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6 Things I Wish I Had Known During Eating Disorder Recovery

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I wrote this list as someone recovering from anorexia. For two years I fought to recover, and I had no idea what I was in for. I wish I’d had someone further along in recovery to tell me about it in an honest way. It doesn’t mean much when doctors tell you it gets better. It’s easy to brush them off because they haven’t been through it themselves. It doesn’t help to hear that “It gets better,” “It’ll pass,” ” You’ll be OK” over and over. I needed to hear that recovery would be grueling and would hurt more than living with my eating disorder but would be worth it. Recovery is a lot of ups and downs, and it takes a lot of work to get to a point where you’re happy again. I needed to know someone else felt the way I felt, that they had been there and made it through. This is what I would have wanted someone to tell me. 

1. You’re not weak for “giving up” your disorder.

Really, you’re strong for fighting it. You know that pull in your chest you get each time you defy that voice in your head? The way the voice starts screaming belligerently when you challenge it? The way you panic at the slightest change to your eating disordered habits? Those are signs you are fighting. I get the feeling of wanting to give in. It’s hard to go left when someone is screaming in your ear to turn right. I know. But I also know it’s so worth every bit of fight. When you start to pull away, the eating disorder will tell you you’re weak, you’re worthless, you’re nothing without it. Fighting it means ignoring the feeling of weakness. In the end, you will see how strong you are for choosing to fight for yourself.

2. Food doesn’t have to be scary.

I know it feels that way. I know you look at the people around you and wonder how food doesn’t scare them the way it scares you. Opening the fridge seems like a hobby to your friends, yet you can’t even bear to be seen looking at food for fear of someone judging you. The truth is no one is looking, and if they are, they aren’t judging you. No one will think less of you for eating. No one will think less of you for choosing a cookie over a carrot. Food is not a bad thing. Some day, ridiculous as it sounds, you may be excited by cake again. You may look forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas and family dinners and take-out and McDonald’s hangover cures. Some day you can be OK with food. You can control it, not the other way around. You can learn to cope.

3. You’re enough.

You don’t need to starve/binge/purge/suffer to be worthy. You do not need to listen to that nasty voice in your head forcing you to do things. You do not need to listen to it when it tells you you’re fat and ugly and a bad friend. You’re not a bad person. You’re not a useless person. You’re not worthless. You are so much more than enough. It’s so hard to see the love that surrounds you when all you can hear is your eating disorder. It’s so much louder than your friends and family are. You’re so consumed by it that you may push everyone away. That voice is just so loud. That voice can go away. It may get louder, way louder, throughout recovery. But it can go away. I promise. When I run now, I don’t hear a loop of obscenities being shouted inside my head, calling me useless garbage. I hear my feet on the ground and music in my ears and my breathing. I don’t hear a voice telling me I’m terrible for eating. I don’t have anorexia yelling at me all day long. I know I’m enough, I know I’m worth the space I take up. I know I’m worthy of love, regardless of my jeans or the scale. The voice in your head can go away too. You can be free of it.

4. Recovery will be one of the hardest things you ever go through.

If you thought living through your eating disorder was hard, buckle up. Recovery is the bumpiest ride to get on. I won’t lie to you. It’s one thing to listen to a voice telling you you’re worthless 24/7. It’s another to turn around and challenge that voice. It’s a whole other thing to fight back and do what it’s telling you you can’t. The voice is lying. You can.

The hardest point for me was about halfway. I was starting to fight back, but the eating disorder was so convincing, and all I wanted to do was run right to it. The best analogy I can think of is walking on fire. You’ve already walked halfway, so why turn back? You’ll have to go back, then start all over again. Relapse happens. There are setbacks. There are obstacles. Do not give up. You can beat this. Recovery is so painful.

