On October 20, 2014 I finally made the very difficult decision to recover from my eating disorder. I had no idea what I was doing, only that it was something I needed to do. I had seen posts about recovery on Tumblr, so I knew it was going to be hard; however, I had no idea how hard it was going to be. In fact, after a year and a half, I can honestly say it is the most difficult thing I have ever done.
From the outside, people might think that to recover from a restrictive eating disorder, you “just have to eat”. What those people don’t know is that it is much, much more than that. Eating disorders aren’t even about food- it’s when individuals use food, weight, etc. to cover up the underlying problem. Yes, in recovery you have to learn how to eat properly again. But you also have to dig down deep to see what the real issue is, and you have to fix it.
Not many people talk about recovery. They talk about what it was like being sick, and how awful it is, but no one really mentions recovery. No one knows what it’s like unless they’ve been through it themselves. No one realizes how difficult the process of recovering from the addiction that is a person’s eating disorder is. It isn’t a choice or a lifestyle, it’s a mental illness that destroys your mind, and if it goes far enough, your body.
“With addiction, you figure out how to lock the tiger in its cage and keep it there. With an eating disorder, you have to figure out how to take the tiger out and walk it three times a day.” -Tennie McCarty
Recovery is hard. I’ve made that clear. Now here are some things no one will tell you about recovering from an eating disorder:
*This is just my experience with recovery. Everyone’s journey is different, especially with different types of eating disorders. These may not be true for everyone, but they were true for me.
Ignoring your eating disorder is so hard.
You’re basically defying every single thing your brain is screaming at you. You have to listen to your head for hours telling you not to eat, and then eat anyway. It’s more than temptation to skip or restrict; it can be maddening at times.
Relapse doesn’t erase your success.
I can not tell you how many times I spent a week restricting, skipping meals, and falling back into old habits before realizing what I was doing. Every time I tried to jump back into recovery, I was convinced that I had blown it, and that I would have to start back at square one. Believe me when I say that this is a lie. Relapse does not erase how far you’ve gone. You just tripped on your path, that doesn’t mean you were sent back to the beginning. You can always pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep going. Your successes in recovery are all still there.
You learn who your real friends are.
I told a small group of friends about my eating disorder at the beginning of recovery, and almost everyone I know knows about it now. Everyone reacts differently. Most people treat me exactly the same as before, which is nice. Some occasionally ask me how I am, and keep an eye on me to make sure I’m eating, which shows me that people really do care. And then a couple people dropped me like a hot potato, which was painful at first. But now I’ve realized that my true friends will stick by me no matter what; my eating disorder just sped up the process of weeding out the sucky friends.
All of your numbed emotions come flying back.
My eating disorder erased all traces of any emotion, made my memory very weak, and slowed all of my thought processes. When I began recovery, my brain slowly started working again. This brought all of my emotions back, and they were strong. Two months into recovery, I became very emotional- I was sad, frustrated, and very angry. It was like every ounce of emotion that had been lost during the ten months I was restricting came back all at once. I wasn’t openly emotional- my friends and family never saw me crying, and I never ranted out loud to anyone about how angry I was, but when I was alone in my room most nights, I couldn’t contain it. I wrote pages on pages about how angry I was that one of my best friends had abandoned me. I wrote so many poems about how my eating disorder had taken so much from me. I cried countless tears over everything that I had lost. After about a month and a half, my emotions leveled out and I felt normal again, but during that time, I felt very unstable.
Ladies, your period will get wonky, and it’ll take a while to get back to normal.
Not everyone who has an eating disorder will lose their period, and of course, men don’t ever have to worry about that. But I lost my period for three months. It actually came back while I was still restricting, but it was very very off. Before I got sick, I could predict my period perfectly every single month- the day, the length, the amount of blood. When it came back after I lost it, it was extremely short and a very small amount of blood. That went on for months, even after I started recovery. When I was eating more, I could tell that it was trying to get back on track, but it took a long time. Four or five months into recovery, I had my period every three weeks rather than every 30 days. It took me a year for my period to get back to normal after I began recovery, and it still isn’t as predictable as it used to be. Eating disorders really mess with your body.
Recovery might take longer than your actual sickness did.
I was sick for ten months before I began recovery. I have now been in recovery for almost 19 months, and I am far from saying that I am recovered. No matter how long you are sick- 6 months, 3 years, longer or less time, you will recover at your own rate. It is not a race.
Menus with calories listed are the worst.
Counting calories is still something I struggle with, and it hasn’t gotten much easier. I used to look up the calories of every food I ate, every restaurant I went to, and I let that dictate what I decided to eat, if anything. Now, when I go to a restaurant, I typically want to eat what I want to eat. When calories are listed in the menu, I cannot express my frustration, because it normally means that yay, yet another meal that gets to be controlled by calories and my eating disorder. This is something I’m working on, and hopefully, you can get through it too (because calories don’t matter!!! No matter how hard it is to remember sometimes)
Not weighing yourself is harder than it seems.
I used to weigh myself two to three times a day. When I first began recovery, I tried to lower it to once a day. I eventually realized that weighing myself at all is a stupid idea, because as long as I keep letting my weight control me, my eating disorder will still control me. Avoiding the scale is difficult though, especially if you have an anxiety disorder that makes you just… want.. to.. check. And then check again. I still weigh myself periodically, and that’s something else I need to work on.
