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When the Path to Anorexia Recovery Is Not Linear

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I’ve received treatment more times than I care to count, for a larger array of issues than I care to admit, namely for anorexia nervosa in a variety of settings, inpatient, residential, outpatient, psychiatry wards and medical wards.

What do I wish I knew before I turned my will and my life over to anorexia nervosa? I wish I knew recovery was not simple. I wish I knew the next 20 years of my life, my childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, would be robbed from me and spent instead locked up on various hospital units. I wish I knew of the havoc anorexia would wreak on my body, my psyche and my very life.

As a youngster, anorexia seemed to legitimately offer relief from any straining situation, be it social, academic or familial. Yet, when the issue became the anorexia itself, when my mind and actions became entrenched by such an illness, my judgment was clouded by this self-loathing disease. My personal “perfection” became a letdown as my behaviors left my umbrella of control and took on a life of their own. I felt the catastrophic disappointment as my eating behaviors became more and more scarce and ritualistic.

The idea that I held the upper hand of control became an obvious lie. Anorexia in turn controlled me. Suddenly, my imagined strength weakened. In the blink of an eye, I crumbled into an empty shell of a human being and what was left was a puppet controlled by the demonizing extrinsic illness. At 15 years old, I imagined anorexia would come to a head and that the ensuing hospital stay would provide the final closure on this portion of my life. I was terribly mistaken.

More than 10 years later. I write this from a different hospital bed, nestled into a medical floor, the wits knocked out of me yet again as days draw into lagging months. A nasogastric tube implanted like a dormant snake, up my right nostril and over the curvature at the septum, down the throat into stomach cocoon. Since the first at 15, the total number of hospital stays, emergency room visits and residential treatment programs surpasses my counting ability. I’ve played feeding tube tug-of-war, more definitively a power struggle with nurses and doctors.

MIGHTY PARTNER RESOURCES

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

In the shadow of anorexia’s monstrous grip, I have to admit defeat. There is not yet such a thing as a pervasive solution, a lasting remedy or a straight-line of recovery. These are fantasies of imaginative play, not figments of realism in my life.

I’ve discovered through years of trial and error: It would be nice, yes, but recovery cannot be summed up in one solid straight line. The path of recovery from anorexia involves detours, potholes, drop-off-cliffs, repetition of previously-traversed terrain, illuminated high peaks and sullen low spots. Ultimately, recovery from anorexia nervosa is not linear. My own path has involved multiple different hospital programs, inpatient stays, outpatient groups and therapies and at many times involuntary commitment to such programs as life-saving precautions.

Recovery, some 20 years later, is by no means a given. My personal painful discovery is how insufficient my own power is at reclaiming my life from this disease’s throes. Recovery from anorexia may often involve a plethora of tools and techniques I need to acquire and put into practice on a continuum. The easiest diversion is to fall victim to some other illness or addiction and replace its time consumption and energy expenditure with new habits. Thus begins the toxic cycle all over again. Thus, recovery is proven incongruent. I have yet to find a seamless path from sickness to health.

I often ponder those early days of falling habit to anorexia nervosa, and I wonder whether could I have proceeded more cautiously. Could I have prevented the ensuing chaos for years to come? Eventually, I can only name such questions as irrelevant, lacking in intensity of power to subdue demonic rituals, placate tantalizing behavior webs and mute disturbing thought trails.

After all these years of working at recovery, only one certainty remains: Anorexia is terribly easy to fall into and extremely difficult to fall out of. What took place in a matter of weeks or months to enmesh my thoughts and actions with the eating disorder? Well, I still rest unsure whether the damage will be fully undone.

The amount and type of such damage is tremendous, and there is no clear-cut path out of the darkness of anorexia. Its remnants linger well beyond the comfort it initially provides. What originated as a comforter, quickly evaporated any comfort. In its stead, it left a hollow and tormenting charade to unveil to those close by.

