The Reality of Eating Disorder Recovery and How I Get Through

Fresh into my recovery — after my last stay at Eating Recovery Center in Denver several years ago — I had many expectations of what successful recovery was supposed to look like. I also had many rules for myself regarding what my recovery needed to look like to actually be “true” recovery.

Initially, I came up with this rigid rule:

In recovery, there would be no struggle and no bad days.

I thought, if I struggled, it meant I was having a complete relapse of my eating disorder and that I was not strong enough to continue in recovery. I thought having bad days in recovery would crush any hope I had of having a healthy future.

As anyone who has found their way into lasting recovery can tell you, this is not exactly how the recovery journey works!

For me, a seamless transition from months of treatment to being home without any struggle was simply not possible. Needless to say, after a few weeks of being home, I struggled. I essentially broke my rules of what my recovery should be and what it should look like. I had to face this head on.

I was left with two choices:

1. I could submit to the eating disorder and accept I “failed” at recovery, or

2. I could show myself some grace and forgiveness that this is not a linear journey, and make the next right choice.

Looking back now, I can say this assuredly:

Struggles are strewn about on the path to success.

After initially accepting that I had failed at recovery, I took some time to pause and to reflect on my journey, as I’ve had many years of struggle and multiple stays in hospitals and treatment centers.

Through this reflection, I was able to see that accepting failure would only lead me back to the same miserable cycle I spent years in.

I decided that I wanted something different.

I knew, to achieve this, I had to do something different. So, I chose to loosen the binds of my rules and expectations, and I chose to, instead, do the best I could.

After all, to put it simply, the best you can do is the best you can do.

Here’s what helped me persist through the challenges of eating disorder recovery:

1. Accept that you will fall.

In hopes that a different perspective would lead to a different outcome, I accepted I would fall. I did indeed fall, many times over. However, after I fell, I decided to do something different than I had ever done before. I decided to get back up, dust myself off and make the next right choice.

2. Realize the eating disorder is meeting a need.

Eventually, through my journey, I realized I was using the eating disorder to meet a need I had. I used the eating disorder to reduce my anxiety, to manage stress, to escape from flashbacks of a trauma, to drown out the sound of my perfectionism, and more. Once I realized this, if I stumbled and engaged in an eating disorder behavior, I would reflect on the need I was trying to meet with ED, find another way to meet it, and eat the next meal while pushing through all of the discomfort. Eventually, these struggles lessened, and subsequently, the strength of my recovery grew.

3. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

If I slipped and made a decision that didn’t align with my recovery, I forgave myself and made sure my next decision would be something that would honor my recovery.

These repeated steps of 1) getting back up, 2) trying again and 3) making the next right choice have led me to the life I have today. This life is much more full of meaning, purpose, self-compassion and resilience than it used to be.

Overall, I stopped focusing on rules and expectations of what I thought successful recovery should look like, and I accepted what my successful recovery actually looked like.

I had to refuse to give up, no matter how many times I fell.

The result? Sweet freedom and learning the mantra of my recovery to this very day: “Life gets better; make sure you’re there to see it.”

Sydney Fitzgibbons is an Arizona native who now lives in Denver, Colorado where she works as a Paramedic. Sydney speaks about eating disorder recovery because she wants others to find the freedom, hope, and life that exists outside of an eating disorder. Her biggest message to those struggling is simple: “Life gets better. Make sure you’re there to see it.”

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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