I am often asked: “What is recovery? How do I know when I am recovered from my eating disorder?”. With these perplexing concepts, there is no single correct answer. Recovery from anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, or any other type of disordered eating is individualized and unique for each person. This special journey is what makes recovery from eating disorders both challenging and rewarding: during recovery, we each learn tools and embellish our strengths that will guide us to a life of balance and wellness for many years to come. We also may slip and stumble a few times during this journey. But staying the course is the key to sustained recovery.
Today, I’d like to shed some light on what to do once you have come to realize that you are “recovered” or “in recovery” from an eating disorder. Again, this is my perception — my feelings about my own recovery. They may help others, they may not. Take what helps. I am safe in assuming that the majority of those in recovery will agree that eliminating destructive and self-harming behaviors is a central key to recovery (behaviors such as bingeing, purging, restricting, over-exercising, cutting, and others). While it is normal to have occasional slip-ups of behaviors while working to find security in recovery, the true definition of recovery must involve a cessation of behaviors. Behaviors such as those listed above are symptoms of a deeper psychological issue. When working to find peace and wellness from behaviors, the root of the issue must be defined and nourished. When this is done, or is “in the process” of being uncovered, harmful behaviors will naturally cease because they will not be needed as a coping mechanism any longer.
One of my favorite quotes I heard recently by Cheri Huber reminded me of the complexity of recovery:
“Having an attachment ripped from deep in our being does not feel kind. Yet when it is gone, when the wound is healing, we can see that the process was one of pure compassion.” ~Cheri Huber
Eating disorders are like an attachment. They are like a relationship. They will never abandon us, deny us, leave us, or disagree with us. We can always rely on them. This is why it is so challenging to let them go — for all of the pain they have caused us, they have also satiated an inherently untended need. I interpreted this quote to mean that when we have our eating disorder taken away from us — whether it was of our own initiative or not — there is pain. The beginning stages of recovery are often the most excruciating; it can feel like ripping off a band-aid and exposing an open wound. Sometimes, it is too painful to bear, and we feel we need to continue using our behaviors until we are stronger in coping. When we sit with the feelings under the eating disorder, when we begin to heal, we can notice that giving ourselves compassion is one of the biggest keys in maintaining a solid recovery.
Here are a few ideas that might help in continuing to deepen your commitment to recovery:
1.) Define what the underlying struggles are, and always keep those in your awareness. This may come in the form of anxiety, depression, relationship difficulties or remnants from a traumatic event. You do not need to focus your awareness on these directly all the time, but tuck them into your consciousness so that you can be notified when you might need to cope with them in a healthier way.
2.) Remember what you have achieved. Again, this needs to be in balance — don’t re-traumatize yourself by vividly placing yourself back into what it was like to be in the eating disorder, but reflect on the steps you have taken, the victories you have obtained, and the strength you have deepened within yourself. Sometimes when I am feeling down, I summon up my gratitude for my own recovery and that I got myself there.
3.) Connect with community. It is always therapeutic to be part of a community that understands and supports you through your recovery. Recovery can be a life-long process in stages, and you may have different needs as you take steps down the road. This can come in the form of joining writing or poetry groups, if it is healing for you to write about your recovery. You also might participate in volunteer activities with local eating disorder support centers. In Denver, the Eating Disorder Foundation offers many volunteer opportunities or classes you can take and expand your horizons in their new support center “A Place of Our Own”.
This is only the beginning of a list of ideas to maintain recovery. What are some of your ideas? Remember always that the journey is challenging at times, but there is hope for a full, sustained, and healthy recovery from anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder.