Mythbusting: Eating Disorder Recovery Edition

6072467398_a3be8da4b8_zBy Allison Epstein

September 1st was my one-year anniversary.

Not a romantic anniversary with a candlelit dinner and diamond earrings. The one-year anniversary of my recovery from an eating disorder.

I don’t know if taking a day to celebrate the recovery process is common, but I wanted to commemorate the year I began taking care of myself. I’d thought I was taking care of myself before – avoiding weight gain, exercising, eliminating “bad” foods. In the name of getting healthy, I reached what looked to be the point of no return.

Operative words being “looked to be.”

Here I am, one year later, at or near my body’s set point (my body’s natural, comfortable weight). All my blood work comes back consistently normal. I can run up stairs without getting tired now, and I don’t wear hooded sweatshirts in 80-degree heat anymore. I think celebrating a different kind of health is worth it.

There are plenty of resources for people beginning recovery from any kind of eating disorder. NEDA provides an extensive list to get you started. Doctors, therapists, nutritionists, and well-meaning friends and family might be present at every turn, or they might not be. And yet, it’s still difficult to get a straight answer for the most pressing question on people’s minds.

What is recovery going to look like? Will it go on like this forever? Will I be strong enough to make it?

My experience was my own, and I can’t pretend that it will ring true to every person beginning a recovery journey. But I think this episode of “Mythbusters: Eating Disorder Edition,” if you will, is pretty universal. Take it from me: this article is not a magic spell. Recovery is hard. But it doesn’t need to be any harder than it has to be.

Myth One: You need to meet with a full treatment team three times a week, or you don’t really want to recover. And if you don’t want it, you’ll never get better.

Truth: You probably do need support, but what form that takes is up to you.

Recovering from an eating disorder isn’t easy. If it were, we wouldn’t need to talk about it. And as with any difficult life issue, it helps to have people on your side.

But support looks different for everybody.

If you don’t meet regularly with a physician, a therapist, a nutritionist, and a psychiatrist, that doesn’t mean that you don’t want to get better or that you’re not trying. It just means that your needs are different from other people’s needs.

Some people benefit from in-patient treatment centers. Others try out-patient programs at hospitals or other facilities. Some meet with a therapist a few times a week, go in for nutritional counseling, or try to go it on their own with family and friends on their side. I’m not suggesting that anyone should discount therapy or nutritional counseling. They’re valuable techniques that help many people sort out complicated problems. By all means, give them a go. But recovery and treatment are not one-size-fits-all.

Use your voice, not your eating disorder’s, to direct your life. Doing recovery your way (whatever way that is) means you’re beginning to take charge. For many, this comes with some kind of professional help or guidance from a trusted therapist. But the biggest change has to come from within. Find the help that works for you, and don’t give up.

2) Shifts in weight will happen at a rate of X pounds/week.

Truth: Honestly? Who the heck knows.

Not all eating disorders result in a drastic change in body weight. But some do. Whether you are hoping to lose weight after fighting with BED, gain weight after anorexia, or settle into your body’s set point and a regular pattern of eating after any eating disorder, your body is influenced by a number of factors. The duration of your disorder. Your height. Your family history and genetics. Your body type. Your metabolism. Your current level of stress. Heck, your sodium levels and how much you tend to sweat.

Your set point isn’t something that can be predicted. Bodies change with age and life circumstances, hormones and stress. I had a weight in mind I was comfortable with when I began recovery, but my body decided on a different one. All of this is scary, but it’s okay.

Medical professionals told me that my rapid weight shifts would stop after about six to eight weeks. I was also told a pound range that was normal to expect per week. Well, I gained about twice that per week, and it didn’t stop after eight weeks. It took me nine months. Disinterested strangers watching me might have mistaken me for a pregnant woman (Ah, recovery bloating). And that’s okay too. Your body is going to do what it needs, no matter how frightening that might seem.

The theory of a “set point”? I thought it sounded like the stupidest thing I’d ever heard. And then I found mine. It took longer than I wanted, but it does happen.

Every body is different. Just give yours time.

3) Relapsing means you failed at recovery.

Truth: Relapsing means you hit a setback. It’s how you deal with setbacks that matters.

A huge step in recovery is being able to step back after a moment of relapse and say, “Yes, I made a mistake,” or “I wish that had gone differently.” And then you continue on, planning to do better next time.

Relapses are not the end of the world. Of course, we try to avoid them at all costs, but sometimes learning what sparks a relapse can be important. What issues cause you to retreat back into destructive behaviors? What problems are still unresolved in your life? What is it about this situation that makes you want to wrench back control in this way?

Just because you have problems doesn’t mean that you can’t overcome them. You are strong and powerful and you can do it. You’ve proven that by deciding that you want recovery in the first place.

Need more reassurance? Watch this great video from Arielle Lee Bair on relapse in recovery. This inspiring poem by Portia Nelson captures the spirit of relapse and recovery—a comforting thing to keep in mind during hard times.

