A few weeks ago, I went to a panel of eating disorder professionals in Boulder, Colorado, which was the final event in the “Journey to Wholeness: From Anorexia to Addiction, Bipolar Disorder and Recovery” series sponsored by the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness and featuring renowned author Marya Hornbacher (author of such groundbreaking books as Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia, and Madness: A Bipolar Life, among many others).
The panel, featuring local eating disorder psychotherapist Isabelle Tierney and Toni Saiber, executive board member of the Eating Disorder Foundation, was truly inspiring to me as a mental health professional working with eating disorders, as well as someone who has recovered from my own eating disorder. The panel members had all recovered themselves from eating disorders as well, and I appreciated the candidness about what it is like for them to pursue the passion in life of helping others find recovery.
A resounding theme of the event was HOPE. What place does hope have in eating disorder recovery? How does it support people in their journeys towards wholeness? All panel members agreed that their own personal experiences have influenced and informed their practice today in a way that makes them, resoundingly, human. I was inspired by the authenticity of panel members: “sometimes, when I’ve had a challenging week, I still have to notice how I try to use food to cope”; “recovery is a lifetime process, always evolving, always present”; “I’ve learned that when I said no to my eating disorder, there were things I then had to say yes to, which was challenging at first”. These are the voices of recovery, spoken by those who are so inspired by this journey that they now make it their life’s work to help others.
I left with a renewed spirit, a passionate drive, a dedication to commit myself to my own life’s path: to help others find their recovery, too.
I was given a handout at the panel, one so useful that I have shared it with many of my clients. It’s entitled “Indicators of Recovery” and I have attached it as a pdf at the end of this post. One of the things I love about this handout is that NONE of the indicators have to do with food, weight, or appearance. There is no counting or numbers. These are indicators to a healthy and balanced life, and can be applied to anyone and everyone — not just those with an ED. I like going through this with clients so that, on the sometimes tough days of recovery, they can see where they are and what they’ve already done in terms of recovery. The first step is asking for help and that’s a HUGE one — maybe the most important one of all.
I want to point out a few of these indicators that really stand out to me, as a possible jump-off point to further discussion and reflection:
- Learning “slips” and “relapses” are signs that something else is really going on and forgiving yourself while investigating the cause. This is one of the more challenging tasks in recovery but one that is essential in embracing the process of the recovery roller coaster. Just because you might have a slip does not mean that you have gone backwards. Slips are opportunities to learn and to practice compassion.
- Possessing a desire to change. So simple sounding, yet so complex. A client’s readiness to change indicates where they are on the journey to recovery and what challenges and what tasks he/she may find as they move forward. I believe that this factor, as well as asking for help, are the two most essential factors to defining recovery.
- Feeling negative emotions (or “challenging”) and knowing it is possible to live through them without needing to numb them. This concept is one of the core concepts of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a therapeutic approach that I use in my practice. Learning to sit with feelings, believe that they will pass, and not allowing them to overpower other emotions or desires is an integral part of recovery. We all have feelings, some more challenging than others, and we do not have to allow them to control our experiences.
- Becoming autonomous and not comparing yourself to others. We are all beautiful and unique in our own ways. Finding and relishing in that inner beauty is the antidote to eating disorder behavior.