To this day, I remain stagnant in sickness. In essence, I’ve spent decades trading forms and venues of self-abuse. What began as innocent self-soothing turned ferociously into self-terrorization. Soon enough, I found myself lost in the abyss of demise, unable to tame the grip latched onto my conscience, which suckered all my being into its depths of starvation hell.

This hell has the ability to consume my entirety, enveloping my light with placating darkness. It coddles me with a hushing lullaby, disordered patterns dancing with heavy abundance. Tears weep and my heart sinks into the shallowness of pitiful pain. I am once again enshrouded by dormant death. The chaos has followed me through darkened nights, surpassing the glory days of one decade jumping into the next with no reprieve of the hell enmeshed within the illness of anorexia.

It is in times like these where I wonder: Will I ever recover? Will I ever live in freedom from this demonic disease which engulfs my being in entirety? And finally, what will the recovery path look like? Given the fact that there is no linear path of recovery from anorexia nervosa, no miracle course to everlasting wellness, there remains a vast unknown.

So here I am, after two decades, after all the hospitals, rehabs and therapies, still confounded as to the next step to take. I have tried and tested each preliminary step to no avail. So I inhale deeply and set off once more…

 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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To Myself Before I Was Diagnosed With Anorexia

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Savannah,

I can see that life is hard. I know you are confused, lonely, isolated and have a severe hatred for your body. I know you struggle to get dressed every day because you think you look so bad in everything. I know you haven’t long turned 16. Yet, you still feel like you’re 8 years old and haven’t figured out the world yet.

I’m so sorry life hasn’t been easy, and I’m sad to tell you it will get so much more worse before it starts to get better. I don’t know how long it will take you to truly become happy. Even then, you won’t completely understand the world, but life does get better at times.

You cried so much the night before your 16th birthday because you were so afraid of getting older and becoming an adult. I’m sorry you had to feel this way. I’m sorry you cry yourself to sleep and damage yourself so much in order to feel something other than darkness.

In a couple of weeks, you’ll have to fight so hard. Harder than you’ve ever fought before. Harder than you can imagine right now. I know you don’t see you have a problem, and you think anorexia is making your life so perfect. How wrong you are.

In a couple of weeks, the college tutors, who you’ve grown to disagree with, will sit you down and explain they’ve noticed a problem. They’ll tell you how others have voiced their concerns about your eating habits and how much weight you’ve lost. You’ll plead, cry and have a panic attack when they start to call your family.

When they tell you they think you have an eating disorder, you won’t be shocked. You secretly knew this all along, didn’t you? Yet, all you could do was push it back because restriction and addiction were the only things keeping you happy. I’m so sorry that sitting in that room with so many people against you will bring you immense pain. I wish you didn’t have to go through that, but you will.

When the doctor tells you that you have an eating disorder but that you could “still lose a few pounds” to meet diagnosis, all thoughts of recovery will disappear. You’ll feel defeated, drained and not good enough. You’ll become immensely motivated to stop eating all together, even drinking, and you will go straight home to exercise.

MIGHTY PARTNER RESOURCES

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

Please, don’t be unmotivated when one person throws you off. There will be people in your recovery way better than that doctor. Please, remember the extreme restrictions and excessive exercising will kill you if you continue. You’ll come so close to death before things even turn around. Also, remember water doesn’t have calories and won’t make you fat. You’ll believe that a couple of times during recovery, but it’s not true — I promise.

Don’t be discouraged. Recovery won’t happen overnight. You’ll relapse a couple of times and refuse to lose Ana’s mindset. You’ll become depressed and severely suicidal. You’ll go on medication and then come off of it. You’ll meet friends and lose friends. People will be judgmental. Life won’t be kind to you. You’ll struggle more than succeed, but you’ll make it each day simply by breathing.

When you start to recover, you’ll realize God put you through this struggle so you can reach out to others. Your anorexia will bring you to meet new people who understand you. You’ll become an advocate for mental health and those you love.