Your weight-gain will stop.
When you don’t eat much and lose weight because of it (which is very unhealthy and bad for you might I add), slowly switching back to a good diet is obviously going to make you gain weight. At the beginning of recovery, you will typically gain weight faster than when you lost it. This can make you worry that you’ll never stop gaining and if you keep eating, you’ll grow to be a big blueberry like in Willy Wonka. When this happens, it’s time to just take a deep breath and realize that your body is just trying to protect you. It thinks you’re going to starve it again, so it holds onto as much food as it can, mostly around your organs. Once it realizes that Hey, I’m getting fed regularly! you will stop gaining weight. Once you have a good amount of protection around your organs (like on your stomach), you will stop gaining. If you eat a healthy amount- and don’t restrict- your body will fall to be it’s natural weight. You just have to be patient and keep going.
You need to learn to be okay with your natural weight.
Once your body finally does reach it’s natural weight, you might feel uncomfortable with it. Depending on how much weight you lost, or how long you were sick, this new body might be very unfamiliar for you. But that’s okay. You will get used to it. And eventually, you will come to be more than just used to it. When you learn to love your body for what it can do rather than what it looks like, you will be happy with your natural weight. You must remember that you didn’t love your body when it was at it’s smallest, and you won’t love it if it gets any smaller. You must learn to love it where it falls naturally.
You may look perfectly fine during a meal when you’re dying inside.
Even when you’ve been in recovery for a while, some meals are still so hard. It may be taking everything in you to raise the fork up to your mouth, chew, and swallow your food. Your head may be so loud, and you feel like it’s going to explode. But because it’s in your head and you’re not having any physical symptoms, people will not know that you are struggling. They will only know if you tell them.
This goes along with every part of recovery. Especially once you’re weight restored, people will not realize what is going on in your head unless you tell them. If you’re struggling and you want someone to help you, speak up. Mental illnesses are hard enough with what’s going on, but it’s even worse that people can’t see your struggle. You have to be brave and use your voice, because people will not know that things are hard unless you tell them.
Fear foods are scary, but taste so good.
For those of you who don’t know, “fear foods” are code for “foods that terrify me because my eating disorder told me that they are bad and that I can’t eat them”. Some people have a super long list of them, and some do not. However long your list of fear foods are, it is undeniable that eating them is very difficult. However, eating them is also necessary to recover. I was scared to eat many things, but as I ate them, I realized that not only are they not scary (and they can’t hurt me!) but they taste so so good! Like, who would have ever thought that butter could make so many things much more flavorful??? Replacement foods (like almond milk, things that are fat-free, calorie-free, less calories, etc.) cannot even compare when it comes to taste.
It isn’t really about the food, but that doesn’t make food any less hard.
I said earlier that eating disorders aren’t really about food, it’s about a much bigger underlying issue. However, they’re still called eating disorders for a reason. Eating disorders are addictive, and food can be very very hard. Learning how to eat again is a very very big part of recovery, and it can be difficult beyond compare. But, if you dig down deep and work on the mental aspects of an eating disorder, eating will get easier and easier.
You will miss the person you were when you were sick. You will miss your eating disorder.
My eating disorder was kind of like a security blanket. It was always there, always welcoming. No matter where I was, I could come back to it. I could ignore my mental issues and just focus on food, weight, and calories. Focus on the physical pain of hunger rather than the emotional and mental pain that followed me everywhere. There are times that I miss it. My eating disorder was a friend to me at first (before I realized how much of a nightmare she is), and when I think about how I felt when I successfully skipped a meal, to see the number on the scale go down, to wither away, I sometimes want that back. There are days that it tears me apart how badly I want to be sick again.
But then I remember all the pain my eating disorder caused me. The months of feeling so cold and weak that all I could do was go to school and barely focus on anything. The people I pushed away from fear of them finding out about my little secret. The trips and events that I missed out on having fun because I was always so focused on food. The moments that I felt like I was going to die because of how low my heart-rate, body temperature, and blood sugar were. The ten months that I barely remember because my brain did not have enough energy to store memories other than ones based on food.
I do miss my eating disorder sometimes. But when I remember how big of a jerk she was, and how much life I get to live now, there’s no way I would ever go back.
It will get easier.. And then hard again.. But then easy again.
Recovery is hard. But it does get easier. One day, you’ll eat a whole bagel with butter on it for breakfast without even thinking about it. You’ll be able to take a trip to the grocery store without having an anxiety attack. You’ll be able to go to a friend’s birthday party and happily ask if you can have the corner piece, just because you want more frosting.
But then you’ll go through some days where all you want to do is restrict. After 18 months of recovery, you’ll skip breakfast again and again. But then you’ll dust yourself off and go back to doing well. Then you might fall down again. Then you’ll get better. You’ll have bad days, but as long as you keep trying, your good days will soon outnumber your bad.
You won’t go back to who you were before- you’ll become a stronger, kinder, wiser, better person.
I still haven’t reached full recovery. But I know that I will someday. Nothing is impossible, especially with God by your side. Recovery will be hard, but it will make you stronger. You just might find who you are, discover a new dream, build new relationships, travel, try new things, eat foods you’ve never tasted before, and become a new person. You just might realize how beautiful life is.