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What I’ve Learned in Eating Disorder Recovery and Wish People Understood

It has been almost three years since I’ve last been in an eating disorder treatment program, after a few years of being in and out of various levels of treatment. I did not have access to help until I was in my mid-30s, and although I wish it had come sooner I am unbelievably grateful that eventually, I was able to receive appropriate support. Help should be available to everyone whenever there is need, but many people go without support their whole life.

I consider myself to be in solid eating disorder recovery but I hesitate to use the word “recovered” because I know there is more work to do. There are people who might see me as recovered, perhaps not understanding all the complexities of an eating disorder or maybe noticing how different things are now compared to when I was in the midst of it, but I know I can and want to do more so I will keep pushing through any remnants of it as little bits of it become unearthed in the healing work I’m doing now.

I now recognize that the root of my struggles with an eating disorder was trauma. Going through refeeding, learning to eat, sitting with intense physical and emotional pain and setting aside behaviors was only the beginning. The biggest change came when I was finally seen and understood, first by a therapist in an eating disorder program and then by a somatic experiencing practitioner and trauma therapist who eventually became my primary therapist. She saw the dissociated parts of me that others hadn’t seen or chose to ignore, and she met and welcomed them. The containment, stability and attunement found in this therapeutic relationship was transformative. And now here I am, deep into a long and often excruciating process of healing trauma but this work is too important not to do. Not only that but I feel it’s my responsibility to do this work, particularly because I have the support to do so. For me, trauma work — healing — is an opportunity I can’t afford to miss.

As someone who is looking out at the world from a solid place in eating disorder recovery, reflecting on years spent suffering at the hands of others and though my own maladaptive behaviors, behaviors which both saved me and almost killed me, there is so much I notice and feel on a daily basis.

People often have an internal reaction, or even an outward one, when they see someone or a photo of someone who is emaciated. I literally had people point at me and stare with open expressions of horror one Christmas when I was out for a walk. I’ve had people yell at me and shame me for struggling. I had people compare me with other people they knew who were doing “better” or “worse” than I was. I even had someone once body check me, pretending to comfort me but instead obviously feeling up and down my arm as if assessing my level of sickness. Experiencing an emotional reaction at witnessing the suffering of someone with a terrible illness is valid, and it’s “normal” for people close to the person struggling to feel frustrated but adding to someone’s suffering is not OK. But please understand that eating disorders aren’t always visible. There were many times when I was very sick but because I didn’t look how I did at my lowest weight people assumed I was fine. In fact, emaciation is rare for most people struggling with an eating disorder.

You can be any weight and still have an eating disorder. Eating disorders do not discriminate. They come in all genders, ages, races, cultures, body shapes and sizes, socioeconomic levels and more. In our diet-obsessed society where the pursuit of a lower weight body has become the norm, eating disorder behavior can easily fly under the radar as people praise one another for harmful exercise and dietary patterns that they claim as examples of health, wellness and self-care. Or someone’s struggles fail to get noticed because they do not meet societal expectations of what an eating disorder looks like which, from the media to the health care industry, that still is the young, white, cisgender, able-bodied woman or adolescent girl. Most of the acclaimed texts on eating disorders do not or barely touch on important aspects such as gender, socio-economic status, ethnicity, race, identity, disability or trauma. 

Here’s what I wish people understood and could take in:

You don’t need to do anything to your body, other than listen to it, respect it, be gentle with it and tend to it. You don’t need to watch it, fight it, force it, punish it, shrink it.

Counting macros, weighing yourself, measuring yourself (whether with a measuring tape or a pair of jeans), body checking, calculating calories, logging exercise and other behaviors will not bring you peace.

Policing your body should not be your life’s work, nor should you ever police someone else’s body.

You don’t need to justify eating ever.

Eating with consistency helps regulate your nervous system and your emotions.

Denying yourself nourishment when you’re hungry and depriving yourself of foods you feel like eating will undermine your peace of mind.