Heck, you’ll even write a book or two! You’ll try so hard to get your voice heard. You will impact so many people by doing so. Use your struggles to plough ahead and reach out to others.

Your life and happiness is not centered on how thin you are. I hope you remember that as you grow and life changes. I hope you learn to honestly express your emotions some day, but, for now, please breathe.

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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What Does Recovery From an Eating Disorder Really Mean?

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It took me a long time to be able to claim the words, “I am a recovered anorexic.” Much longer than it took the world to see me that way,

There are so many measures of recovery. The medical world will look to tangible physical improvements, primarily weight gain. And yes, part of recovery means reaching a healthy weight and struggling with the devastating physical symptoms of anorexia.

But I would argue that recovery is far more than numbers on a scale. It is quite possible to be a healthy weight but still have food rule your life, haunt your dreams, poison your relationships and destroy your sense of self.

I was healthy physically a long time before I was at peace with my illness. I had been judged by my weight for so long that even when the worst aspects of my anorexia had diminished, my shame remained.

Putting on weight wasn’t enough; I wanted so much to be the person I was before I got sick. It was only then, I believed, I could see myself as “better.”

The reality is, I can never again be the carefree young girl I was before I got sick. I can never be the person I was before the ravages of my disease, my brutal medical treatment, the loss of important relationships or the stigma of mental illness.

I hope it is these very things that have made an empathetic person who doesn’t judge anyone, and yet the truth was for many years I felt diminished in a way that made me believe I would never reclaim my essence.

At times I thought I should view my anorexia like other addictions, that it would always be present and I should just learn to manage it on a daily basis. That type of personal responsibility is certainly part of recovery, but somehow it didn’t seem enough. I wanted to be “cured.”

I wished for a miracle cure – to wake up one day and have the burden of my struggle gone. It didn’t happen. But guess what? That didn’t mean I didn’t recover.

It is true I will never have the same relationship with food or with my body that I once had. Even so, I fought against the notion that managing my illness one meal at a time was the best I could hope for.

MIGHTY PARTNER RESOURCES

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

What I have learned is recovery takes as long as it takes. For a lucky few, that is a quick process. For me it was a long one. There were times – years in fact – when I was so closed off physically, emotionally and socially that it seemed like I was making no progress. But in retrospect I can see I was working toward reclaiming my life even when it appeared I was standing still.

Looking back I can see my recovery gained momentum at a certain indefinable point, reinforced by the pleasures of life that at last I was experiencing. I began to believe I deserved the things my illness had robbed me of.

My recovery is not perfect. I have moments when I find myself in a hard situation, and momentarily it throws me. At these times it is hard not to judge myself.

But I no longer cower. Food doesn’t dictate what I do or how I do it. The fact that I once had anorexia does not define who I am or what I have to offer the world. For me, that is recovery.

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.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

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What My Friend Didn't Know When He Said I Was 'One of the Healthiest People' He Knew

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Contrary to my typical school days, I had several good guy friends while in college. These enthusiastic guys were genuinely smart, humorous, truthful and tended to make certain group gatherings more fun. They were a lively asset to football-watching parties, board game playing potlucks and recreational sporting scrimmages on campus. They were pros at crafting a clever joke, willingly contributed to thought-provoking conversations and were never dramatic. Needless to say, I greatly valued their friendship, encouragement and personal opinions.

One afternoon after a routine ultimate frisbee session, one of my guy friends, Ken, mentioned that he had seen me running around campus earlier that week – a daily activity for which I quickly became known. Attempting to compliment my physically active lifestyle, he said: “Amanda, you’re one of the healthiest people I know.”

Conflicted by his politely intended comment, I remember thinking sadly to myself, If only you knew, Ken…if only you knew the truth.