You’ll learn that living with an eating disorder is not a life at all. Right now, it probably sounds like it would be easier to not recover at all. I told my mom to let me die. I begged my treatment team to just walk away and let me go. I didn’t think I was strong enough, and the eating disorder convinced me I would be nothing without it. I was wrong. It took every ounce of fight in me. Every single day I got up ready for battle. It was worth every tear, every struggle, every war in my head. It was so worth it. All of those moments of anguish will be worth it when you live a full, happy and healthy life. You deserve to. Recovery is terrible — until one day, it isn’t.

5. It gets better. Really. 

I told my psychologist to go to hell when she said that. I told the therapist before her, the psychologist before her, my doctor, my dietitian, my family. I told everyone I would rather die than recover. I said recovery wasn’t for me. The thing is, anorexia isn’t for me. Your eating disorder isn’t for you, either. Your eating disorder will tell you you’re the exception to recovery, that you don’t need it, that you’re better living like this. These are all lies. Eating disorders are the absolute best liars, and they make you a damn good one too. They can be so persuasive. They’re still lying. There is no such thing as an exception to recovery. We all have that fight in us, no matter how beaten down you feel. No matter how tied to your eating disorder you are, you can make it out.

The first day I remember feeling really good was when I went for brunch with my parents. I didn’t pre-plan and look at the menu online for days in advance. I didn’t cut out meals to prepare. I didn’t do an intense workout before or after. I didn’t even consider which option had the lowest calories. I chose the option that sounded the best, which happened to be caramel banana waffles. I didn’t feel panicked in the slightest. I felt good. I felt full. I felt happy. I couldn’t remember how it felt to have food feel good until that day. That’s when I realized they were all telling the truth; it does get better. You can live without your eating disorder. In fact, you can thrive.

6. You can be happy again.

Imagining how I felt during my sickest day and during recovery makes my heart ache for all of the people out there who are struggling. You deserve to feel true happiness. You’ll never get that with your eating disorder. It will always find a way to poison good moments because it’s toxic. You don’t need that. You deserve to enjoy life. You can be happy again. You’re probably thinking that recovery isn’t making you happy either, so why try to fight? You’re right. Recovery is, in short, a b****. It’s not fun. But there are victories. There are moments where you win — times where you put that eating disorder in its place. You could feel that way almost all the time. There will be times where you feel low; it’s inevitable. But most days can eventually be good days. Fight for that. For those moments. Hold on to them. That is what life is about. Your eating disorder doesn’t make you happy. It doesn’t make you feel good about yourself. It doesn’t build you up. All it does is tear you down and break you from the inside out. It makes you a prisoner in your own mind. It poisons you slowly. It controls every second of your life. Fight back. Take over your own head. Call the shots. You deserve to go to the beach and feel the sun on your skin and feel good, not scared or insecure. You deserve to eat food and feel content, not stressed. You deserve to wake up feeling free. You’ll get there if you choose 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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To the Friends Who Stayed Through My Eating Disorder

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To the people I am lucky enough to call friends:

You watched my obsession with perfection in school get worse, causing me to obsess over little details.

You watched as my obsessing moved into what I ate and what I did.

You watched me start to count calories and macronutrients, steps and active minutes.

You watched me buy the scale and listened to me complain about how fat I was.

You watched me refuse food because “I just ate” or “My stomach is a little upset right now.”

You watched me become more withdrawn and begin to skip classes and obligations.

You watched me drag myself to the trail to walk for hours and hours in the middle of the night to lose the “extra weight.”

You watched me ignore your pleas to get help and to talk to you.

You watched me shrink mentally and physically.

You watched me ignore your help, go down a path that could have led to my death. I pushed you away to keep my addiction to restriction. I screamed and yelled at you to leave me alone. I made anorexia more important than you.

And yet, you stayed.

You didn’t run away, scared, like so many did when they found out the real reasons I left school.

You stayed.

You hugged me, told me it was OK, and stayed by my side.

You checked in on me, making sure I was going to my psychiatry and nutrition appointments.

You made sure I was sticking to my treatment plan and following my meal plan.

You made sure I was taking my medications.

You held my hand as I cried into plates of food I didn’t want to eat and reminded me how strong I was.

