Eating Disorder Recovery is a long road.
This past December, I turned twenty-seven years old. I habitually calculate time in terms of anniversaries. Not always consequential. One year and five months of not dying my hair. One year since I went back on medication. Three years and four months of living in Vancouver. Twenty-seven years old marks an entire decade of consciously living with an eating disorder. I say consciously because after years of therapy and introspection, I’d realized it had truly started to affect me at thirteen.
A naturally self-reflective and nostalgic person, I often spend my time ruminating on the past – distant or near. I’m especially wistful as I comfortably approach my thirties. My twenties held considerable highs and lows, with the latter being my standard as I battled un-diagnosed manic depression. But at twenty-seven I feel I’ve hit an entirely new realm in terms of mental health and quality of life. And as I think back on my illness, and the struggle to regain stability in my life, I can’t help but think of the things no one told me about Eating Disorder recovery.
This isn’t advice. Unsolicited advice is the worst kind (in my opinion) and I’m of the “different strokes” school of thought – just because this was my experience, or my medicine, it doesn’t mean it will apply to others. Rather, it’s something of an open-letter to the recovery community, from the perspective of one woman who “lost” much of her late-teens and early-twenties to mental illness.
Here are 5 things no one told me about eating disorder recovery:
1. “Recovery” is a Shitty Word.
In my early twenties I was part of a support group for disordered eating. There, one woman once expressed her distaste for the word “recovery”; she confessed it made her think of old furniture being re-covered with new fabric. That has always stuck with me.
I would often get caught up in the idea of getting back to who I was “before”. And that before would be defined by so many different things: before I “got sick”; before This or That traumatizing event happened.
Recovery, and the culture around it, often hold the false promise of an end-point. When I first acknowledged my mental illness and sought professional help, I assumed that I would reach a certain point of wellness – a point where I was most like my “normal” self; who I was before – and I could consider myself recovered.
There are no check- or endpoints in recovery. Not a single one. Holding out for that landmark of XX Months or Years Clean – from self harm, from binging/purging, from abusing pills, or whatever – can be employed as a motivator if that works for you. More power to you! But holding that, or anything else like it, as some sort of standard for recovery only makes relapse into a sin. And relapse happens. No matter where you are in life or what safety nets you put in place, it happens.
Recovery is a decision you make over and over.
A saying I came across in therapy was “make the next best choice” – i.e, it doesn’t necessarily matter what happened five months or five minutes ago, just choose yourself and your life in the next move.
Recovery is a lifestyle. In my opinion, it doesn’t necessarily matter if you’ve been “in recovery” for ten years or ten minutes; the second you choose it, you’ve won. And it isn’t about recovering who you were before, because the lifestyle means you’re more than who you were. You’re different: now you’re a person who’s learning; who has healthy coping mechanisms – maybe you bullet journal, or you immerse yourself in self care, or you reach out to a support system. The lifestyle allows room for the relapses and breakdowns because they’re a part of it. And they don’t mean you’ve failed.
In therapy, I would come across the word “integration”, mostly in relation to post-traumatic stress disorder, rather than Eating Disorders. This seems like a word better suited for the lifestyle of recovery, though it does sound less poetic. Rather than focusing on who you were before, integration is about weaving all of the pieces of you that feel frayed, together. It’s about discovering the person you are now, even with with the trauma or the illness. And discovering you’re stronger.
Along with that:
2. It’s More Than An Eating Disorder.
I can clearly remember the moment I admitted to myself – in my head, not out loud – that my disordered eating was out of my control, and that I would likely need therapy. This was the first step of a long road, but I couldn’t guess that upon pulling my head from the sand (living with an ED puts you in a certain state of denial, sometimes) it would become glaringly obvious that the Eating Disorder was only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. I wasn’t struggling with an eating disorder, technically; for me, the disordered eating was a way to cope with considerable anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress.
