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8 Things I Remind Myself When I'm Struggling in Eating Disorder Recovery

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This year I entered my fifth year of recovery from my eating disorder. I have learned things about recovery, but I don’t always remember them in the moments of struggle. Here are eight things I tell myself about recovery when I’m struggling:

1. You can’t wait for everyone to get better. If you wait until everyone is well to give yourself permission to fully recover, then you will never do so.

2. Don’t compare your recovery with someone else’s recovery. Same with your relapses. Your journey is your own and everyone’s journey is individual and unique. The one commonality about everyone’s eating disorder story is it is hell on Earth. Remember that.

3. “I am only hurting myself” is not an excuse to continue eating disorder behavior. This is untrue. Look at your mother, your father, your brother, your sister, your friends.

4. Go to therapy. Yes, even when you are convinced your therapist is useless. Therapy is your medicine and is teaching you to change your thoughts and patterns. It gives you accountability with your therapist and also teaches you how to be accountable to yourself. Therapy can be essential to your recovery.

5. Find those friends and family members in life who are your true support system and hold on to them. Not everyone who was in your life before your eating disorder or who enters your life during the years of recovery can be someone you share your darkest moments with. Figure out who the people are who you can trust and open up to them. Allow them to share some of the burden. When they ask if they can help, say yes. Even if all you need from them is to sit silently on the other end of the telephone and listen.

6. Discover what gives you joy and pursue that. This is what will fill the space previously occupied by counting the number of calories in every food or focusing on the exact weight you must be. You must seek out light on this journey. Deliberately trying new things to bring yourself happiness will do this. Hold onto these new passions and pleasures. Bring them out when the darkness seems too great.

MIGHTY PARTNER RESOURCES

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

7. Leave the eating disorder world. Stop reading the sick girl’s Tumblrs and blogs and wishing you were them. Instead, post quotes and poems that talk about strength and survival. As you do this, choose survival for yourself, each and every time.

8. Finally, begin to let go of the illness. Open your life to the possibility of living.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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The Problem With the 'Clean Eating' Trend We Need to Address

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I’ve been struck recently by the proliferation of #eatclean and associated hashtags on social media. I admit, it angers me. It might do a good job of masquerading as health, but really, if you can’t sit down and eat with friends and family, I question how healthy your lifestyle is.

You might ask why it bothers me so much. Why don’t I just unfollow these people, ignore it, live and let live. Well, if you choose an extremely healthy diet because it is a true health decision or a moral choice, not driven by societal pressure or inner guilt or compulsion, fine. However, for many with active eating disorders or who are in recovery, the clean eating movement offers the perfect (often subconscious) mask to continue with disordered behavior and avoid challenging fears around food. In short, “eating clean” allows you to convince yourself and the world you are healthy or getting better while remaining tied to your eating disorder.

You continue to appease the critical voice by only eating a select group of foods or follow specific nutritional requirements. You still can’t eat with others because your restricted diet (now based on pseudo-health claims) doesn’t allow it. You may even be a healthier weight. However, if you’re still so utterly terrified of “bad” fats, sugar, refined carbs or you can’t eat a piece of birthday cake, then whatever reasons you give for that choice cannot be emotionally healthy.

It is incredibly easy for those of us who have a tendency toward black and white thinking, rigid behavior aimed at gaining a sense of control or who are plagued by a general sense of guilt or uncertainty, to fall into this trap. It also feeds the competitive mindset, which is so common in eating disorders. I’m not immune from this. If I were, then perhaps I wouldn’t care so much, but it pushes my buttons. I feel guilty I’m not buying into the clean eating trend, even though I see it is as similar to an eating disorder.

Veganism, too, is a lifestyle choice I am often tempted to move closer toward. I can see the moral arguments here. I get it. Would it be healthy for me emotionally? Definitely not. I know myself well enough to know that for me, it would be a dangerous move. The thing that concerns me is how a black and white, restrictive mindset has increasingly seeped into popular culture. The line between an eating disorder and so called “healthy” eating is becoming terrifyingly blurred. I think it probably indicates a bigger, social problem, but that’s a topic for another post.

