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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Truths of Eating Disorder Recovery

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It is difficult to fathom how difficult recovery is. It is difficult to understand why someone would choose to engage in such self-destructive behaviors instead of fighting for wellness. To those who don’t hear the siren call, it is difficult to understand why someone would listen and obey. And worst of all, it is difficult to break the subconscious belief that recovery is straightforward. I’d like to believe recovery is a single-track trail. I’d like to believe recovery is something tangible, that there is an “aha” moment when you are triumphant and live happily ever after. But that’s not true.

Recovery isn’t the consistent, upward journey that it seems. It is very rarely clear-cut. Recovery is a messy path that has sharp turns and sudden drops. Even if you recover from one type of eating disorder without sliding into another type, you may still deal with disordered thoughts for a long time. Sometimes, it feels like you haven’t recovered at all.

It feels like you’re back at square one. You’re bombarded by awful, insidious, disordered thoughts. It feels like you failed over and over, when you tried your very best to not starve yourself, binge, or purge. Recovery is staring in terror at a “forbidden” food, deciding to take a bite of it anyway, and then feeling like you want to throw up or restrict. Recovery is thinking you’re finally on the right path by keeping a journal of what you’re eating, only for the journal to spiral into obsession. Recovery is crying bitterly into your pillow at night because you hurt your loved ones yet again with your behavior. Sometimes, recovery is feeling like you want out — you don’t want to struggle anymore and you just want your life to end — but deciding at the last minute to stay anyway. Recovery is ugly.

At the same time, recovery is being able to enjoy a holiday dinner without alarm bells clamoring in the back of your head. Being able to drop your routine without having a panic attack because you’re on vacation or you’re just not feeling great. Recovery is being able to go out with friends with bright eyes and flushed cheeks. Recovery is being OK with not exercising religiously every single day — not feeling like you’re a million bucks or a complete waste of space, but OK. It’s discovering your old clothes don’t fit anymore and deciding to throw those clothes out because you don’t want to keep punishing yourself. It’s finally crawling out from under the bell jar of your thoughts. It’s taking a deep breath outside after, to quote Sylvia Plath, “stewing in your own sour air.” Recovery is beautiful and exhilarating.

Yes, recovery is full of contradictions. There are times when you think you’re free and you see your life lined up neatly in front of you, waiting for you to take hold. There are times when you relapse and you don’t know what’s up or down anymore. And the eating disorder will try to drag you down at every free moment during recovery. You kick and scream and cry, and you’re not sure why. Is it because you want to break free of your eating disorder? Or is it because life is too difficult without that grotesque, lurid dreamland, in which nothing matters except for food and eating and exercising?

It is all the more important that during those difficult moments, you remember what the good times feel like. You remember what it was like to eat a cookie when you were 5 and not think anything of it. You remember what it was like to be preoccupied with school and friends and family, instead of calories and exercise and macros. You remember what it was like to live. And you don’t ever let yourself forget that there is a life outside your eating disorder.

This is the truth about recovery: it is tough as all hell, but you have to keep fighting for the person you were before your eating disorder, for the person you are now, and the person you will become.

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.

Originally published: December 19, 2016
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