I’m writing this post mostly to reassure others who are currently fighting to recover from an eating disorder, but also to remind myself to keep doing so. Sometimes the only way I manage to continue on is to remind myself that this physical discomfort and self-consciousness isn’t forever. This too shall pass.
Because that is the ultimate truth of recovery from a restrictive eating disorder: it isn’t an indefinite physical process, but it’s definitely an indefinite mental process. Every moment of every day I have to consciously battle back against my anorexia. If I don’t have my defenses up, eating disorder thoughts start to creep in. You’re fat. You’re ugly. You’re worthless. You name it, I’ve had it. And it’s not at all uncommon (in fact, it’s actually far more likely, due to the way in which the body recovers from all the damage you’ve caused yourself) for there to be a big disparity between where you are physically and where you are mentally in the recovery process. Your brain takes a long time to catch up. This is where the real danger lies in recovery. Someone might convince themselves that recovery is wrong, and end up starting to use behaviors again. It’s difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel when every second of your life is a fight to survive.
You can’t stop fighting, though. To give in and relapse is to start an endless process of going around and around in circles. Trust me, I’ve been there. When my eating disorder was at its worst, I was in and out of the hospital three times in around a month. I would make a little bit of progress, desperate to remove myself from the hopeless setting I was stuck in, but as soon as I was medically cleared to leave, I would let the negative thoughts creep back in and convince me that the only way to be happy was to let my eating disorder rule my life.
It’s been a while since I was last in the hospital; about four months now, actually. And in that time I’ve done a lot of research about what to expect in the recovery process. If you’re anything like me, you’re driven by the perfectionist in you and the knowledge to know what’s going to happen, when it’s going to happen, and how it’s going to happen. I wanted to make sure I was as well informed as possible about what recovery was going to do to me both physically and mentally.
Here’s another truth about recovery, though this one is far less pleasant: it isn’t easy. Your body is having to repair and undo all of the damage you’ve caused it. You’ve wrecked your metabolism, you’ve assaulted your mind, and you’ve physically wasted yourself away so that your organs and such are not performing as they ought to be. Essentially, you’ve broken the miraculous machine that is your body, and it needs to be fixed. This requires a lot of extremely difficult work.
To what does recovery ultimately come down? (had to use proper grammar there, sorry for the nerd moment)
Eating enough to restore and then eventually maintain your ideal healthy weight, and not using countermeasures such as exercising or purging to compensate.
In society today, it’s definitely seen as a positive attribute to be thin. We’ve termed what our country and to an extent, the world on the whole, is suffering “the obesity epidemic”, and there is a desire inherent in that to avoid becoming yet another face in the crowd. Do not mistake an eating disorder for a purely aesthetic thing, however. It goes so much deeper than that. That’s why despite the fact that there are really the two simple steps to recovery that I mentioned just above, it is the most challenging and trying thing you will ever attempt in your life. And it’s unfortunately all too likely that you will fail, numerous times. You’ll make mistakes. You’ll take two steps forward and one step back. But ultimately, it comes down to making sure that you keep progressing, not regressing.
Research has been done on the process of recovery, and it’s quite extensive. There are numerous studies that have demonstrated that it is possible, but that it will be an exceptionally uncomfortable, strenuous, and painful journey to undertake.
Now, I could super scientific and even more nerdy and cite specific studies and findings of individuals who have undergone the journey to recovery to help allay your fears. Guess what I’m gonna do? Exactly that.
According to Wikipedia (my favorite), the Minnesota Starvation Study provided concrete proof that when the human body is starved, it taxes an individual both physically and mentally. All the participants developed thoughts and behaviors that directly correlate to those seen in eating disorder patients today. While such a study would, in the present day, be considered thoroughly unethical, it serves a unique purpose in providing us insight into what might have otherwise been a total mystery.
The study further demonstrated that after the process of weight restoration is completed, and the subjects moved on to a period of weight maintenance, abnormal adipose tissue and distension distributions eventually normalized to pre-starvation levels. This is one of the most reassuring pieces of evidence to me.
Because guess what? Yes, bloating does happen. Yes, weight does primarily tend to initially distribute itself in the face and midsection, which are unfortunately common areas of discomfort and dysmorphia in individuals with eating disorders. This abnormal spread of weight can often give the illusion that the recoveree (I just made that word up, but I like it) is becoming “fat” or “overweight”, which seems to realize their worst fear. But guess what else? It does eventually change.
Two of my favorite Instagrammers (another made up word, oh well) that I follow are @BeautyBeyondBones and @amalielee. These two fabulous ladies continually demonstrate that not only is recovery possible, but it’s infinitely better than a life relegated to the bind an eating disorder puts you in. They’re not afraid to eat food and enjoy it. They realize that cellulite is a necessary sort of evil, and actually provides numerous benefits. They’re confident in their bodies and in themselves. They’re beacons of light to numerous men and women like myself (it really bugs me that eating disorders are so commonly considered just a “female” problem; this is one of the greatest obstacles in eradicating this awful affliction) who are currently in the recovery process.
Recovery has several stages. And much as it might be nice to just wake up one morning and boom, feel confident and secure and happy, that’s not how it’s designed to happen.
Weight restoration is the first phase. This is due to the immediate medical need for proper weight to be reached. Everyone’s body has a different weight set point. Though it would be wonderfully reassuring to say that this involves a BMI of exactly what is considered “healthy”, not everyone’s BMI is going to be this number. This is because we’re not robots; we’re not carbon copies of each other. Some people are going to have naturally lower BMIs than others. It’s just human nature. There is a study conducted at UCLA that in fact demonstrates just how useless of a marker BMI is for healthiness. Health is determined by so many other, much more important, factors.
Your body is an exceptionally smart machine. It wants to be healthy. It doesn’t want to be starved or deprived of necessary nutrients. It doesn’t want to be overexercised. It doesn’t want to be harmed and damaged. And when you engage in eating disorder behaviors, you start to undo the machine. You start to break it. Unfortunately, it’s not a simple fix.
After weight restoration, which for me, was very difficult, comes weight maintenance. Weight restoration involved eating a diet very high in calories, full of a number of exchanges that terrified the living daylights out of me. I already believed that I was massively overweight; how could these people who were telling me I needed to gain more weight possibly be right?
Very easily, as a matter of fact. These are medical and psychological professionals. Though it might seem like it at times, they are not out to torture you. They are there to help you become the person you were meant to be, and to rediscover the life you were meant to lead.
But weight restoration seems like a walk in the park compared to weight maintenance. It feels like the hardest thing in the world most of the time. Having to adhere to a meal plan without the continual support that I had in the environments that the hospital, inpatient, and even residential levels of care provided, is insanely challenging. All I want to do is give in to my urges to use behaviors. And sometimes, this has happened.
What is most important to remember, though, is that a mistake does not a relapse make. Mistakes are inevitable. If recovery from an eating disorder was as simple as 1, 2, 3 (or “just eating” or whatever, as so many woefully uneducated people seem to think)… well, we wouldn’t really have such a massive problem with eating disorders, would we? Any study, any recovered individual, will tell you that the recipe (hee hee, pun intended) for recovery is to just keep at it.
Because it is possible to recover. There are those who have done it. This is probably one of the other most reassuring things to me; it makes me feel less alone on my road to recovery. I have several fantastic supports: an amazing outpatient team dedicated to helping me stay the course and an incredible network of friends and family who are there to help me pick up the pieces whenever I need it. But I also have everyone who has kicked their eating disorder’s ass. We are all in this together. You are never alone.
Never forget that. And never forget how special you are. You deserve recovery.