MIGHTY PARTNER RESOURCES

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

I’m not against healthy food at all. I love colorful veggies and whole-grains as much as the next person, but absolute rules are not helpful. We might not like the “food is fuel” analogy, but it is true. I might have turned up my nose at the idea when a dietitian first suggested it, and I still don’t emotionally believe it or always apply it to myself, but there really are no good and bad foods.

Eating is an important social activity. I wouldn’t judge someone for enjoying a croissant for breakfast once in awhile or for eating chocolates and ice cream. It is nice to be able to join in a summer barbecue or drink mulled wine at Christmas. To me, recovery and health are about no longer being afraid of food. It is making choices based on what our bodies need nutritionally and maybe even just what we fancy.

So before you pat someone on the back for their green smoothie, think again.

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What I Wish I Could Tell Someone in the Early Stages of Eating Disorder Recovery

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I don’t know many people with eating disorders in “real life.” Through social media, I come across others, often in the early stages of their illness and typically in their late teens or early 20s, in that all too familiar cycle of partial recovery and relapse. I want to scream a warning, beg them not to let it drag on if they can possibly help it, not to make the mistakes I did. So from an unwillingly experienced traveler, here are my thoughts:

Ask for help. Scream if you have to. Repeatedly. Trust the tiny part of you that knows you need help, even when your mind finds every reason in the world why you don’t deserve it, or tells you things aren’t that bad or why other people need it more. I didn’t have support at the worst stage of my eating disorder and it reinforced the idea I could (should) do things on my own. I’d like to believe if I’d had the kind of support I’m getting now, I’d have recovered, properly recovered, years ago.

Don’t let “functioning but stuck” be your end point. Somehow, I made it from being quite underweight and unwell to a place where I was much better than I had been. I also wasn’t getting any worse. The “functioning but really not OK” place allowed me to ignore the seriousness of things. I don’t want that to happen to anyone else because it is a difficult, confusing and lonely place to be. My life wasn’t lonely. I certainly functioned, but my eating disorder created a sense of isolation. It was my issue to deal with. It began, paradoxically, as my private way of feeling OK, in control. It seemed like the only place I could find those things, but in the end, an eating disorder will always turn on you.

Do everything possible to get yourself to a place where you want to let it go. Yes, eating disorders are a mental health problem. We definitely don’t choose them and the choice to recover is not a choice in the usual sense of the word, I don’t think. You can’t just switch it off. The things that motivate recovery are different for each of us. At first, it’s a constant pull and push between feeling like you need your eating disorder and frustration at how it imprisons you. At some point, we do have to make a decision, to accept that walking the same familiar path is only going to bring the same old results. Anorexia is only going to steal more than it gives, sap you of energy and enjoyment and paralyze your ability to make true choices. I’m speaking to myself, too.

MIGHTY PARTNER RESOURCES

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

Don’t put off making changes. You go on, convincing yourself you’re fine and you’ll recover later. You’ll do it when life’s a little less stressful, when you’ve passed your driving test, achieved that first degree or gained your professional qualification. You promise yourself you’ll begin to make changes when you’ve finally met all the targets set by your eating disorder: the goal weight, the food rule, a set number of miles at a particular pace. Before you know it, years have passed, and the targets have moved so much and so often you’ve lost sight of your original goal. In the midst of it all, you’ve missed out on a million different experiences and opportunities. You stop and realize you’re trapped in a tentatively balanced world of rules, conditions and increasing expectations.

Anorexia is about anxiety. It’s about control. It’s about not feeling good enough. It’s about feeling afraid to take up space or all of the above. It’s about relentless achievement and the fear of feeling. In the end, we have to stop and consider whether the false promise is worth the loss. I promise you, it isn’t.

There will never be a “right time.” Do it now.

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Eating Disorder Recovery Is More Than What You Think

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To all who struggle with an eating disorder,

Recovery is not about food. (OK, it is a little bit.) It’s about the late night pizza runs with our partners, the bonding over pancakes and omelets and recounting the night before with our friends. It’s about sharing a spoon with a giant pint of Ben and Jerry’s over a movie or buying chocolate at the gas station just because we feel like it. It’s trying something new when we’re out to dinner because we feel adventurous, and we aren’t worried about the fat or calories.

It’s donuts, chips and all the things we used to cringe about in our disorder. It’s noticing your body is hungry, and even though you are tired, busy or emotional, you grab something quick and easy so you don’t feel hunger pains like you used to. It’s packing a snack in your purse, just in case. It’s getting rid of sugar free mints and gum because you actually eat now and they made you feel bloated anyway.

It’s nourishing your body not because you need to but because you want to. It’s loving food again. For those of you who think you have always “hated” food, we were all tiny, helpless infants once, depending on the milk or formula to keep us alive and help us grow.

But, really, it’s not just about the food.

It’s about being free from the bondage of rules, numbers and rituals. It’s letting go of things that aren’t just right or perfect. It’s taking a nap on the couch when the dishes aren’t done, the house isn’t clean and you haven’t gone to the gym yet because a nap is what you need. It’s actually resting when you are sick. It’s shedding your old beliefs about yourself and creating a new future.

It’s telling your friend their behavior bothers you without worrying about what they think. If they are a true friend, then they will understand and listen intently. It’s standing up for yourself. It’s telling your employer you need to work less hours because although the pay is good and it keeps you busy, you need more time to yourself. It’s making relaxation a priority.

MIGHTY PARTNER RESOURCES

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

Recovery is safety and control, not the safety of dormancy and controlling of numbers like you used to do. It’s safety in knowing no matter what happens in life, you will be OK. It’s safety in knowing who you are and being proud of it. It’s not the illusion of control you had when you were counting calories or losing weight. It’s knowing without using behaviors, you are the one in the driver’s seat. The disorder doesn’t control you anymore. It’s making choices that are healthy for you because, for once, you are actually in control.

Recovery is taking risks and making mistakes. It’s vulnerability. It’s laughing too loud at a joke that wasn’t that funny to begin with. It’s honesty. It’s crying in front of your partner and getting a hug instead of running to the other room and burying your face in a pillow. It’s saying the wrong thing and feeling bad about it later. You apologize and you hate the feeling but for once, you actually went out with friends and talked, instead of just hiding in the background.

Recovery is experience. It’s going to more places than just work or home. It’s making coffee plans with someone you never really knew before. It’s taking your dog on a different route for her walk because sometimes routine is boring. It’s traveling, even though you tend to be a homebody. It’s finding a new hobby because now you have the time to. It’s riding a roller coaster so fast you lose your breath.

Recovery is standing on your own and being OK with it. It’s looking back at your time in treatment and being grateful for all of the people you met and things you learned, and knowing for now, that part of your life is over. It’s yearning for the complexity of life once again, the anxiety of not having a meal perfectly planned and your schedule precisely mapped out.

It’s growing on your own because you had a hard day and there might not be someone there to talk to wherever you turn. It’s the fear and anxiety that comes when you become more independent and stray away from your outpatient team, but the pride that comes with feeling like you don’t need to see them as much as you used to. It’s finally “leaving the nest.”

Recovery is welcoming all emotions and committing to growth. It’s honoring the human experience and vowing to live in the present moment. It’s experiencing your emotions, even if they are uncomfortable. It’s being rational. It’s knowing the fear of abandonment doesn’t actually mean you will be alone forever, the anxiety of being weight-restored doesn’t mean you are a failure and the anger of being hurt doesn’t need to run your life anymore.

It’s tears and grief and bickering and exhaustion and for once, not being numb. It’s sitting through a panic attack, instead of suppressing it with addictive behaviors. It’s listening to a loved one talk about their day and actually be interested, instead of feeling foggy, distant and distracted. It’s connection.

