How to Recover From an Eating Disorder, Part 3
From where I sit, years into my recovery, I remain astonished at the shifty nature of my eating disorder. It was anorexia. It was bulimia. It was compulsive exercise. It was obsessively weighing and measuring my food and body, chewing and spitting, refusing certain things unless I’d done “enough” activity, getting on an elliptical at midnight if I had made what my ED considered a poor food decision. It didn’t go away in the fleeting moments when I felt determined to squash it. It just changed form.
The good news is that just like my ED, my recovery shifts, grows, and blossoms with time spent in it, too. It pleases me to note that every year during this week, I sit down to write a list of ways to recover, and every year I have something new to say.
Here are my tips for recovery this year:
Recognize that there is no such thing as “cured”. Once you’ve had an eating disorder, you can always have one again. Chances are, you cultivated some food and exercise freakiness because it made you feel like you could handle the shit that felt un-handle-able. You used it to control or to rebel or to change your body or to please someone who you felt needed you to change. You cultivated your eating disorder because the world we live in is fat phobic and cruel. Maybe it was something you learned from a parent or a trusted friend, or maybe it was a survival mechanism when you didn’t know how else to keep on living. Maybe your eating disorder provided you with some semblance of safety.
No one gets an eating disorder because they feel awesome in their skin or in this world. Unfortunately this means that when shit gets wacky for those in recovery, one of the first thoughts we might have-perhaps forever- is that maybe THIS EXACT MOMENT when things are very much NOT GOOD is the perfect time to relapse to old behaviors. “Just one more time” we might think. “What could it hurt?”
The great thing about knowing that a cure for disordered eating and body image doesn’t exist, is that we can be extra careful with ourselves, and treat ourselves with kid gloves when the going gets tough. For me, I know when I am anxious or depressed, it is not a great idea to read food blogs, research diets, or go on a long and winding solo run. I don’t believe that those are appropriate tools to calm myself, despite the fact that for some people- NON disordered people- they might be great. I am careful not to trigger my ED, and to acknowledge when the thoughts come up.
Eat regularly. When you up your activity, up your food to meet your output. For so long, I had shame about the amount of food that I needed to eat to keep my body running. If I got hungry at a time I designated a non meal time, I would sit in hunger-anger and white knuckle my way through the rumble of my stomach. During those hours I vacillated between hating myself and obsessing about snacks. Nothing got done in the hours that I tried to ignore my hunger, and ultimately it wasted my time and my energy. I am fucking busy! Now when I’m hungry, I eat. My days are a lot more pleasurable when I regularly meet my own needs.
When negative thoughts about food or body pop up, have a plan of how to handle them. I find that one of two things works best for me. When a shitty thought pops into my brain I either A) try to figure out the root by writing about it, talking about it with my therapist, or texting someone who gets it or B) I think “DON’T TALK THAT WAY ABOUT MY FRIEND” to myself, and move the fuck on. If I don’t have time to uncover roots, I actively choose to not marinate in negativity.
Challenge yourself to relinquish control. I need a lot to keep sane. I need to do active shit, like meditate, write lists of things I appreciate, regularly eat food, and exercise moderately. All of this comes relatively easily at this point, but the big challenges are the things that your average person might find pleasurable. I challenge myself to take more rest days from exercise. I challenge myself to take vacations without micromanaging or packing my meals. I challenge myself to eat a vegan donut now and again, because I like them and I think pleasure can and should be an important part of eating. I challenge myself to listen more instead of calculating calories in my head when I meet friends for lunch. I challenge myself to sit still, for no reason at all.
Basically, I challenge myself to relinquish control. I never feel like doing it, and I do it on a regular basis anyway. It is a cornerstone of my recovery.
Realize that even when you’re letting go of control, you are still the one in charge. Unfortunately, a lot of people try to recover from eating disorders and they don’t succeed (either initially or at all). I truly believe that people don’t generally recover until they realize that they are the bosses of their own lives. You can choose to push yourself. You can choose to do the work to try to think more positively about your choices. You can choose to rewrite the story you’ve had going down in your brain.
To quote an email I recently sent to a client… “There is no reason for me to have accepted that I needed to hate my body and there is no reason that you do either. I really think you are in charge of your reality and if someone is being a dick to you (yourself included) it is within your right to put your foot down and say no. You don’t get to say these mean things to yourself that keep you stuck. You don’t get to have a dialogue with yourself that says you’re unmotivated, lazy, flawed, powerless, bad, etc.”
Just five short years ago, I wanted to recover but I felt like I couldn’t. The eating disorder was too loud, too persistent. It felt like an intrinsic part of my personality, and I didn’t know how to just let it go. It wasn’t until I asserted that I was the boss of what goes down with me and my life and my food and my fitness that I got well. It was a LONG process of recovery, but I decided that I was going to be better no matter what (even if I felt out of control, even if it was uncomfortable, even if I gained weight), and eventually- through a whole lot of not giving up- I did.
I chose not to settle for my eating disorder. I am certain that you can totally do the same.
(Image drawn by the ever-talented Jim Kettner, and is from my upcoming memoir, due out from New Harbinger Publications in Summer 2017. How to recover from an Eating Disorder Part 1 and 2 can be found here and here.)