You helped me be strong enough to throw away the scale.

You helped me begin to live again.

So, dear friend, thank you. I know I haven’t been the best friend. Anorexia made me selfish and angry and mean. I’m sorry I was not a good person to you. I know our friendship hasn’t been easy. I know it was hell watching me disappear into a monster you couldn’t even recognize. I know you probably wanted to turn the other way and leave. But you didn’t. You stayed. And for that, you are the most incredible human being alive, and I am the luckiest person in the world for having you in my life.

I love you.

Thank you.

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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Eating Disorder Recovery Isn't Black and White

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Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.

Choosing to recover is never black and white. It is never quite as straight forward as it should be, in an ideal world. I sometimes find it difficult to fully commit to recovery. I’m constantly grappling inside myself and sometimes I don’t know what way I should be going.

It’s so hard to view the eating disorder as a bad thing sometimes. It’s what has always been there for me. Starving the pain away, exercising the hate out of me, counting calories and kilograms and stones and pounds so that my brain is so full of numbers I can’t hear any of the hateful thoughts or suicidal chanting in my mind.

My eating disorder protected me from having to deal with things I didn’t want to cope with. It gave me something to concentrate on, something to control in the swirling haze of life spiraling away from me. It became all I wanted, all I needed, all that mattered. It was my best friend.

I couldn’t see anything else.

I was so fixated on numbers that I didn’t notice my friends hurting. I completely ignored my family and how they were feeling desperate. I saw people trying to help and instantly pushed them away. It made me hate those around me who were trying to “interfere.” It caused me to self-harm as punishment for not meeting my own impossible demands. My eating disorder pushed me to attempt suicide when I felt like I had lost all control.

And it never — not once — made me happy.

It was only when I started to hate it when I realized I was stuck. I tried to escape, I struggled and everything went dark so I turned to what I knew as a way to cope and I lost more weight. Around and around this circle went and I was caught in a mess of gaining weight then losing it again. It felt like it was always one step forward, two steps back.

Even now I struggle to think of anorexia as my enemy. I struggle with the constant longing to rush back into her outstretched arms and cry and ask her to make it all better again and fix me, fix everything. But I can’t. Not this time.

I can’t keep falling down over and over and over. I need to fight this. Not for me, but for those who have been fighting for me all this time. I can be better without anorexia. I’ll prove it to her.

And hopefully, on the way, I’ll prove it to myself as well.

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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Anorexia and Self-Acceptance: You're Whole as You Are

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“You must learn to accept yourself just as you are.”

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard, read or thought a version of this statement in my recovery from anorexia nervosa. I believe it. I believe that accepting the whole of me — my strengths, my vulnerabilities, everything messy and human inside me — is key to finding peace with my body.

But here’s the problem: anorexia threatens many of the central aspects of my identity. I’m strong: I’ve run half marathons, summited mountains and helped my family face a number of challenges. Yet some days, I can’t face a number on a scale. I have dreams: to be a scientist, to write, to teach, to have children. Yet because of my illness, I’ve turned down jobs and relationships and study abroad. I’m generous and caring and kind. Yet I often walk around full of shame and isolation, convinced that my illness makes me selfish and shallow and small.

Yes, I must accept the whole of me. But who am I? And what does it mean to be whole?

Sometimes I talk about my whole self like a puzzle. How can I take the pieces of me — the self before anorexia and the self that’s here now — and string them together in a coherent identity? Other times, I talk about the whole of me as a journey. I need to go out and find myself, working until I arrive at the person I want to be.

There’s a reason we talk about finding a self or putting one together. This language implies that the whole of us exists “out there” somewhere, perfect and complete, if we can only find it. Wholeness becomes something of the future. When I’ve sorted myself out, then I will be whole.

Recently, I had a radical thought: What if wholeness isn’t something I need to work for or find? What if I’m whole right now, just as I am?

