Eating Disorder Recovery: What I've Learned in 11 Months
Today marks my 11th month in recovery from an eating disorder. Wow. Eleven months.
Eleven months living my life for the first time, learning about joy and sorrow, and rediscovering what it means to live as my authentic self. I have a long way to go, but man, have I come so far.
When I first began treatment almost two years ago, my therapist compared the eating disorder to a cactus stuck in my foot: not only did I have to (painfully) remove the plant, but I had to dig out all the needles as well. And that, as I have come to learn, takes a long time. Still, here I am, celebrating a milestone I felt would never be possible.
So, I want to highlight this last year, as well as put into perspective the extreme challenges of maintaining recovery from such an aggressive disorder, all the while being transparent in my experience with juggling life, recovery, and mental stability.
There are going to be slip ups. But a slip is not a relapse.
When I left my final treatment center 11 months ago, I thought I would never engage in a behavior again. This expectation has continually tripped me up on my journey. My perfectionistic tendencies wanted to hold the reigns on recovery and shape the way it looked to heal from the eating disorder. There will be slip ups… but let’s be clear: a slip up is not a full blown relapse.
It’s important to distinguish a week of struggling as just that: a week of struggling. When you get lost in the pit of “Here we go again, I’m never going to get better,” that gives the eating disorder full control of your thoughts and can ultimately lead to relapse. The first time I purged in my recovery I instantly became depressed. I thought I had flushed all my hard work down the toilet with dinner. My therapist and support group encouraged me that not all was lost with the singular behavior. And I have found that fighting that upward battle back from a slip is one of the hardest, most struggle-ridden paths that ultimately warrants another check mark in the “I’m a warrior” box.
I’ve stared relapse in the face, been tempted by its alluring glow, and turned around the other way to walk the road of recovery all with the help of my family, friends, treatment team, and (maybe most importantly) Halo, my therapy dog. It is possible.
Body image may not be where you want it.
I have a new home to live in. This new home (my body) is foreign, unknown, and resultantly scary. I compare the experience of meeting a “healthy weight” after being classified as “underweight” for so long, as a woman getting used to a pregnant body. The change is rapid and can feel threatening. I am yet in a place where I feel comfortable saying I love my body. In fact, I still have a hard time even feeling neutral about it. I’ve worked with my therapist and dietician to attain a perspective of objectivity towards my being where I could say “I have a body. I have a stomach, and I have thighs that touch.” There is no judgment in these statements, simply facts.
From what I have encountered, there are more bad days with body image than good. Living in a state of unfamiliarity is difficult to adjust to. It’s learning how to tolerate my body (without the sense of urgency to change it) that has made the difference in my life. I have adopted phrases like, “This is what an unscripted, healthy body looks like,” and “I can learn to endure these uncomfortable feelings.”
In hindsight, it’s easy to see that when stressful events or tiring times came up in my everyday life, I lashed out at my body with hateful thoughts. I tend to criticize my physique more when I am having a hard day or experiencing an uncomfortable emotion. It’s important to begin to make these links between your emotional and mental health and your body.
You’ll likely experience “brand new” emotions.
“I-could-break-a-table-I’m-so-angry” is a new emotion for me. In my eating disorder, I suppressed a lot of what I was feeling to appease those around me and maintain my perfect “good-girl” image. As a result, in recovery, for the first time I am encountering many paradoxes in the form of emotion. Being fed has allowed me to find true joy but also identify with intense sadness. I’ve known deep pain while holding a sense of lightness. I can acknowledge depression and still find gratitude. Anger is the most recent development in which I am exploring. In eating disorders, emotions are cut off, shoved down and unacknowledged. Learning about each emotion’s true colors is a scary yet rewarding journey that I have found to be a part of recovery.
Life is going to be significantly hard, but nothing like the struggle of maintaining an eating disorder.
If anything, I’ve learned that life on this earth is hard. The universe feels crushing, and there is always going to be something. Days are riddled with pain and sorrow, and I’ve come to know that very well. This, however, cannot be an excuse to use your eating disorder. When I’m sad, hurt, scared, upset, angry, terrified, or anxious, I want to go running back to the games I played with the eating disorder to bring me comfort. “If I could count calories and lose just a few pounds, things will feel better,” is the common lie that sneaks into my brain. But the hard, cold truth is: life out of your eating disorder will always be better. No matter how hard things get, operating in a lifeless disorder that strips you of your personality and relationships is not the answer.
Be brave and dare to feel in this world. I’ve found that it is worth it.