have helped them with their own recovery (some will work for some – others for others):
- Therapy in whatever form is most personally suited to you – everyone is different. See the Bodywhys website for a directory of services with counsellors and therapists who can support you in your recovery. You can also check out face-to-face help for information and advice.
- Hospitalisation in an eating disorder clinic or hospital ward – when it is medically or emotionally needed or helpful.
- Keep a ‘recovery journal’ and fill it with positive and affirming thoughts. Write about why you want to recover, what your eating disorder gives and takes away from you, where you will be in five or ten years if you stick with your eating disorder instead of giving it up, and/or anything else that will help to get and keep you motivated.
- Spend time around positive and supportive people who are comfortable with themselves and their bodies – who have a healthy relationship with food! Spend time with people that possess qualities that you admire and aspire to develop within yourself. Check out support from friends and family.
- Talk to other people recovering from eating disorders or people who have already recovered. Mutual support can be great and motivating, and seeing someone else make progress or enjoying life might help to keep you inspired too. Have a look at the section on group counselling.
- If body image is something you are really struggling with, take a trip to an art gallery, and have a look at all the different shapes and sizes that beauty comes in. It sounds corny, but this can actually be suprisingly effective. Similarly, go out one day with your ‘blinders’ off – notice the diversity of shapes around you – don’t only focus on the thinnest people and block the rest out (you may be amazed at your tendency to do this).
- Think about your own ideas of what beauty is, and f they don’t seem 100% valid to you, question and re-evaluate them.
- Think about (maybe even write about) the people that you like and admire – what is it about them you like? Is it their size? Or is it something greater? Do you like your friends because they are thin? Or do you like them because they are fun or interesting or possess other great qualities?
- Keep an object or a note around where you can see it that will remind you of why you want to recover. Don’t ignore it when you are feeling like crap – this is when you need to pay attention to it the most.
- Read recovery-oriented books, as these can help inspire and keep you motivated – check out the health section of your local library or bookshop.
- Take up a hobby - get out there and live. Is there something that you used to love doing but have stopped? Is there something you have always wanted to try but have let your fear get in the way?
- Do things that nourish your soul - this could be anything from dancing to bongo drums, to planting a vegetable patch, to climbing a tree, to sailing a tall-ship, or to engaging in voluntary work, to having a bubble bath. It doesn’t have to be big, it doesn’t have to be expensive. Experiment with different things – part of recovery is getting to know yourself all over again (or for the first time!) and you won’t necessarily like everything you try.
The most important thing to know and remember about recovery is that it is possible – not just for everyone except you, but for everyone including you. It takes persistence and courage, but it is possible and definitely worth it.