5 Things I've Learned in 20 Years of Anorexia Recovery
In June, I had the distinct privilege of sharing my story at the Renfrew Alumni reunion. Speaking to 75 plus alumni and their families was a deeply profound and unforgettable experience.
Three years ago this month, I was admitted to residential treatment at the Renfrew Center in Philadelphia. Now, to return strong in mind and body, unwavering in my commitment to my healing path, and as an eating disorder professional was truly an unforgettable moment. As I stood at the podium, surprisingly calm and at complete ease, I was filled up with all the moment held — gratitude, joy, peace and the collective strength of all who attended.
Rather than focus on the suffering of my story, I chose to share a few philosophies or perspectives (not rules!) that I have developed over my 20 plus years of healing. These philosophies have shaped my own recovery. They have also set me up to take care of my children and be present with the special people in my life. I share these philosophies with you too, with the hope they will open up new pathways for deep and lasting healing in your life.
1. Recovery is a lifestyle, not a side job.
Between therapy appointments and going to groups and keeping food logs, recovery can feel like a time-consuming side job. Over time, this attitude toward recovery can cause us to become resentful. The more resentful we become, the less motivated we are to keep up our efforts. I believe recovery is a lifestyle — it’s not something “extra” we must do. Rather, it is the foundation from which we must attend to everything in our lives to keep us well and moving forward. To make recovery a lifestyle, let every choice you make be informed by this question: Is “x” going to support me in my healing or is it going to work against me? Get honest with yourself about the people, places and things in your life that merely help you manage an eating disorder versus those that support you in healthful ways. Choose to avoid the land mines, and replace them with things that will empower you and build you up.
2. Find purpose.
Find an activity, hobby, profession or something that makes your heart sing and connects you with your gifts, talents and passions. When we have a sense of purpose in our lives, we feel alive, whole and happy from the inside. We remember we are more than an eating disorder as we connect to our inner spirit — our true selves.
3. Include your body in the process of healing your mind.
Our eating disorders pit us against our bodies. I believe that to heal the awful disconnect with our bodies, we must include them in our recovery lifestyle. For me it’s yoga. This practice has been the pathway back to embodiment. Yoga has also put me in touch with my body’s power and strengths. I recommend finding an activity that allows you to reconnect with your strengths and a playful spirit. Resist returning to activities that turn on eating disorder thoughts and behaviors. This may mean trying something new or getting creative. Including your body could also mean taking a few minutes to breathe deeply and watch your breath. I understand that being in our bodies is not always easy or pleasant, but I deeply know that with time and persistence, patience and compassion, we can come home to our bodies and feel more at peace in our skin.
4. Find new language.
It is essential that we hardwire our brains with new ways of thinking about ourselves. One very important way to do this is by finding new ways to relate to yourself through language. For example, I believe saying “the eating disorder” instead of “my eating disorder” will create some much needed space between you and a diagnosis. Also, notice how you speak to yourself and others about food and your body. Watch your words. Are they eating disordered or perpetuate negativity? Begin to consciously talk back to the nasty words you say to yourself and strive to model language that supports your own healing and the self-esteem of others. One key change I’ve made in my language is by referring to recovery as a healing path. I use the words “recovered” and “recovery,” but sometimes those words induce insecurity or confusion and even a sense of failure for me. “Recovery” can feel like such a mountain and “recovered” can feel like a destination. Healing path allows me to feel more “in process” and keep an open mind to that process.
5. Have a personal recovery “call to action.”
This is an intention to help you clearly define your personal mission for recovery and allow your commitment to heal to take root. Doing so will also cultivate the beautiful gifts of self-reliance, resilience and trust for yourself and the healing process. I’ll close by sharing my personal recovery call to action, which is to be of substance and was inspired by a book I read a few years back called “The Paris Wife.”
After becoming pregnant, the main character, Hadley, describes her body in, what was for me, positively astounding terms. Full of pride, Hadley explains: “My middle thickened and my breasts grew fuller. I was tan and strong and content — more substantial.”
I read Hadley’s words in disbelief. Did she really just call her body more substantial and feel good about it?
As I continued to read “The Paris Wife,” I obsessively flipped back to Hadley’s description of her body. I was compelled to make sure her words hadn’t disappeared, that she hadn’t taken them back or changed her description from one of empowerment to disgust or shame.
To be slight, barely there, a whisper of a body passing through — that was my personal mission statement at the height of my illness. Over the past several years (more than 20 to be exact), my return to substance — to become more substantial in mind, body and spirit — has been my healing purpose, my recovery call to action. To be of substance means to live in my body, fully in touch with its sensations, unpredictable changes and the ebb and flow of emotions. To be of substance is to choose satiety instead of hunger, to taste instead of deny, to listen instead of numb. To be of substance means to stand tall instead of slouched, whole instead of fragmented. It’s a commitment to assert rather than abandon and to dream instead of despair. To be of substance means to live unapologetically for my body, my words, my achievements and my choices — to be motivated by self-compassion and assured of my resilience.
I truly believe we each have the right to become more substantial and experience what’s possible with deep and lasting healing. The philosophies I shared here have allowed that healing for me, and I strongly encourage to reflect on your own philosophies for recovery. You may be surprised by how much wisdom you hold!
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 Natouche.