The thought is unnerving. Right now, there are parts of me I don’t particularly like. There are puzzle pieces I wouldn’t put in a finished product. But I think this reframing of “wholeness” is crucial. Acknowledging that you’re whole right now requires a new level of radical self-acceptance. It allows us to accept a version of our selves that reflects the depth and complexity of a mature identity.

Here are three techniques that have helped me explore and accept this new idea of wholeness.

1. In your whole self, everything belongs.

As a biology student, I see natural ecosystems as metaphors for wholeness. Ecosystems have balance and beauty. But ecosystems also have waste and cost: leaves fall and die to form new soil, this winter’s rain nourishes the ground for spring. We can’t talk about the wholeness of an ecosystem without acknowledging all aspects of this cycle, the growth and the loss.

What would it mean to think of ourselves like an ecosystem? In nature, waste and death and sacrifice are necessary counterparts to growth and life. The same is true of the parts of ourselves we see as flaws or weaknesses. My pain and illness are no less a part of me than my strength and light.

Accepting my whole self doesn’t mean denying or eradicating the parts of me I’d rather not include. It means facing these struggles with integrity and courage. It means realizing that my illness is intertwined with my gifts in a continuous cycle, each one informing the other in a process of growth.

 2. There’s no such thing as “outside” the self. There’s only transformation and acceptance. 

I often talk about battling my eating disorder: getting rid of an external intruder to reclaim the “true” me. Sometimes, valuable anger and motivation comes from this stance. But it isn’t always so simple. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell where anorexia stops and the real me begins. It’s hard to banish the eating disorder thoughts — “you’re fat,” “you’re shameful” — without first engaging and talking back.

Again, it reminds me of an ecosystem. Environmentalist Annie Leonard says, “There is no such thing as ‘away.’ When you throw something away, it must go somewhere.” We can talk about exorcisms, of getting rid of parts of our selves to make way for a new whole. But in reality, there’s no place outside of the self. Nowhere to dump the bad, the toxic, the harmful. There’s only transformation and acceptance.

How can we transform our illness? It helps me to focus on the growth and gifts I’ve experienced in spite of — or often, because of — my recovery. I’ve learned self-care, assertion of my needs, understanding of health and nutrition, perseverance, spiritual growth, resilience and what it means to hold pain and joy simultaneously. These lessons don’t make the anorexia “worth it.” They don’t destroy or eradicate the disease. But they do help the illness take its place: a small place, really, enfolded in the whole of me.

3. Wholeness doesn’t imply only “good.” Your whole self has room for complexity.

Finally, a whole self has space for all the complexity of life — the good, the bad, the struggle, the joy. For years, the eating disorder was the only way I expressed pain — about depression, family struggles, self-doubt and negativity. Now I’m learning: there are ways to express negative emotions that have nothing to do with an eating disorder. Recovery does not mean agreeing that life will always be good. It means finding healthier ways to feel heard and understood.

Recovery does mean reconnecting with the inner joy and flexibility that came before anorexia. This self is real and worthy of being reclaimed. But sometimes, we’re sad. Sometimes, we’re angry. All the time, we’re complex. This self is equally real. This self is human.

No part of your self is more right or wrong or true than any other. Your whole self has room for every part of you.

You are whole right now, just as you are.

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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When My Mom Blames Herself for My Eating Disorder

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“I wish I could have prevented this,” my mom sighs. “I wish I had noticed the signs, or that your doctors had picked up on this sooner, or that you had confided in me.”

We’ve had this conversation so many times. She berates the therapist who, despite my being a minor, never informed her about the danger my eating disorder put me in. She laments about the pediatrician who never contacted her after I had lost a dangerous amount of weight within just a few months, even though this doctor knew I had a history with anorexia. She curses the teachers and school nurses and friends and family who all claimed they “saw this coming” but never warned her.

She questions the inactions of others, but I hear underneath that she blames herself. She looks at the photos from the eight years of anorexia and wonders how she never noticed my sunken eyes, pointy cheekbones, and spindly legs. Of course she noticed these things but denial convinced her they were just a part of who I am or that I have a quick metabolism. Now, she berates herself for allowing denial to blind her. When she speaks about it, she starts to cry. “I could’ve prevented so much of your pain… I could’ve sent you to treatment sooner… The mental and physical effects of starvation could’ve been minimized… I am sorry I failed you.”