Recovery is a process. It is not planning the day when you will “let go” or “fully surrender.” It’s just doing it. It’s waking up every day with a commitment to do the best you can and letting go of expectations. It’s being patient and trusting wherever you are in this moment is exactly where you are meant to be. It’s seeing recovery as a journey and not a nuisance. It’s not wishing you were further along or somewhere else. It’s meeting yourself where you are and not forcing it. It’s being kind to yourself, nurturing the part of you that needs to be loved and letting the universe do the rest. It’s looking back at the past and being able to say, “Wow, I may not be where I want to be yet, but I sure have grown.”

Recovery is messy. It’s relapse, slips and intermittent hospital stays for “tune-ups.” It is not a record of behaviors used or not used. It is not contingent on where you are at financially or physically. It may be one choice you make and never look back or it may be something you choose 20 times a day, every day.

It’s not one event, rather a series of happenings over time. It isn’t contingent on how bad our disorder was and it doesn’t matter if we’ve received the best treatment that the country has to offer. It’s not showy, self-seeking or desperately seeking validation that you are doing well. It’s not boasting or claiming things are 100 percent different than they used to be. It’s realistic. It’s admitting you are one human being, of many human beings who are just living their lives the best they can.

Recovery can be book deals, song writing and motivational speaking to massive crowds. It can be a quiet confidence you carry with you every day. You can tell people you are in recovery and be proud of it or you move on as if the disorder never existed. That’s the amazing thing about recovery, there are no rules.

Recovery is saying enough is enough and doing the work, over, over and over until it feels natural. Recovery is not unattainable, but don’t be confused. Recovery is not something given to us. It’s not passive in the least. It is brave. It is hard. It is worth it.

To all who struggle with an eating disorder, there is a whole other world out there waiting for us.

This post originally appeared on This is Where I Stand.

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What You Should Consider Before You Say, 'That's All You're Eating?'

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As I am sitting in the dining center enjoying my spaghetti and talking to my friends, I happen to overhear some girls at the table next to ours.

“That’s all you’re eating?”

Such a simple question, yet it carries so much weight. Those few words are rude, and they have the potential to be so hurtful.

Why does it matter? Why do you care how much food somebody else has on their plate? If you’re not affected by how much they are eating, why do you need to say something?

After a discussion with my friends, I came up with five reasons you should not vocally judge how much another person is eating:

1. Eating disorders. Although it is not talked about very often, anorexia nervosa is common in teens and young adults. It is very possible the girl or boy you eat lunch with twice a week is dealing with mental health issues and trying to get better. But your comment could make her feel like everyone notices how much (or little) she’s eating, and judging her for it, which may trigger her eating disorder. Please do not be rude and do not judge — you may have no idea what the person sitting across the table from you is going through.

2. “Eats like a bird.” Some people, including myself, simply do not eat that much. When I was in elementary school, I went over to a friend’s house and upon noticing I wasn’t eating much of my macaroni and cheese, my friend’s mom commented, “You eat like a bird!” It’s true. I don’t eat a lot, especially not at one time. I prefer to snack throughout the day instead of having three main meals. Perhaps your friend at lunch just has different eating habits than you and is simply enjoying one of many daily snacks.

3. Food quality. What are the chances that everyone enjoys the dining center food every single day? Maybe your lunch mate simply does not like the food being served, so naturally he took a smaller portion. Sometimes I will take a little bit of food, even if I knowingly do not like it, just to be polite. Calling someone out when he could be trying to be polite yet discreet is unnecessary and may create an uncomfortable situation.

MIGHTY PARTNER RESOURCES

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

4. Sickness. When I get sick, my diet consists primarily of crackers and juice. My appetite disappears, and I can’t stomach anything besides small portions of bland foods. There are a variety of illnesses that can affect someone’s appetite or eating habits, and that person may not necessarily want to be vocal about their current health issues.  

5. Personal issues. You know that awful feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you are sad, angry or heartbroken? Your appetite vanishes even though you feel empty inside. During these times, your thoughts and emotions can consume you, so food loses its importance. There is no need to bring attention to what someone is or isn’t eating. Although they may be sitting across the table from you in the dining center, their mind might be far away and focused on something personal.