The truth was that back in college I did know — I knew all about my history and knew I was still regretfully hanging on to painful pieces of my past. With my academic major of choice being Exercise Science, I had acquired a substantial amount of insight on how the magnificent human body operates. From my own experience and educational influences, I knew all about the foundational idiosyncrasies of my specific condition and was highly aware of what I should be doing to combat it. I knew about many intensive biological processes and detailed components pertaining to anatomy and physiology. I was well versed in the guidelines for exercise testing and prescription, and was well trained on how to properly lead others towards adapting healthy choices and developing a balanced lifestyle.

I knew all of these concepts like the back of my hand… I just frankly wasn’t applying them to myself. On the outside I may have appeared fit and healthy, but on the inside, I was deniably still struggling beneath my protective fitness persona.

But my ignorant 13-year-old self didn’t know. I didn’t know the difference between carbs, fats and proteins. I didn’t know there was such a thing as too much exercise or nutritional control. I didn’t know how foods were broken down in our bodies or that words like “calories” and “metabolism” even existed. I didn’t know anything about nutrient timing or hormones. And of course I didn’t know at the time that all of my intentional efforts to improve my athletic ability and conscious focus on physical enhancement were unintentionally eating up my body. Literally.

MIGHTY PARTNER RESOURCES

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

Yet instead of translating this lack of knowledge into a prime teaching opportunity, the majority of what I absorbed went to labeling foods and habits as either “good” or “bad.” Despite my attempts to facilitate healthy living, everything suddenly added on to my pre-existing set of rules.

This observant, reserved, intuitive young girl only wanted to become the best all-star athlete out there and instead accidentally took her competitive, perfectionist personality overboard. I “learned” by my own observation and perceived judgment that I was losing the very control I set out to attain in the beginning.

I wanted to get things right. I didn’t mean to cause my body harm, but at the same time I also wanted to understand why I was suddenly being forced by doctors into a new strict and monitored lifestyle. In spite of my inner will to improve myself, I was constantly overpowered by the regulations of my treatment team and my own eating disorder voice telling me everyone else was wrong.

Thankfully now, I know. I now know the severity of the disease that consistently won the battle for nearly 10 years of my life. I know the mental and emotional toll that tags alongside the obvious physical toll. I know the meaning behind terms like “triggers” and “tendencies,” and how to monitor them.

I know now if I want to be able to continue the physical activities that bring me so much joy, I have to strategically fuel my body with the right sources. I know that food is my muscle’s best friend because it provides substance, energy and natural healing remedies.

I know truthfully just how vital it is to have loving moral support during dark times. Additionally, I have no doubt that with my passion for learning, this large knowledge base will only continue to grow. And with this knowledge, I know deep down that recovery is possible.

I can now live a life of vibrancy, contentment and peace.

In times of confusion, discouragement and affliction, I remind myself of the gift of the present. In all circumstances, it helps to know there is someone right there on your side. Someone rooting for you each step of the way. Someone who will walk with you, cry with you and stand strong with you. Someone who values you, admires you and cares deeply for you. Someone who would drop everything just to sit quietly with you, to patiently wait in silence with you, aspiring to bring comfort and assurance in reminding you to simply:

”be still and know.”

Be still, be calm and be brave. Be still and know that there is such a thing as hope. Be still and know that it can indeed get better. I know, because I’ve been there. I know, because I’m here.

Psalm 46:10

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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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Goodbye to Anorexia, Hello to a Better Life

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I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa at 17, and I had body image and self-esteem issues for long before that. Now, at 21 years old, I really can’t remember ever living a life that wasn’t controlled by anorexia. Currently, I am in the middle of yet another intense battle with it.

Anorexia is a life-threatening illness. It’s scary. It’s lonely. It’s pure agony.

I often lie awake in bed scared because my heart is barely beating. I get pounding headaches, feel lightheaded and nauseous as a result of malnutrition and dangerously low blood pressure. Yet, instead of eating, I continue restricting, exercising and taking diet pills.

If I don’t fight this eating disorder, then I stop fighting for my life. So, I am proud to say I am in treatment, and I am ready to say goodbye to my eating disorder. I am fighting because I know my life’s worth living, and I have so much potential and so much to live for.