Consuming the bare minimum to keep yourself alive is not enough. Eating is also about connecting to yourself and others, feeling emotions and self-soothing.

Restrictive eating restricts your creativity and your ability to engage.

You don’t need to justify taking a break.

Weight gain isn’t something to be condemned, and weight loss isn’t something to constantly chase.

Flat stomachs are not the “norm” — in fact, it’s impossible for most people to achieve without severely doing harm to their bodies. Healthy organs take up space. Digestion is a complex process. Various health conditions, medical treatments and medications cause bloating and inflammation.

Cellulite is normal. Bodies expand and contract.

Your body is a living organism that changes shape throughout a day, a month, a year, a lifetime.

When you openly criticize your body, condemn it for daring to do its job, and continue to try to bend it to your will, you are doing harm. You aren’t just harming yourself, you are hurting others in the process.

Complimenting someone else’s body can cause harm. You don’t know what thoughts they might be having about their own body and how your words could potentially fan the flames of disordered behaviors. Anyone overhearing could also suffer from the comments, stirring up comparisons and feelings that their body isn’t good enough. There are so many things to notice and compliment one another about; let’s stop focusing on one another’s bodies, please.

Your negative food talk hurts you and it hurts others. There is no “right” way to eat. Foods are not good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. Yes, all foods have different nutritional properties and the foods we consume impact our overall health, but putting foods into categories, assigning judgment to certain foods and equating food choices with morality is destructive.

Preoccupation with food, weight and body eats away at your mind, your relationships and your life.

Your food choices do not make you any more or less worthy of love, respect, connection, goodness or anything else. Do not give food that power.

Consider your relationship with exercise. How would you feel if you went a week, two weeks or a month without it?  Does your exercise dictate your food intake? Do you exercise to avoid emotions or conflict?

Your exercise habits do not make you more or less deserving of nourishment, rest, nurturing or acceptance.

Practice discernment around the wellness industry and fitness communities and recognize the limitations and pitfalls within the body positivity movement. Interrogate the messages being shared, what is omitted, who is harmed?

Be aware of how your thoughts and comments about exercise can be tinged with ableism.

Realize how chaos around food and control over your body causes chaos in your communications and interactions with others.

Practice non-judgment, avoid comparison and instead embrace compassion for self and others.

No one needs to hear about how many calories you consumed, nor how much you exercised, except your therapist, dietician and/or doctor.

Fat is not a feeling. We all have fat on us. Stop using the word fat as an insult.

Eating disorders are not really about food, they are a symptom of something much deeper. Food is weaponized and the body becomes the target, but underneath those behaviors might be trauma, depression, anxiety, disorganized attachment, interpersonal conflict, physical health complications, substance abuse issues, various mental health diagnoses and more.

The more you work to heal your relationship with food and your body, and what underlies that, the less likely you are to cause harm.

And here I am on the eve of election night, casually eating Cool Ranch Doritos while I write this. In the past, the Cool Ranch Doritos would have caused me extreme distress, but tonight they are just chips and any stress I feel is coming from wondering how the election will go. The Doritos have taken their proper place in my life. I make a mental note to myself that it has been 20+ years since I ate them and move on with my evening. I’ve learned that food can be many things, critical fuel of course but also a connection with others, medicine, comfort, self-expression and more. 

In the past year, although eating a diverse array of foods, not fixating on my body and in general doing really well, I realized that there are foods that I have been unconsciously avoiding, foods I associate with growing up, family, eating disorder behavior or particularly painful moments in my life. Many people seek comfort as adults in foods from childhood or family recipes but in recovering from anorexia nervosa, I had been creating a whole new way of eating for myself, unconsciously selecting different foods and brands not from my past. But now moving deeper into recovery, I’m reclaiming those foods I’ve been unconsciously avoiding, having new experiences and memories with them, and ultimately creating new neural pathways in my brain.

2020 has been a rough year, it’s time to let your body be. Be gentle with yourself and others. Live authentically. Discover new possibilities and purpose. It’s never too late to start healing.

Getty Images illustration via Natty Blissful