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What Eating Disorder Recovery Actually Looks Like

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First, let me set one thing straight: I did not choose anorexia. Anorexia chose me. I didn’t know what an eating disorder was until I had one. I believe that in my case, anorexia was a manifestation of screwed-up chemicals in my brain, triggering events that may have happened in my past and/or genetics.

Anorexia is a living hell — of a sort. Even when I learned what anorexia was after receiving the diagnosis, I never actively chose to have this eating disorder. At the time, however, I was so wrapped up in my symptoms and depression, I wasn’t exactly trying to get better, either. I hid food, making my parents believe I was eating it. I over-exercised to the point where I hated it but had to keep moving to feel OK.

Anorexia makes having a social life difficult. Many holidays or events revolve around appetizers, meals or desserts. It’s extremely awkward to be the person who refuses the food that’s being offered. Sometimes I would tote along my own “safe” food (I remember eating a pita sandwich one Christmas — this embarrasses me now, but I also know it would be so easy to slip back into the mindset of only being able to eat my “safe” foods). Or I would pretend to eat the small portions on my plate, when all I was really doing was moving my corn and mashed potatoes around in circles on the fine china.

My memory can be quite selective sometimes; it’s easy for me to block complete months or years out of my recollection. But I can’t let myself forget. Not completely. Not if I want to keep progressing.

I am in recovery from anorexia. This is a serious mental illness that takes lives. It looks like dieting taken to the extreme, and an addiction to exercise often accompanies the strict food “rules” and suicidal behaviors.

But what does recovery look like? It looks different for everyone, though paths may often converge. What works for me may or may not work for the next person.

For me, recovery has been a weird experience. I now strive for health and wellbeing whereas before, my goal was to slowly fade away. Changing my thoughts and actions has been, and still is, a daily struggle. I often find myself wondering if I will ever fully recover.

Recovery is feeling really great one moment and feeling like a complete mess the next. I prefer to keep my coping mechanisms hush-hush, but the truth is, it’s very easy to slip back into an undeserving and hateful mindset. It’s easy for me to feel horrible and depressed and turn to momentary “band-aid” approaches to quell the pain.

Recovery isn’t always pretty. Countless times I have felt very uncomfortable or been a sobbing mess because things aren’t going right. Sometimes I shut down and my walls go up. In the long run, I know I’m hurting myself and those who love me, but my mind feels like a hamster wheel over a lake of fire, constantly going, going, going… It feels more dangerous to hop off than it does to just keep going.

Some days recovery feels easy. I feel good in my body and I don’t obsessively think about calories or how big my thighs might be getting. These days are wonderful and carefree, and they make coping with the hard times feel a little bit easier. I know I’m always going to have days that aren’t so great, days when I struggle to feed myself and use my mindfulness in a positive way. What matters is getting through these rough patches and not succumbing to them.

Recovery has meant growing out of lots of my clothes, and having frustrating moments tugging a pair of jeans on only to find I can’t button them anymore. This can be both a triggering and a healing experience. On the one hand, it reminds me of the way my weight has changed, but on the other, it helps me come to terms with the fact I don’t have to be a certain size to be happy (though the media might have us believe otherwise).

Recovery is knowing your limits. There were times when people did not listen to me because of my mental illness, believing the words coming out of my mouth were simply the words of the eating disorder. A doctor tried to force me into an eating disorder unit at a nearby hospital that I have not heard positive things about. I had to fight tooth and nail. To this day, I still feel traumatized by this occurrence and I feel confident in my decision to refuse inpatient treatment at that particular time and location. I am now in a much better place mentally, and I’m proud of the hard work my family, my treatment team and I have done. I’ve even give some thought to residential treatment, and if I don’t feel capable of reaching full recovery through outpatient treatment, I would seriously consider an out-of-state institution — one that I’ve heard positive things about. I don’t mean to recommend either inpatient or outpatient treatment for others — it’s a decision everyone has to make on their own, though it’s not one that should be made lightly. And I don’t believe a doctor who doesn’t even know me should try to force me into a particular kind of treatment.

Recovery is a process. One that takes commitment and support. Once I began to show I was serious about recovery, my family stepped into place beside me and helped me make positive decisions. It was still up to me to put in the hard work, but having a support hub made things so much easier.

Recovery is not perfect, and I don’t expect it to be. I often choose foods that aren’t in my best interest, and I have discovered a weak spot for ice cream and other sweets. I accept these things as part of the learning process, and I move on. I’ve also realized some things must come before others in life, and I can’t rush the recovery process. It is what it is.

Recovery is naps, good food, buffets and vacations. It’s taking time for myself, and making time for others. It’s hugs and kisses and letting others in. It’s facing fears and past wrongs, forgiving and holding on. It’s being lazy and happy, sitting in fierce depression and realizing I’ll be OK. It’s accepting help and love. I’ve found it’s all about the love. Recovery is loving yourself enough to heal for you. It’s placing value on yourself because you are worth the effort. And so am I.

Originally published: July 15, 2016
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