For me, this is bar none the worst part of recovery. To be quite frank with you, I enjoy cooking, preparing meals, and discovering new tastes. I always have. I’ve never had an issue with food, only with the eating part of it all.
Even when I was in the hospital and my food came all wrapped up under a layer of plastic with the nutrition facts labels covered up, I didn’t mind looking at it and marveling at all the ingredients that must have gone into creating it. But it was pure torture to pick up my fork or my spoon and choke it down.
Now that I’m not as sick, and my brain and body have both started to gain some of their strength back, it’s a little easier. I can usually get through meals by robotically eating; essentially, I turn off my brain and think about nothing else besides picking up pieces of food with utensils, putting them into my mouth, chewing, and swallowing. If I allow my mind to wander to things like calories or exercising, it becomes damn near impossible to complete anything. I hope to eventually attain the ability to enjoy food again, but for now, this is how it has to be. To anyone struggling with eating disorder recovery, I highly recommend you try this. It isn’t easy, not by far. I had to repeat the process time and time again until it became almost a habit. I’m so used to a ritual of a meal plan and eating at structured times during the day that it would almost feel backwards not to put something together and sit down to eat it. Don’t get me wrong, eating still feels wrong. I still feel disgusting and gross afterwards. I usually end up promising myself that I’ll go back to my old ways of restricting and compulsively overexercising because I feel so awful. Then I attempt to use a coping skill or a means to distract myself so that my thoughts go elsewhere besides food.
But there’s something that makes this really, really hard. And its name is bloating.
What exactly is bloating? Well, we can look up the dictionary definition just for fun:
make or become swollen with fluid or gas.
Okay, so here’s where it gets a little gross. Yes, part of recovery involves basically emulating a balloon filled with air, except you’re filled with gas. And to put it in the most delicate way possible, you often end up feeling like a balloon someone has poked a hole in.
Water retention is also fairly common in those recovering from a restrictive eating disorder. A lot of sufferers end up with edema, which is essentially a noticeable swelling due to the body holding on to excess water.
So why exactly does the body of a recoveree become so distended and awful? After all, normal people eat things and don’t immediately swell up like they’ve been inflated.
Well, here’s the thing that makes you different: you’re recovering from an eating disorder. And you’ve disrupted the function of your body so badly that it doesn’t trust you to take care of it yet. So instead of digesting food and distributing its energy as needed properly, your body holds onto every little scrap of anything you put into it, be it solid or fluid. True, there is some actual weight gain that takes place. Unfortunately, a lot of this is in the form of adipose tissue in the abdominal region, which seems to confirm a recoveree’s worst fears. Oh no, I’m getting fat. I’m eating too much.
No. You’re not. You’re eating enough to nourish your body properly. You’ve wrecked your metabolism and destroyed the function of your organs. Your body needs all the extra calories to undo all the harm you’ve caused it.
But the irritating part of all this is that said recovery and repair comes with an amount of bloating that can be extreme and oftentimes even physically painful. You can do things like take over-the-counter meds to help lessen these symptoms, but most of the time, it’s just a game of war between your rational mind and your eating disorder mind.
You need to eat, your rational mind insists.
No you don’t, your eating disorder counters. Look, you’re gaining so much weight.
True, I’ve gained a little weight. But I had to because I was dying. Most of this isn’t real.
No, it’s very real.
Nope. Not even close. Your body is a very smart system, even under extreme duress. When you first begin the process of recovering, the bloating and water retention are at their worst. Your body is so desperate for proper nutrition that it refuses to let go of anything you put into it. It is also common for sufferers to need to be on a weight restoration meal plan, which involves eating a calorie-dense diet in order to restore them to a healthy, balanced weight. This only increases the physical effects. As your body slowly learns that you’re no longer trying to destroy it, it begins to return to normal.
This is why staying the course is so important. If you yo-yo your weight around and get caught in the devastating cycle of relapse after relapse, your body will never learn to trust you. You will forever stay in that horribly physically uncomfortable realm. Eating will never feel good or right. Your eating disorder will always have power over your mind.
And wouldn’t it be nice if it was easy to rise above? If beating the bloat was simple?
Yup. But it’s not.
Of course it isn’t. Think about what you’ve done to your poor body. You’ve starved it, worked it to the bone, and depleted it of everything it needs to function. Naturally undoing all that terrible damage is going to be insanely difficult.
But there are some ways to make it a little bit easier. So I’ve compiled a list of my top ten ways to beat the bloat. These are the tips that have been most helpful to me in dealing with refeeding and weight gain, as well as the monster that is bloating.
- Get rid of your “sick” clothes. Donate anything that no longer fits your beautiful, healthy self to those in need. You shouldn’t want to fit into these clothes. They’re not meant for the true you. Use this opportunity to buy new, wonderful things that fit as they should and then cut those tags right out. Size is so irrelevant. Health is not.
- Wear a lot, a lot, of black. Black really is slimming. It just has this lovely effect. So if you’re walking around feeling like you’re carting around a basketball in your stomach, put on something black.
- Wear comfy, stretchy clothes. Leggings, yoga pants, spandex, oversized sweaters and shirts, you name it. Purposely buy things that are comfortable to lounge around in. Recovery involves a lot of being sedentary, so you might as well feel good while passing the time, huh? And you can certainly look good in this stuff, too.
- Talk with your doctor or healthcare provider about starting on some over-the-counter meds to help reduce the effect of the bloating. This is one of the most practical and simple solutions; I personally take three different meds to help with my bloating. When I was in the refeeding process, I had five. It’s a lot, but it will help.
- Eat a lot of calorie dense foods. Sure, fruit and veggies are nice and healthy and all, but they also contain a lot of fiber. You will feel super bloated and gassy if you eat a ginormous salad. True, your eating disorder might feel validated, and this might make you feel good in the moment, but it doesn’t really get you anywhere.
- Remind yourself that this is not forever. Though it might not feel like it at times, the weight gain does reach a point where it no longer continues. Your weight does eventually start to redistribute. You are not doomed to feel like an over-inflated balloon for the rest of eternity. It will get better, I promise.
- Think of your body as something “transitory”. Call it your recovery body. Give it a funny name or something else amusing. And then remember that this body will not stick around forever. Give yourself permission to indulge in things. Have some chocolate. Have a little bit of pizza. Get an ice cream. Regardless of what your irrational brain might tell you, you will not immediately gain a bazillion pounds from doing so. Food is all energy to your body. It does not differentiate between items; it just breaks it down and uses it as needed. Think about it. How the hell is your body supposed to tell the difference between an apple and a chocolate bar? How is it supposed to know that you have to fulfill certain exchanges at given times? Does it have a schedule inside it? The answer is, quite simply, no.
- Find the humor in it. So you look like a very pregnant woman. Laugh about it. So you’ve got spindly arms and legs and a stomach that looks like you swallowed all the air on the planet. Laugh about it. So you look absolutely ridiculous. Laugh about it. It makes it so much easier if you’re giggling about recovery rather than crying about it.
- Spend time with others who are going through the same thing. Some of my favorite memories are of commiserating with the other girls in treatment about what we were suffering through. It makes it a whole lot better and simpler to cope with if you find people who are struggling with the same issues you are. Misery loves company, and if you’re using humor to help get through this admittedly extremely difficult phase, you’ll be able to brighten someone else’s day at the same time as yours.
- Be patient. Recovery takes time. It is not over in a day or even in a couple months. It takes a long, long time for your body to heal. But your body is amazing. And it’s stuck by you even while you tortured it. So do it a favor and return the gesture.
Good luck, lovelies ❤ Remember that you are beautiful. Much love.