Mental disorders commonly co-occur with one another. I would be twenty-four before I found a professional who would diagnose me to my face: obsessive compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, anorexia nervosa, and manic depression (aka bipolar disorder). Another two years of therapy brought me to terms with past traumas, which added complex post-traumatic stress disorder to my list, though I’d suspected it for a while. And of course, my addictive personality also means substance abuse has been a recurring theme.
I’m not entirely certain why professionals seemed so reluctant to advise me of my own diagnoses. In my early twenties I saw a team of three professionals – a nutritionist, a therapist, and a psychiatrist – and not one of them told me, or even said the words “anorexia” out loud.
Was this policy? What were they afraid would happen if I was given validation?
This turned out to be a big roadblock in my own recovery: validation, and the fact that I didn’t generally get any. Professionals tip-toed or talked down to me, as if I were a child who wouldn’t put a knife down. Even though I generally liked them and got along with them, it irked me that I wasn’t talked to plainly. It kept me obstinate and reluctant in my recovery.
Once I moved to British Columbia, I happened to find a team of professionals who would say the words out loud. I was trusted with my own diagnosis. And that validation allowed me to make educated steps with medication, self-care routines, and healthy coping mechanisms.
When I first plunged into the waters of mental health care as a patient, I sincerely believed it was only for an Eating Disorder and professionals let me believe that. But being kept in the dark stunted my recovery for around five years. It was all about the symptom – the disordered eating – and not the root of the matter.
Thankfully, I was able to find validation down the road with a different kind of therapy. But that leads me to:
3. Recovery Costs Money.
In the humble realm of my own activism (my writing; my tumblr) I keep mental health accessible. Because it can be. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a level of care that can’t be reached by many people.
In Canada, mental health services are woefully behind the times. Government-approved psychiatrists, which cost nothing, aren’t specialists and often have wait-lists that last upwards of three months. If you’re in crisis and living by the hour, this option is unthinkable. Private therapists and specialists cost money; a considerable amount, with most hourly rates drifting upwards of $100.
I live with the privilege that while I – a considerably mentally ill person with student debt and a writer’s salary – live directly on the poverty line, my parents are comfortably middle-class. Yes, I was able to find a wonderful, non-cognitive behavioural therapist who really clicked with me, but only because my parents could afford her. I owe my incredibly stable day-to-day life to daily medications which provide my brain with proper neurotransmitters, and they cost me somewhere between $150-$200/year. If I need to refill a prescription before pay day, I know my parents will help me out.
Some medications are covered under the benefits of employment, depending on where you work; however this is depending on if you are able to work. Those who suffer from psychosis or anxiety attacks; who take mental health days; or sometimes who even openly take medication – often have a difficult time finding stable, meaningful employment. Our society is still largely ableist, in terms of physical and mental ability.
In my journey through recovery, I would go through “phases” or try random things, in an effort to discover who I was again.
The recovery community really pushes this sort of self-discovery but it doesn’t tell you that it takes money and often feels miserable. I went through a vegan phase and a wine phase, neither of which are cheap. I enrolled in University then dropped out halfway into my third year, during which time I joined a ballroom dancing class and travelled abroad in Italy. Student loans and my parents helped with all of this.
Not to say that I didn’t work – I worked in every field I thought I might like, not only in an attempt to support myself but again in an effort to find something that would make me fall in love with life again. But nothing stuck and my rocky mental health would routinely get in the way. And again that’s where my parents would come in.
Recovery and self-discovery are considerably more difficult if therapy and medication aren’t in your budget, let alone attempts at passions or hobbies. If you’re working hard just to make ends meet then it’s likely that mental health days – or weeks, which can be necessary – aren’t an option.
Recovery can be done on a budget, but it’s an effort. Because in reality most things about mental wellness and the culture around recovery costs money. Therapy, medication, St. John’s Wort, adult coloring books + supplies, epsom salts, crystal clusters, those Himalayan salt lamps, books by Brene Brown, self care boxes, and vegan baked goods.
These all cost money and time (which is often money).