It breaks my heart to hear my mother say this. As I’ve told her, my mom did not fail me. For some people, being placed in treatment unwillingly can interrupt the illness long enough for them to eventually choose recovery. My family had tried to force treatment upon me at the beginning of my illness, around age 12, but I’d resisted and manipulated my way out, allowing the illness to grow stronger and stronger for years. Since childhood I’ve been stubborn as hell and unswayable in my convictions. To recover, I had to choose recovery for myself. Not only did I have to choose it once, but I had to choose it day after day after day — nearly two years later, I still have to choose recovery every time I sit down to eat.

But here’s the thing — I chose recovery, and my support system helped me keep choosing it despite the miserable meals, years of treatment, and physical ailments. And when my mother says, “I failed you,” I want to cry. Mom, you did not cause this. My eating disorder is an illness caused by the perfect storm of so many triggers. I blame absolutely nothing on you.

In fact, Mom, I credit you with my recovery. I maintain that I chose and fought for recovery, but you raised me. You taught me to be a fighter. You raised me to make up my mind and stick to it. And that strength and determination is what lifted me out of the disorder. Mom, you didn’t fail me or save me, but you gave me the strength to save myself.

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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How Redefining 'Pretty' Helped Me Recover From Anorexia

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The concept of “pretty” has puzzled me for some time. They say beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and yet it seemed that somehow everyone had agreed on what it meant to be pretty.

I was led to believe that if one was pretty they would be successful, liked and most importantly, valued. I had been inundated all my life with these messages. I found myself comparing my physique to others despite being told all my life that having a mind of my own was more important. I subscribed to the idea of “pretty” that had been told to me so many times by so many people.

My self-worth was tied up in being the prettiest girl in the room. For me, that meant competing with every girl to be the thinnest. Every day was a battle to look better — to be better — than every girl in every room. I wanted my bones to wear my skin like a shirt a few sizes too small.

My search for beauty, or value rather, became tied up in numbers. As the number on the scale went down, my desire to be seen as pretty only grew. The mental calculator was always running. Counting calories. Measuring inches. Subtracting pounds. Calculating my self-worth. I was chasing after an unattainable goal, looking for my self-worth in the approval of others. However, my methods were working. Family, friends, and others would tell me I looked great — they liked the changes I was making to my appearance. Their compliments encouraged me and told me my ranking among others was improving.

Pretty meant loose shirts, thigh gaps, skipped meal, and a body breaking itself down. Pretty meant a brain that couldn’t focus on anything but the numbers that haunted me. Pretty meant a heart that couldn’t beat enough to keep me standing. The cost of “pretty” was an eating disorder and a mind plagued by the perceived judgments others were making about me. Pretty was thin and thin was value and value was worth. My self-worth could be measured in teaspoons.

What I thought was “pretty” was really an illness in disguise, a sickness dressed up in pretty clothes laced with compliments. While it may have provided me with the approval from others I thought I needed to feel worthy of life, anorexia left me a shell of the person I had once been. I was facing hard statistics, like how anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. I realized my conception of what pretty was had to change.

Now I believe I am beautiful. My beauty comes not from a number on a scale or a ranking made by others or myself, but from my confidence in who I am and the strength I know I have inside of me.

The definition of pretty I held to be true is common, and it needs to change. In our weight-conscious culture, we must strive to expand and diversify what it means to be “pretty.” Through my process of recovery I have come to accept myself and now believe that all bodies are beautiful. That is not to say that I do not have days where my old ideas come to mind. On those days I must remind myself where I’ve been and how far I’ve come, but also that recovery is not a straight line. Healthy is the goal and that comes in many forms and looks different for everyone. Weight and size and calories are all just numbers that do not define us.

We, all of us, are pretty.

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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