So the next time you see your friend eating only an apple for lunch, think about how your comment might affect them. You never know what could be happening in their life right now. Even though it may be an innocent question, it could have an unintended negative effect on your friend. Please think twice before you speak.

Follow this journey on Rach.

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To the Woman Who Left Eating Disorder Treatment After One Day

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I think of you often, sometimes daily.

I tried looking you up on Facebook, though I never friend requested you because I didn’t know you that well. But in a sense, I feel like I do know you in the way one person with an eating disorder knows another.

I hope wherever you are, and whatever you are doing, you are OK.

When I say the word “OK,” I actually mean “alive,” because we are hauntingly reminded over and over that eating disorders kill, through personal experiences and awareness efforts.

Our stories tend to start the same way — “I was a happy and healthy girl,” so I wonder, where did that girl go? I hope you will come to find her. Maybe you can remind yourself how worth-it and lovable you are, just as you might tell that little girl you think you lost.

As much as I wish you had stayed and gotten the help you needed and deserved, I understand the choice to leave. I understand because letting go is so hard, and it’s scary to have to look inside yourself so deeply. It is scary to learn to speak up for yourself and even eat when you live with an eating disorder. It is scary to sleep in a bed that isn’t yours, especially when you know so many other girls have laid in it. I used to lie awake at night wondering how many of those girls are even still alive.

It is scary to choose life over death, because what the hell does living even mean? It’s scary to give up control and learn to ignore all the numbers and statistics. It is scary to face your biggest fear — the thing you hate most — six times a day.

You had so many possibilities on the horizon for you. You were a medical student, and the irony of that is not lost on me, as I am sure it is not lost on you. You had just gotten a new dog and when you told us all, one of few times you spoke up in group, your eyes sparkled. You lived on campus where eating disorders run rampant. You were surrounded by the daily pressures like learning the next new diet trend. You have two kids whom you love dearly. You went to my high school and you lived 20 minutes away from me. You had been a lawyer for 20 years and chose to go on a family vacation instead of staying in treatment because “mother just doesn’t approve.”

MIGHTY PARTNER RESOURCES

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

You love, and you are loved. You have hugged other people, you have kissed those you love, you have given words of wisdom, spoken advice, all the while talking about how you don’t matter, but you do. You have so many futures out there waiting for you.

When you sat down for the first meal with us, I could see the pain in your eyes as well as the fear. I could see you pursing your lips, just as someone who who might be holding back hurtful words in an argument. I could almost hear that battle in your head. My thoughts mirrored yours because I get it. So does every other person with an eating disorder. So why then, do you feel so alone?

I understand that too — the loneliness.

You were so adamant about leaving treatment. Several of the people who worked there, and all of the patients tried to talk you into staying. We told you to give it a few more days before deciding, we reminded you about why you came in the first place, and we plead with you to stay in the fight with us. I don’t know what the therapists said to you, but there is a look in a professional’s eyes when they realize they can’t help someone who doesn’t want it. You can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved.

We talked about you after you were gone. The unit had this sadness in the air, and because we were always encouraged to say whatever was on our mind, we spoke about you. Of course, because of confidentiality reasons, instead of your name, we used your initials. And we talked about how we wished you had given it more time.

I still wish you had given it more time.

Now when I still think about you, I hope you gave yourself another chance. And I hope those pictures you post on Facebook of you smiling and looking so happy are real. Even though you left after just one day, I hope you got some kind of benefit from it.

I hope you get to live through to your future, and I hope you get to find a life without this eating disorder. I hope you are, and will be, OK.

I will continue to think of you and send you positive vibes, just as I often think about the many people who left treatment before they could fully get help.

Because this letter wasn’t to just one of you. This letter was to all of you, and unfortunately, there are just too many of you.

Keep fighting the good fight.

Much love,

-M.

The Mighty is asking the following: Write a letter to yourself on the day of the diagnosis. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.                        

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