12 Things Nobody Tells You About Anorexia Recovery
There are a lot of common misconceptions about eating disorders in the media. Just about anyone in the mental health field can tell you that. I purposefully did not watch the controversial “To The Bone” on Netflix for this reason. That movie perpetuated stereotypes that anorexia is the focal point of eating disorders and you have to be emaciated in order to have an eating disorder. There are a lot of issues with the movie, but that’s not what this post is about, as many others have covered the topic well (see here and here). This is just one example in the media among many, but misconceptions also come from everyday people and sometimes even mental health professionals themselves. This stems from many people being uneducated about eating disorders and also the fact that every person with an eating disorder has a different experience.
Here I want to tackle the things no one tells you about eating disorder recovery. Often there is such a focus on the eating disorder itself when talking about this illness online, in the media and in person, but what about recovery? As someone who is still in recovery over two years after being diagnosed, I find it frustrating that there is limited discussion on how to deal with recovery in the long-term. For this reason, I want to talk about experiences I have had in my recovery from anorexia that I had never anticipated when I started this journey. Hopefully it can help you if you don’t understand eating disorder recovery well and/or you yourself are in recovery.
Here are 12 things no one tells you about eating disorder recovery.
1. It takes years to recover.
I was shocked to find out over a year after I was diagnosed with anorexia that it takes years to fully recover from an eating disorder. Everyone is different and recovery time can vary based on how long you have had an eating disorder, your support system and resources and motivation for recovery. I just thought it would take a couple months working with a therapist and nutritionist and then boom, done! I would be all better. That is not the case and that’s where it can be hard for people to capture and understand the longevity an eating disorder has in people’s lives.
2. You aren’t fully recovered once you gain weight.
Honestly, in my experience the actual gaining of weight was one of the easiest parts of recovery — given your body is desperate to gain weight. The harder part of this is how your mind thinks about that weight gain (i.e. it wants nothing to do with it and will work hard to fight you). I have been at a healthy weight for over a year now, but I still have an eating disorder. That’s where it can get tricky because many people do not understand eating disorders can occur at any weight. It is all about how the mind thinks about food, which can be disordered no matter what your weight is. Thus, just being at a healthy weight or having gained weight back does not mean someone is recovered.
3. It is hard to go back to “normal.”
Normal is somewhat subjective and most people with eating disorders have been living with their illness for a decent amount of time. This means it can be hard to remember what having a normal relationship with food was like. The disordered ways become your new normal, meaning it can be hard to challenge the disordered thoughts and ways. Instead of trying to get back to your previous normal, striving for a new normal that is healthy is probably best.
4. Your problems don’t go away, you get better at dealing with them.
Many people in my life struggle to understand the daily thoughts I still have because of my eating disorder. I still have thoughts telling me I should skip meals, that I need to restrict because I am too big, that I am lazy because I don’t exercise, etc. The difference between me now and a couple years ago is I am better at fighting these thoughts and not acting on them. It is just hard because I am still constantly fighting my mind, which is a silent battle that drains energy and goes unacknowledged most of the time. This goes back to points one and two in that recovery continues long after weight gain and for many years because we still have to keep fighting the mental battle against our eating disorder.
5. You will have nostalgia.
No one told me I would have nostalgia for the supposedly “good” times with ED. This is especially true with reference to my body. I cannot tell you how many times ED has reminded me how thin and fit I was. It is easy to glorify things in the past because we want to remember the good times more than the bad. This is particularly true with respect to eating disorders because ED will constantly remind you of the supposedly good things you had when you gave into your disordered thoughts. I have to remind myself how miserable I was when ED controlled my life. Falling victim to nostalgia may just be part of the recovery process and learning to acknowledge you have lost some things while gaining recovery is important to come to terms with.
6. You can never go back to who you were before (and shouldn’t want to).
When I first started recovery, I was motivated to work hard because I wanted to get my normal life back, essentially get back to who I was pre-eating disorder. It took me time to realize the impact having mental health troubles would have on my life. Now it has been years since I have been without mental illness, not since I was a sophomore in high school, and I could never be the same person I was then. Having a mental illness (or two in my case because of depression) makes you grow up fast as a teen because of the serious life issues you face daily. I have been through so much in a few years and could never be who I was before my eating disorder. But I often remind myself I also wouldn’t want to be that girl because she would go on to develop an eating disorder. I cannot be who I was pre-ED because then all the years I have put into understanding myself in therapy would be erased as would the person I have become through my struggles against my illnesses.
