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Choosing Gratitude in Eating Disorder Recovery

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I was discharged from a round of inpatient treatment for my eating disorder this past week. The month I spent in the hospital was incredibly difficult. I was there over both Christmas and New Years, both of which felt very sad and lonely. I especially struggled with the concept of starting out the New Year locked within the walls of a behavioral health unit. I felt discouraged and frustrated by my situation, how my eating disorder had once again drawn me so far from what I wanted. I was separated from my friends, my family, my work, my life – stuck in what felt like an almost alternate reality in which my life revolving around groups and sessions, meals and snacks, surrounded by peers who cried over smoothies and frantically paced the hallways.

At the inpatient facility where I was treated, we had a “wrap up” group every evening after dinner, during which we were asked to share both we were grateful for that day and what we appreciated ourselves for. Initially, I really struggled with these questions. It felt hard, if not impossible, to find things to be grateful for in such difficult circumstances. And I didn’t feel able to appreciate myself given that my own struggles were what had landed me in the hospital to begin with. As the days passed, however, I began to start searching for even the smallest things I could extend gratitude towards, even on the toughest days. I started listing them in my journal, and while it sounds so simple, the decision to look for and acknowledge where I could be grateful became an instrumental tool in my recovery.

I’ve found that my eating disorder has programmed my brain to focus on what’s wrong – be it my food or my body or life stressors that feel out of my control. It is so easy for me to get caught up in these things, to get stuck in what isn’t working and to simultaneously completely skip over what’s going right, to miss the things that are working out. Beginning to shift this has been a big part of my recovery process, and it’s something I continue to work at every day. I am not grateful for my struggle as a whole. I wouldn’t wish an eating disorder on my very worst enemy. I generally cringe whenever I hear someone say that “everything happens for a reason,” because sometimes things are just incredibly painful and I don’t believe that there is always a greater reason or purpose behind it.

There are, however, aspects of my experience for which I am truly grateful. In going through treatment, my eating disorder forced me to examine and take inventory of what I truly value in my life. Becoming aware of these things in a way that I otherwise may not ever have has helped to guide me in establishing who I want to be and what I really want my life to be about. I see this as such a gift and one that I will always be grateful for.

Treatment also connected me with some of the strongest and most inspiring people I have ever met, some of whom I now consider as my best and closest friends. Our shared struggles and almost forced vulnerability amidst those struggles allowed for such a deep and seemingly instant level of connection — something my eating disorder had kept me from in many other relationships. These men and women saw the most hidden and shameful aspects of my life that I had worked so hard to hide from the rest of the world and they accepted me regardless. They understood my pain in a way that others couldn’t. I will be forever grateful for having crossed paths with such wonderful people, and for some of the lasting friendships that developed as a result.

I am also grateful for the way in which my struggle has changed and shaped me as a person. I believe I am stronger for having faced and endured all that I have. I have survived much that neither myself or many others expected me to, and I can hold onto that whenever life throws challenging or difficult situations my way. Facing my own pain has also given me a deeper ability to offer compassion and empathy to those around me. And now that I am in recovery and no longer completely consumed by my struggle, I am able to really show up for other people in a way that I previously was unable to. For me, this ability is one of the things that makes the difficult process of recovery most worthwhile.

My journey is far from over and I continue to face challenges and struggles every day, and know I likely will for some time, but I am still grateful. I am grateful for my resilience, grateful I am still here and fighting, grateful for the people who believed in me and pushed me to keep going when I didn’t feel able to, grateful for the life-saving help I received in treatment, grateful that I now have a future to look forward to. And I am grateful that I learned to choose gratitude, and for the ways in which that has strengthened me and my 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 via ipopba

Originally published: February 21, 2017
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