The 10 Most Important Things I Learned in Eating Disorder Recovery

As a therapist, I meet too many people who feel like a slave to their eating problem. Many wonder if a preoccupation with food and body image can ever really disappear. For me personally, after living through seven destructive years of bulimia nervosa, I feel fortunate to say I’ve felt free from the shackles of food and body image preoccupation for several years now. I haven’t purged since August 1998, which marked a massive turning point in recovery. However, it’s been a more gradual progression from this point to where I am now — completely recovered in body and mind.

I’m writing this to instill hope and promise in recovery.

I know every recovery story is different. What has helped me might not always work for you. But I hope you can glean the bits that make sense to you.

Here are 10 lessons I learned in recovery:

1. It’s important to have hope.

Except when I was at my absolute worst point, I never saw bulimia as something that was around to stay. I believed in a bigger and brighter future, I just had no idea how to get there. This inner drive and hope propelled me forward. I have no doubt looking back, although unwittingly at the time, how helpful this was when I began to pull myself out of bulimia.

2. I needed to be persistent about getting help.

I was ill in the 1990s when eating disorder support was somewhat limited, to say the least. Unless you had anorexia nervosa and required hospital admission, it was unlikely you would get any support. I went down a few blind alleys before actually managing to access the help I desperately needed. But the persistence did pay off.

3. It’s important to focus on personal development.

I’ve always been an avid self-help reader, particularly in my 20s when I was looking for guidance and role models to inspire me. Reading didn’t bring overnight change, but the drip, drip of positivity and hope was effective cumulatively. At the time I was often frustrated by my lack of progress in self-improvement, but looking back I see how every book I read was another mini-stepping stone to change. I’ve still internalized many of the messages from these books to this day.

4. I needed to let go of unrealistic expectations. 

For me to sustain my low weight, I spent my whole day in complete food preoccupation, accompanied by a strong temptation to binge, which I regularly succumbed to. One of the biggest shifts in reducing bingeing and purging was allowing my body to be nourished and restoring my weight. This was a massive shift in body acceptance. Now after retaining a healthy weight for me, I can appreciate recovery is more than weight gain alone.

5. It was important to balance my blood sugar.

Eating enough protein and good fats regularly throughout the day helps manage my cravings and keep my blood sugar stable. I don’t stick exclusively to this (to avoid eating in an obsessive manner) but generally try to apply these principles to everyday life.

6. I needed to break down the diet mentality.

Although I eat mainly with blood sugar balancing in mind, I also do permit myself to eat anything and everything if I fancy it. I also aim to practice mindful eating. When foods are categorized as “good” and “bad,” this actually fuels the dieting mindset and can intensify bingeing.

7. It was important to confide in my good friends.

I haven’t always been able to be open with my family, but a few close friends have helped me through tremendously. Being able to access and accept the right support has been incredibly constructive in helping me move on.

8. Stability helped with recovery. 

In my 20s, my life sometimes felt like a wild roller coaster full of ecstatic highs but also deathly lows. I lived on impulse and spontaneity which often left me confused and vulnerable. I had no boundaries. Regular work, a stable relationship and a secure home-life all contributed to help me feel more settled. I could then take steps to manage my eating.

9. I couldn’t be a people-pleaser. 

Learning to say no and setting limits with others is an ongoing lesson for me. When I had bulimia I was that classic people-pleaser who would always say yes. Outwardly I was a positive, happy, coping person. Behind closed doors, the bulimia allowed an outlet for all my inbuilt frustrations and anger. Accepting my emotions, good and bad, and managing them more constructively was another significant point of progress in recovery.

10. I would only be content if I learned self-acceptance. 

For many years I criticized and blamed myself for not being the person others had expected me to be. Overtime, I’ve learned to let go and embrace who I am, limitations and all. Only when I do this can I experience an inner-contentment, peace and joy with life. I still get frustrated and overwhelmed at times, as we all do, but no longer do I need to channel this into food or my body.

It’s all a work in progress. I know in terms of personal development I still have much to learn, but I can embrace and manage these difficulties more effectively. The important thing is that I don’t turn to food to cope.

Stay hopeful — you don’t have to do it alone. You might take a few wrong turns before you find it, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Good luck on your journey.

See more from Harriet on Rethink Your Body.

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