10 Things I've Learned in Eating Disorder Recovery
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.
A few months ago, I sought treatment for binge eating disorder (BED). My problem, I thought, was about willpower. I didn’t think I had a “disorder.”
Yes, I had binged and purged in high school and college. And occasionally after that. But it had been years since my last purge, so I thought my eating disorder was just a phase. I’d also gone through bouts of restricting and overexercising, but I’d always had a curvy frame, so I didn’t think I “looked like someone who had an eating disorder.”
All I knew was I’d worked hard for almost a decade to lose a substantial amount of weight. But after a knee injury made running impossible, I stopped exercising and counting calories and started mindlessly eating everything in sight. I’d gone from someone who logged every bite and mile into apps on her phone, to someone who isolated at home on the couch, opting for drive-thru meals or delivery most nights. That didn’t sound like a disorder to me. To me, it just sounded like laziness and apathy. And maybe depression.
My eating disorder had taken over my life and I was too uninformed and embarrassed to realize it or ask for help. After a particularly difficult night, I reached out for professional help. Over the course of eight weeks, I went through 80 hours of therapy. I’d go to work and then head off to my sessions at a recovery center. Along with my recovery group, we met with nutritionists, psychologists, group therapists and art therapists, and we shared meals together. Some of us were there because we ate too little, some because we ate too much (regardless of whether or not we purged later). Most of us alternated between restricting and bingeing. All of us were battling much more than just food.
Here are ten things I’ve learned — and am continuing to learn — since beginning recovery:
1. No one chooses to have an eating disorder.
I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t choose this. For a myriad of reasons, my disorder chose me. This was a revelation to learn at age 37. I believe I choose my behaviors, but I no longer blame myself for having an eating disorder. If you battle an eating disorder, please know it’s not your fault.
2. There’s no hierarchy.
Restricting is not better or worse than bingeing or purging. Each carries a life-threatening risk. Each can control your life until you seek help.
3. You can’t tell by appearance whether someone has an eating disorder.
My weight has fluctuated wildly throughout my life, and I have plenty of “before” and “after” weight loss photos. But really, every photo taken before I entered recovery is a “before” picture of me battling an eating disorder, no matter the size.
Eating disorders have physical and mental implications, along with a high comorbidity with depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and suicidal ideation. As such, recovery is highly tailored to each individual and multifaceted. A recovery team typically includes a doctor, therapist and nutritionist. To recover, you must treat the body and the mind.
5. Eating disorders crave secrecy.
“Ed” (what many like to call eating disorders) thrives on secrecy. Ed loves it. Ed wants you to isolate, wants you to lie, wants you to stay hidden. Ed is the liar. Personifying the beast helps me distinguish between what’s true and what’s disordered thinking. And this distinction usually takes months — if not years — to master.
6. Foods are not “good” or “bad.”
Man, society loves placing positive or negative values on food.
I’m just going to have a salad – trying to be good today!
Should we be bad and order some fries?
For those of us in recovery, this messaging is extremely triggering. Our brains work differently when it comes to food and body image. We hear a comment about food and assign the value to ourselves. Thoughts can go a little something like this: I ate a donut and donuts are bad and now I’m a bad, worthless, out-of-control failure. The reality? Food is just food. Some foods may make your body feel better or worse, but eating them does not make you a good or bad person.
7. Exercise doesn’t have to be about calories burned.
Like many who battle this disorder, I engage in a lot of black and white thinking when it comes to myself. For example, when I was injured, I could have switched from running to swimming. But my all-or-nothing mindset told me it was pointless, that I’d only lose weight by running and I might as well just give up and stop working out entirely. I knew exactly how many calories were burned for every mile I ran, and if the workout didn’t require a sports bra, then I believed it wasn’t worth doing. That was my thought process. The most liberating thing since beginning recovery has been exercising for the sake of being kind to my body. Taking my dog for long walks by the lake, without focusing on our pace or distance. I’d forgotten what it felt like to exercise without an agenda. And without punishment.
8. It’s common to swap behaviors.
One of the biggest misconceptions might be the idea there are only two types of disordered behaviors: struggling with anorexia or bulimia. Many of us have used more than one behavior — restricting, bingeing or purging — and often when we stop one behavior, another tries to fight its way to the surface. For this reason, alcohol can become a new danger — even if it wasn’t an issue before — and people in recovery are often advised to limit or abstain from drinking.
9. Scales and apps are slippery slopes.
Toward the middle of recovery, I donated my scale and deleted every food and fitness tracking app from my phone. That was hard. I felt a surge of panic knowing I’d no longer have “proof” of my fitness and weight loss “accomplishments.” I remember asking my therapist, “How will I know if I’m good or bad if I don’t have something to measure myself against?” We sat silently as I processed what I’d just asked her, and then I said, “Oh. I hear it. OK, I understand why these apps aren’t good for me.”
There might be a time, years down the road, when I can use them again. But right now, my brain is not able to separate my value from a number on the scale or a calorie burned. I now use one recovery-focused app that tracks my moods and thoughts as I interact with food and my therapist and nutritionist each have access. Together, we create a weekly nutrition/fitness plan. The name of the game right now is mindfulness and grace, not a number on the scale.
10. It may get worse as it gets better.
Recovery isn’t linear (oh, if wishing made it so). No matter how maladaptive they were as coping skills, my disordered behaviors served a purpose. They numbed me. When I started recovery, there was slight lift in my mood. I knew I was taking a positive step and I felt hopeful I could conquer this beast of an illness. Then, I crashed. As I stop using my disordered behaviors and actually feel my feelings, my anxiety and depression resurface with a vengeance for a bit. Nothing is numb. Everything is raw. And it hurts. It hurts so much sometimes I want to give up and go back to my numbing behaviors. That’s my new fight. But with the help of my team, I’m no longer fighting it alone.
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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Thinkstock photo via AAGGraphics.