Saying goodbye won’t be easy. It’s going to be the hardest, most grueling and daunting battle I will ever fight. Yet, I am ready to say hello to a better life that isn’t controlled by anorexia. Although I have a long way to go, I’m hopeful I can finally beat anorexia , one day at a time.

One day, I will be a psychiatrist helping those struggling. For now, I am ready to focus on myself and my recovery.

This post originally appeared on Medium.

 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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Maintaining Anorexia Recovery While in School

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Being in the midst of midterms, with finals just around the corner, my stress levels are extremely high. And when stress is high, I know I am more vulnerable to resort back to eating disorder behaviors to cope. But I’m intent on protecting and prioritizing my recovery! Here are some of the things that are helping me do so:

  • Prioritizing eating — literally scheduling meals and snacks into my agenda and my phone to remind myself of their importance and to not let them get pushed aside.
  • Reminding myself of why I am fueling myself: It enables my body to perform its basic functions, to keep my lungs breathing, my heart beating, and my brain thinking. It allows me to get from home, to school, to work. It allows me to write a paper, to create something artistic, to get through a yoga class, to play with my nephews, and to go out and have fun with friends!
  • Doing meal planning in advance can help me ensure my nutritional needs are getting met and to lessen the stress of having to make on-the-spot decisions about what and how much to eat.
  • Having a list of safe foods on hand that I am most comfortable with. These are my fall-back plan, and if I am really struggling I can go back to one of these foods.
  • Regarding food as medicine. I wouldn’t skip my medication, so I shouldn’t skip my meals either!
  • Not comparing what I am doing to what others are doing. Other people might not take a break to have lunch or snack, but that doesn’t mean I have an out to do so too. Different people have different needs, and I know what I need to do for my health and my recovery, which is to eat adequately and on a regular basis.
  • Learning to have some flexibility because sometimes things don’t go to plan. Maybe I planned out that I was going to buy a particular thing for lunch, and it wasn’t available. But that’s OK, because I can pick out something else. Maybe lecture ran late, and I can’t eat at the time I planned to, and that’s OK! Relaxing my rigidity is a process, but it’s one I’m working at daily.
  • Forgiving myself for mistakes. Recovery is not linear, so sometimes slips happen. I try to see slips as isolated incidents and not in an all-or-nothing manner (i.e. “I skipped one meal, therefore I’m a failure at recovery and a failure at life!”). It’s not that cut and dried. Yes, a slip needs to be taken seriously, but if I let it defeat me, I just open the door to more slips which could then spiral into a relapse. So I actively choose to respond to mistakes with kindness and compassion.
  • Finding a recovery community of others who “get it.” For me this is the Instagram ED recovery community. I use this judiciously and recognize what is helpful to me and seek that out, and avoid what is triggering to me. Instagram has allowed me to connect with some truly amazing, encouraging, and supportive individuals.
  • Finding what coping strategies work for me and making a point of utilizing these every day. For me, this means using opposite action, mechanical eating, and reminding myself to treat recovery as an experiment.
  • Making time for self-care. I literally have to schedule this in for myself or I can easily end up neglecting it. It can be hard to allow myself to take a break, but it is needed, and deserved! It will make me more focused, refreshed, and effective when I return to what I was doing.
  • Leaning on my support system and asking for help when I need it! I used to think this would be a burden to others, but in fact, not asking for help can end up being much more of a burden to people because if I don’t let them know how to help me, their hands are tied. Figuring out what I need, and asking for help in getting these needs met is incredibly important and empowering. Anorexia robbed me of my voice, and so learning how to get my autonomy back is really meaningful to me.
MIGHTY PARTNER RESOURCES

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

So, to everyone else who is stressing about school or work, take a deep breath, re-focus on what is important to you and keep fighting! Recovery is possible, and it is so worth it. Be aware of your vulnerabilities and find ways to skillfully navigate them.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

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