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What Does Recovery From an Eating Disorder Really Mean?

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It took me a long time to be able to claim the words, “I am a recovered anorexic.” Much longer than it took the world to see me that way,

There are so many measures of recovery. The medical world will look to tangible physical improvements, primarily weight gain. And yes, part of recovery means reaching a healthy weight and struggling with the devastating physical symptoms of anorexia.

But I would argue that recovery is far more than numbers on a scale. It is quite possible to be a healthy weight but still have food rule your life, haunt your dreams, poison your relationships and destroy your sense of self.

I was healthy physically a long time before I was at peace with my illness. I had been judged by my weight for so long that even when the worst aspects of my anorexia had diminished, my shame remained.

Putting on weight wasn’t enough; I wanted so much to be the person I was before I got sick. It was only then, I believed, I could see myself as “better.”

The reality is, I can never again be the carefree young girl I was before I got sick. I can never be the person I was before the ravages of my disease, my brutal medical treatment, the loss of important relationships or the stigma of mental illness.

I hope it is these very things that have made an empathetic person who doesn’t judge anyone, and yet the truth was for many years I felt diminished in a way that made me believe I would never reclaim my essence.

At times I thought I should view my anorexia like other addictions, that it would always be present and I should just learn to manage it on a daily basis. That type of personal responsibility is certainly part of recovery, but somehow it didn’t seem enough. I wanted to be “cured.”

I wished for a miracle cure – to wake up one day and have the burden of my struggle gone. It didn’t happen. But guess what? That didn’t mean I didn’t recover.

It is true I will never have the same relationship with food or with my body that I once had. Even so, I fought against the notion that managing my illness one meal at a time was the best I could hope for.

What I have learned is recovery takes as long as it takes. For a lucky few, that is a quick process. For me it was a long one. There were times – years in fact – when I was so closed off physically, emotionally and socially that it seemed like I was making no progress. But in retrospect I can see I was working toward reclaiming my life even when it appeared I was standing still.

Looking back I can see my recovery gained momentum at a certain indefinable point, reinforced by the pleasures of life that at last I was experiencing. I began to believe I deserved the things my illness had robbed me of.

My recovery is not perfect. I have moments when I find myself in a hard situation, and momentarily it throws me. At these times it is hard not to judge myself.

But I no longer cower. Food doesn’t dictate what I do or how I do it. The fact that I once had anorexia does not define who I am or what I have to offer the world. For me, that is recovery.

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 by Lucid Surf

Originally published: November 20, 2016
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