And then there’s the “wasted” money, despite your best intentions: misguided shopping sprees that happen when you’re manic, the fad-things you try because they distract you but then lose interest in after a week, that hot yoga series that you quit after one class, the challenge-foods you buy but then throw out or throw up; the clothes you routinely grow in and out of.
I’m almost thirty and my net-worth is in the negatives. But I have mental wellness to show for it. I can actually put an approximate price on my recovery.
But no matter what financial state you find yourself in…
4. Radical Self-Care Is Your New Best Friend.
When I came into the recovery game seven years ago, radical self-care wasn’t something on my radar. I was only just stepping out of the cold waters of pro-anorexia websites and forums. This world was all about addressing yourself in extremely negative ways; your inner voice often adopting the tone of a boot-camp trainer. And the therapy was all about “fighting” this entity. It was very combative.
And there was often this idea of “the illness taking over”, which would lead professionals and even my family to treating me like there was someone else behind the wheel. I was actually threatened with inpatient care; treatment was used as a scare tactic, further cementing the insinuation that ED’s were a choice. In my first few years of recovery, it felt like I was being punished for “deciding” to have an eating disorder, by professionals and people around me. And not only that, but I believed I deserved it – I felt incredibly guilty, about everything, all the time. And nobody made me feel like I should feel otherwise.
Self-care came to me not through my Eating Disorder, but through sexual assault recovery.
I felt like my experiences with violation gave me something of a “pass”: because I’d experienced physical trauma, surely I was now allowed to treat myself kindly. Nothing about ED recovery seemed to allow that; it was too wrapped up in “fighting” the illness; i.e. fighting myself, and I would feel nothing but guilty for my past “choices”. But my assaults hadn’t been my choice, so I felt like I was allowed to recover from them.
Once I fell into the groove of self-care (and grew with the help of a non-CBT therapist), I let go of the guilt surrounding my eating disorder. Through that, I learned that radical self-care is needed in how I address my ED, as well.
It will likely also be needed because:
5. Some Friendships Won’t Survive.
Things like therapy, integration, spiritual awakenings, and epiphanies go hand-in-hand with change. Over the course of the past years I’ve evolved; shed the skins of myself until I became someone who knew her worth. At seventeen I was quiet, ignorant, naïve, and passive; I bottled up my emotions (mainly anger) and drank to cope with the ones that wouldn’t be stoppered. I was hell-bent on self destruction. At twenty-seven, I’m outspoken, ambitious, sharp, spiritual, and friendly. I’m on good terms with all of my emotions. I also haven’t abused alcohol in over a year, and am in love with the healing, unifying powers of cannabis.
I’m in love with myself.
The truth is that for most, some people in their circle either won’t or can’t last through the process. Maybe you’ll discover that a friend is toxic, or that the friendship is. Maybe some people aren’t copacetic with “sober” you. Sometimes bridges burn because people can’t handle your new boundaries, the ones that come with this life of self-love or at the very least self-respect.
Other times, it’s just life. Which happens. But I’ve found that I lost people directly to the outbursts, rock-bottoms, and isolation that came with my illness. And I’ve learned to forgive (mostly myself) and let live. When I first stepped into recovery, though, I believed there were people who would be there to see me through the process. They were people who were my motivation in getting better. And now that I am, they’re no longer here. Would being prepared for that make it any easier? I’m not sure. But it is something that still makes me feel somewhat short-changed in recovery.
At first glance these points seem somewhat pessimistic, but they’re honest. Mental illnesses, and especially Eating Disorders, worsen with secrecy and silence, and I feel it’s my responsibility to do my part in creating safe spaces where others can talk about their recovery/mental illness/trauma with honesty. And I think it’s long past time for plain talk about the “ugly” or “real” side of Eating Disorder recovery to makes its way from soul-bearing Tumblr posts to larger outlets. Not for the disordered, necessarily; but for the outsiders whose sole impression of this disease revolves around young, white girls obsessed with models and epiphanies involving cheeseburgers.
*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.