What life is like in recovery from an eating disorder
This is one woman’s account of her struggles with anorexia. If you or someone you know is dealing with an eating disorder, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has plenty of resources, as does the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).
I was diagnosed with anorexia at age 12, and proceeded to spend the next 12 years bouncing from one treatment center to another, temporarily appearing to be “on the mend” until something like a tough life transition or a stressful job situation sent me into a downward spiral before I knew what had hit me.
By the time I was 23 years old, I was deemed a “lost cause” by everyone from medical professionals to close friends. One therapist told me that I would shortly wind up in my grave and I wouldn’t be rolling my eyes at her when I was dead. (Needless to say, I terminated treatment with them immediately.) The only people who never stopped believing in me were my mom and one extremely dedicated therapist. What set them apart from many other people in my life was that they never defined me by my eating disorder — no matter how bad things got, they reminded me that I was a young woman with passions, dreams, and potential.
I wish that I could easily identify the turning point that inspired me to give recovery my all, but it wasn’t that simple. Rather, it was a slow realization that I had two options — to commit to recovery and have the opportunity to pursue all my goals and dreams, or to spend the rest of my life drifting in and out of hospitals. As fluffy as it sounds, I chose life and I’m so grateful for my recovery.
I can’t erase the years I spent suffering from anorexia, but I know that I’m lucky. I received amazing treatment and was able to achieve health, despite the fact that many people thought I never would. But, what’s life like “after” an eating disorder? Here are some of the ways my life has changed post-recovery.
I’ve learned to use my voice.
Eating disorders are caused by a complex combination of factors, from genetics to traumatic experiences to complex family dynamics and more. Every eating disorder is different and we all develop the illness for a diverse array of reasons. However, a common thread among individuals with eating disorders is the majority of us suffer from another mental illness like depression, anxiety, PTSD, or bipolar disorder.
In middle school, I knew that my emotional state was compromised and that I needed help. However, I was incapable of finding the words to tell anyone that I was suffering. My eating disorder meant that I didn’t have to verbalize this because my dramatic weight loss spoke for itself. As a result, I was sent to treatment where I had the opportunity to confront my anxiety and depression.
Today, I’m no longer underweight and pale as a sheet. This means that the people in my life aren’t going to take one look at me and recognize that I’m suffering. However, I continue to deal with depression and anxiety disorder — and I’ve learned that it’s up to me to ask for help during difficult times. In the past, the eating disorder meant that I didn’t have to take part in those painful conversations because everyone around me only needed to take only look at me to recognize that I was suffering.
I’ve learned that I need to call family members, friends, and therapists when I’m in a bad place. My body no longer sends the message for me, so it’s up to me — and I’ve learned that there’s no shame in saying, “I’m in a bad place with my anxiety and I need help.” Yes, this can be frightening — but more importantly, it’s incredibly empowering. I’ve learned that I don’t need to use my body to tell everyone around me that I’m in pain. I have a voice and I’ve learned to use it.
It still impacts me — even if I don’t realize it immediately.
For over half my life, my eating disorder took over my body and brain. Today, I’m happy and proud to say that I no longer obsessively count calories and weigh myself up to 20 times per day. And, to be clear, I do consider myself recovered. I no longer dodge brunch and dinner plans because I’m afraid to eat a restaurant where I don’t know the exact calorie count of every meal. I enjoy my food and fight back against the voice in my head that tells me I’ve “let myself go.”
However, I can’t change the fact that I spent so many years sick. Sometimes, I realize that the eating disordered thoughts have seeped into my subconscious and I have to actively combat them. During times of extreme stress, I feel nauseous and decidedly not hungry. I’m sure this happens to many people with anxiety, but I know that I can’t afford to skip multiple meals simply because my anxiety makes me feel sick. Every time I’ve done so, it has resulted in rapid weight loss that’s been incredibly triggering — even though my initial intent wasn’t to lose weight.
For people with eating disorders, watching the number on the scale drop often feels like a “high.” I can’t afford to experience this high, because it could push me into a relapse. So, even when my anxiety disorder causes extreme nausea, I push myself to get calories into my body. Sometimes I can handle food and other times I need to drink a few Ensures to give my body the calories it needs.
The underlying issues continue to be a struggle.
For a long time, I used my eating disorder to dull the pain of my anxiety disorder and depression. At times, I found the recovery process to be more painful than the eating disorder itself because I no longer lived with a consistent, gnawing hunger that distracted me from the real reasons I was suffering emotionally.
I’ve recovered from anorexia, but my anxiety disorder and depression continue to be a struggle. I have an amazing treatment team — I’ve received top-notch therapy and I take medication to make daily life more manageable. I’m lucky enough to be able to function in my personal and professional lives. In the past, I used my eating disorder as a distraction from my anxiety and depression. Today, there is no distraction and I’m forced to confront these issues head-on — but it’s made me a stronger person.
It’s really hard to live in a society that promotes unhealthy eating behaviors.
One of the hardest things about life “after” my eating disorder is living in a society that says only ultra-thin bodies are the ideal and encourages women to feel guilty when they dare eat a meal that’s more caloric than a plain salad. Furthermore, it seems like women are conditioned to express remorse every time they eat a steak or a dessert — I often feel like we’re expected to accompany this action with a vow to spend hours at the gym the next day.
It makes me so sad when the incredibly intelligent, talented women in my life body-shame themselves. And, as someone who spent the greater part of my life hating my body, I work hard every single day to not participate in these conversations. I know that it’s wrong to put myself down for simply enjoying a burger — something I deprived myself of for well over 10 years. It’s not always easy to stay out of these conversations, but I strive to change the subject. We are all so much more than the number on the scale and none of us should waste our time talking about calories or weight. There are so many important topics for women to discuss — and weight is decidedly not one of them.
I can’t always love my body, but I can always try to appreciate it.
On the days that I can’t love the way I look, I can still appreciate my body and focus on everything it allows me to do. When I was ill and in early stages of recovery, I wasn’t allowed to engage in my favorite activities like dance classes and swimming. I happen to find long walks very therapeutic, but I wasn’t even allowed to take a walk in my parents’ neighborhood because my body needed to hold on to every calorie it was given.
Today, when I start to feel insecure about the size of my thighs or some other part of my body, I remind myself that being a healthy weight is what allows me to go hiking, take ballet classes, and explore my new city on foot for hours. If I was still underweight, I wouldn’t be able to do the things I love.
My physical health was compromised for so long that forgot what it felt like to not be in physical pain. I used all my precious energy at the gym and then dizzily staggered back to my fourth-floor walk-up in New York City and collapsed, too exhausted to even comprehend the idea of getting on the subway to meet up with friends.
Recovery has changed my life in so many ways. I know that many eating disorder sufferers out there have, like me, been told that they’re “beyond help.” I want these women and their loved ones to know that no one is a lost cause. Recovering from an eating disorder won’t fix all our problems, but it’s an extremely empowering experience. And, most importantly, recovery allows us to pursue our passions and live up to our potential. We all deserve that opportunity.