7. Extreme hunger can happen at any point in recovery.
Those in the eating disorder field will most likely be familiar with the term “extreme hunger,” but for those who aren’t, it is basically when you eat large amounts of food in recovery because you have an unsatisfiable hunger. This can be scary for those of us with an eating disorder because we feel like we are binge eating or something, but in reality, it is that our body is malnourished so it craves much more than what the average person needs. This seems like something that would only happen at the start of the recovery process, particularly for those with restrictive eating disorder, as the body is trying to gain vast amounts of weight back after starvation. However, this can still happen to me now, even though I haven’t been severely underweight in over a year. I am no expert, but based on what I have learned, this has to do with our body rebuilding itself. I also find extreme hunger can happen after I falter on recovery some and restrict. My body doesn’t like that and will combat it by feeling incessantly hungry. This is an important signal to listen to because your body is telling you that it needs more food, even if you may be at a healthy weight.
8. Label identification can be long-term.
An important concept in sociology is labeling theory, the idea that labels are created by society and attributed to people to describe them and that these labels can influence behavior. I have found this to be very applicable to eating disorder recovery. It is partly a self-fulfilling prophecy, partly how the mental health industry functions, but I cannot escape the label of “anorexia” or “eating disordered.” Even if I am not actively anorexic right now, I cannot dissociate myself from this term, nor would I necessarily want to. Because I have been labeled with that term based on its social construction, it has become part of my identity. This in some ways detracts from recovery because we feel like our eating disorders define us and who we are. I had no idea when I started recovery how hard it would be to erase the label of “anorexic” from my identity both internally and externally.
9. The fear that others would not think I am sick enough.
Many people experience not feeling “sick enough” before recovery even starts, but I have found it to be more pervasive after gaining weight back. This ties into having the label of anorexia still tagged on me as I discussed above, but no longer “looking” anorexic. When I meet a new therapist or share with a friend that I have had an eating disorder, I cannot help but assume they are thinking I don’t look anorexic. My ED spins this in a negative way trying to convince me I need to lose weight to convince others I have a problem. Rationally, I know it is good that I no longer look anorexic, but ED instills a fear in me that others will judge me for not fitting the emaciated stereotype they know.
10. Recovery does not always equal happiness.
Initially in recovery I found a lot of motivation in wanting to be happy again. When my body was undernourished, cold and starving, I was often miserable and had such distorted body thoughts. That was why I was first motivated for recovery: to become a happy person again, as so many recovery anecdotes told me I would be. Yet, that has not been how things played out. Since being in recovery, I have had depression for over a year, which really put a damper on life. Having depression makes my motivation so much less, which certainly applies to ED recovery. “If I am going to be depressed either way,” depression says, “why bother with eating? Then at least you can be thin,” ED tells me. It can be hard to fight this way of thinking because happiness has to come from other sources than just recovery itself, contrary to what many mental health advocates preach. For me, finding purpose and identity outside of my mental health issues has been important.
11. Eating disorders mold to new circumstances.
The ED rules I had when I was 16 have similarities to now, but are by no means the same. At the time, I didn’t realize how much eating disorders could mold to fit the new circumstances I would find myself in. As your life changes, ED changes with you. I have lived in three different places and traveled plenty while in recovery and every place comes with its own challenges that ED molds to cope with. The fact that ED can change contributes to how hard it is to recover from an eating disorder. Many of the rules that once controlled my life I no longer fight incessantly, but these rules have been replaced by other ones. Eating disorders are a constant, dynamic mental illness that need to be continuously fought in the long-term.
12. Fearing life without ED.
And last, but by no means least, is the fear that faces us when we think about our life without ED. Many people do not realize that eating disorders are about so much more than food — they are a coping mechanism for dealing with life. So how does one move on from that? That may just be the hardest part of recovery. When one recovers, there is a void left from where the eating disorder was. What will go in its place? That is what is so hard about completely letting ED go and reaching full recovery. How do I live my life without my eating disorder?
If you made it to the end of this, thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts. These are lessons that have been years in the making. I hope this wisdom has instilled in you a new perspective on eating disorder recovery. For those of you out there still fighting your ED daily, know I am right there with you. Keep doing the hard work, even if it is not always what you might have expected.
Follow this journey on Daring Deeply.
Getty Images photo via AnkDesign