Beating yourself up over your mistakes is part of your disorder, not a viable way of ending it.

4) If you are underweight, you’ll feel way better as soon as you start gaining the weight back.

Truth: Weight restoration is hard.

Not necessarily because it’s hard to gain weight. It’s hard because it means looking your biggest irrational fear in the face and saying, “Come at me, bro.”

It’s hard. And it doesn’t always feel great, especially right away. In fact, weight gain can feel horrible (and terrifying) at first. Bloating, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, gas, night sweats, impossible clothes shopping… It’s not fun.

But it gets better.

It’s a gradual better. You might not even notice it while it’s happening because you’re caught up in all the problems. But when you take a step back and realize, “Hey, I’m not cold all the time anymore,” or “I just ate breakfast and I didn’t think about the calories,” that’s when you see it. And it makes the rest a lot easier to take.

5) Complete recovery from any eating disorder is impossible.

Truth: If you’ll pardon my French, bullshit.

Recovery is hard work. I’ve been working at it for a year, and I’m still not totally there. But every day, I get closer.

I fall in love with my former off-limits foods. (Looking at you, French fries. Delicious.)

I continue to re-evaluate my relationship with exercise.

I think critically about weight-loss tabloid articles and the latest fad diets.

I surround myself with body positivity, whether through online communities and articles or re-directing conversations with friends and family that turn to body-snarking.

I might not love my body 100% of the time, every time. But I respect it for what it does, and it’s forgiving me for what I’ve put it through previously.

Looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.


Image by 3dpete via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Related Content:

Five Ways to Support a Loved One in Eating Disorder Recovery

Eating Disorder Treatment: Telling Ed to F- Off and Other Methods

The Sound of Silence: Giving a Voice to Anorexia

10 thoughts on “Mythbusting: Eating Disorder Recovery Edition

  1. Awesome post! I am recovered from an ED and treat others with ED and know soooooo many people with EDs. I just love how real your points are. Recovery is deeply personal, and amazingly difficulty. You need support to do it and there are professionals who want to help. However, it won’t be easy and there is no formula. It would be awesome if there was a formula, wouldn’t it? There isn’t but we make it anyway.

    Thanks for the post and congrats on your year! It’s a real victory.

  2. Yes!! To 2 and 5!!
    I was told many many months ago I was fine because I had entered the safe weight/gain range…Only to add on FIFTY more extra lbs over the next 10 months. Medical ‘professionals’ (yes, my ED treatment team!!) can be so oblivious…I’ve been in this for 17 months, most of them exhausting, waterlogged, and any combination of nauseous/hungry/achey/jittery you name it. Just learning to reestablish and trust my cues for sleep, rest, thirst, and hunger has taken a hell of a long time. I feel so frustrated when people in recovery are eager to get back on the restrictive/exercising bandwagon because a doctor clears them for some minimal amount of calories and allotment of activity, when they still have so much repair to go. This has personally held me back time and again from full recovery, and led to many relapses. Only when I said f*ck it! and stopped the moving and started ALL of the eating (way beyond ridiculously small meal plans) did I gain anything back by way of health.

    and for #5, I agree! I have seen so often that ED will always ‘be there, lurking’. I never wanted this to be the case, and so it isn’t. Of course I’ve had to accept me new, somewhat scary, frustrating size, but I’ll learn to deal. It’s way more worth it to eat a brownie (or four) whenever the hell I feel like it, than think about all the self inflicted punishment I’ll have to do later. It leaves rooms for things like dreaming, thinking, doing, being, reading, writing, and….more eating. 🙂

    Thumbs up on this, good for you!! Thanks for your truths.

  3. #5 is the single most annoying thing that anyone has ever said to me. (I might be exaggerating, but not much.) I want to ask them who they think they are to tell me what is and isn’t possible in recovery! Of course we can get better! There’s always hope.

  4. Congrats on your own recovery! Just like weight gain isn’t necessarily something you can control, neither is the reactions of friends and family to your taking care of yourself. It seems like anyone who thinks reasonably would be thrilled for you and the steps you’re taking for your health, but clearly the world isn’t always reasonable. No matter what they might say, remember that recovery is always a good thing, and it’s something you should be super proud of!

  5. Thank you so much for this article. I have been in recovery for as long a you have, and I find a lot of myself in what you say. I also put on a lot more weight that I was expecting, like twice as much I was expecting and when you say it’s happened to you and it’s ok, I feel less lonely. My family seem to have a problem with me being fat, which I really didn’t expect, I honestly thought they would prefer me fat than sick but it’s crazy how society’s injunctions on women are widespread, even in such a case.

  6. I am also in recovery. It’s been exactly 2 years, 2 months and 22 days. Everything you say is absolutely true. Recovery is a hell of a bumpy road. We’ll stumble, we’ll fall, but we’ll get back on our feet.

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