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5 Things I Learned From 5 Years in Eating Disorder Recovery

December 3 is a big day for me. It marks my five year anniversary in recovery from my eating disorder (ED). What that means is that five years ago to the day, December 3, 2012, at five in the morning, I texted my mom, “I need help.” A couple of hours later I had the seizure that brought me to my rock bottom. I thought I could feel my body breaking down and I was right. I had known something bad was going to happen and it did. Like I had a crystal ball, I’d predicted it and I was lucky I’d asked for help and wasn’t alone. Ever since that day, I have committed to recovery because maybe I wouldn’t be so lucky if there was a next time. Here are five lessons I have learned along the way:

1. Recovery doesn’t mean life is going to get easier, it just means that you now handle it differently and you have more reasons to believe it is worth it. Oh, and you actually enjoy it! I went from a life of being sick, filled with only work and obsessing about food and weight, to having a family of my own — a husband and two daughters —friends and a closer relationship with my family. These connections that I avoided while sick, out of fear of being “discovered,” combined with my innate feeling that I “didn’t belong,” now make me feel whole. Now, that little voice of anorexia is so easily knocked out by anything positive in my life — my husband’s lips against mine, by making a difference, by my ability to think clearly, by my two baby girls. Too many things are more important than ED. ED was my world before recovery — the only all-important thing in my life. Now, on a scale of importance, ED is like a distant cousin five times removed — you get the point — not even a thought.

2. Time really does make it better. Recovery seems to be a waiting game with time being key — for someone with no patience like me, that proved to be hard at times. I remember hearing this and thinking “no way, I’ll always struggle,” but it really has dissipated more and more with each passing year.

A large part of this is because I am constantly learning new things and evolving as a human being. With ED, you are so set in your eating rituals and routines that everything stays the same and you as a person don’t usually change. When you aren’t focused as much on ED, you can better live and experience things, which helps hush the ED voice.

Through these experiences, I realized how amazing my body could be and that made me reevaluate my recovery up until that point, making it even stronger. My pregnancies and breastfeeding are an example of this. My babies needed nutrients for them to thrive in and out of utero, which made me look at what I was eating and strive for more variety, thus making my recovery even stronger.

Basically, my ED went from center stage to a backup singer to a small part of the technical crew and then to the back row in the audience. This combination of time and non-ED experiences makes me believe one day ED will be completely eliminated — I can tell I am getting there.

3. There is a gray area and it’s a much better place than black and white. I have a personality where I am either all or nothing. I was the girl that had to get straight A’s in school, nothing in-between, or I’d consider myself an automatic failure in my mind. I was the girl that had to be the first one at work and the last one to leave and never took a vacation. I was the girl either binging (then purging) on every food possible or starving myself. I had an all or nothing mentality and if I was going to do something, it had to be the best or to the extreme.

Since finding recovery, I have found this gray area called moderation and it’s actually pretty great. I find myself sometimes just doing things because I enjoy them (can you believe it?), not to be the best or with a purpose. Now, I don’t have to earn my leisure. I can watch a movie because I feel like it and deserve to relax, not as a reward system. I don’t have rules that I need to follow, for instance, I don’t feel guilty if I don’t workout every day. I also don’t have fear foods and allow myself to have anything I am in the mood for, but just not in excess. Moderation is a good and healthy place for me to be.

4. Not Everyone is going to like you, but that’s OK. Trying to get everyone to like you is an arduous task — and you will probably never succeed because newsflash: not everyone is going to! You can also lose yourself trying to please those around you. For a still recovering people pleaser/perfectionist, this was a tough pill to swallow. But what I have come to realize is that “haters gonna hate” and it’s not a reflection on you. Bottom line: People have their own issues that make them hate people for different reasons and there are so many reasons why people hate, the list could go on and on. It’s not even worth thinking about!

Be kind to everyone and if people don’t accept you still, then it is their loss. I struggle with this because I am very sensitive by nature. There are people in this world who are “energy vampires” and I have learned through recovery that you are most definitely better off without them sucking your blood like the leaches they are anyway.

5. It’s OK to not be OK. In fact, it’s more than OK to say, “I am not OK today. I am not perfect and there is no point pretending to be. The smile on my face is as fake as Kylie Jenner’s admittedly-injection-filled-pout.”

Sadness is not a weakness; admitting you are feeling down and trying to make it better is actually brave. I think hiding it is actually the cowardly and easy thing to do. If you hold in all your sadness and emotion, that’s when you might turn to destructive ways of coping and numbing, like ED. It’s OK to not have an exact reason for why you are feeling “off.” With mental illness, you don’t need a reason.

I find on down days I talk to those closest to me instead of pushing them away. I tell them I am feeling off. Sometimes saying these feelings out loud is a way to admit to yourself what is going on and is also a reminder that you are not alone and people care about you. I then give myself time to write or sweat instead of avoiding those feelings and holding onto them.  Bottom line: No one is perfect and life gets better once you embrace that.

So here I am, five years later, typing away while my 3-month-old daughter is smiling, sleeping soundly in her sleep-sack-burrito contraption in her bassinet. My almost 2-year-old is in view through her monitor, little tushie up in the air, a sea of Wubbanub’s surrounding her. My husband is to my other side, watching “Stranger Things” on his iPad and I am writing while simultaneously breathing in a sigh of relief. With ED, I was so alone, so sad, so defeated, deeply hurting — now I have so much love in my life. I feel relief. I am so happy where I am right now — they are my strength and I am a big part of their strength. This life is where I always want to remain and I can only have it in recovery.

Five years recovery strong, here is to never looking back.

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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Unsplash photo via Els Fattah