As someone still gingerly treading the road to recovery (that is less a road than a tangled path obstructed by woods, barbed wire and howling wolves), Eating Disorders Awareness Week is the perfect time to speak out about recovery. Whilst recovery might be your goal, it can also be your greatest fear. However long you have lived with an eating disorder, the idea of recovery is plagued by a fear of relinquishing control, the inevitability of having to put on weight, and having to accept yourself as you are.
It seems strange to be scared to recover from an eating disorder, but selfishly it becomes such a part of yourself, the way you define yourself, and how you live your life, that somehow to overcome that feels like you are losing something. While depression is often referred to as a little black monster clinging onto your back and not letting go, from my experience with an eating disorder it seems as though I am the one clinging on, unable to let go.
No recovery is the same because no experiences of eating disorders are the same, but there is a process of realisations to go through in order to make that all-important (and scary) leap into the pool of recovery. They are also things that you will have to constantly remind yourself of, especially when you’re struggling among the barbed wire and howling wolves.
As is the first hurdle with any mental illness, acceptance is important. It’s also difficult. Admittance that you have an eating disorder seems like you are placing a label on yourself, and can actually cause you to be even more aware of your eating, your relationship with food and the perception you have of yourself. Acceptance is far from a weakness, and it is needed to make recovery possible – even though ignoring your eating disorder and pretending everything is fine often seems like the most appealing option. It’s as though once you accept you have an eating disorder, a switch is flicked, and you must do everything in your power to recover; otherwise, you are letting yourself down. Or, when continuing with your habits, you feel conflicted with yourself. Then again, the fear of breaking the habits is just as large. What is important to remember is that recovery won’t in any way be easy, and that’s okay. You have to develop a stronger relationship with yourself, and reassure yourself as you would a friend.
A huge realisation that I had was that I wouldn’t ever want to treat anyone else how I treated myself and my body when I looked in the mirror. It was then that I could step away from myself and realise that I do deserve to be happy and healthy, and the way that the eating disorder forces you to live is destructive and not normal. Eating disorder recovery and learning to love yourself seem to be part of the same process, and both are a lot easier said than done. You should be as kind to yourself as you are to other people, no matter how cliché that sounds.
At no point will listening to people tell you repetitively to eat, or stop being sick, or stop counting calories help with recovery. These are the things that eating disorder sufferers put up impenetrable barriers against, which is what leads to the lies of “I’ve eaten today” and “I’m fine now, promise”. Recovery can often seem highly pressurised by other people, which can be very alienating and make the process even harder. An important realisation here is that people want to help but often they don’t know how – so try and tell them how to help. This will be different for everybody, but attempts to remove the crippling alienation of eating disorders, and let people in to help, can be a huge step. It’s also important not to regard setbacks and relapses as failures, but rather as little bumps on the road that slow you down but don’t stop you entirely.
Everyone knows that you need food to stay alive, to function, and to grow. Somehow this knowledge becomes skewed with a restrictive eating disorder. Food becomes the growling enemy, the thing that makes you put on weight, feel full and sluggish, something that represents the relinquish of your control. It’s weird to then return to the idea that, actually, food is good and necessary. Eating shouldn’t be a guilty process, and this is probably the element of eating disorders that is most difficult to break down. After years of associating being full with a sinking sense of guilt, how, then, are you to eat a full meal and be okay about it? For some, having a calorie-counting app might come in handy here (weirdly). Somehow if you know you aren’t overeating, it can settle your feelings about the meal you just had. Generally, though, I’d banish the calorie counter forever (she says, having used one every day for over a year). The calorie counter is another, more concrete representation of your control over food, and it’s hard to let that go and fall into the unknown.
The most important realisation with an eating disorder is that the desire for recovery has to come from yourself. You can’t do it for someone else, as selfish as it sounds. It needs to come from a realisation that you deserve to be happy, healthy and free from the self-loathing that causes destructive behaviour. Everyone deserves to be happy, and eventually you will make it through the woods, barbed wire and howling wolves, and the freedom from your eating disorder won’t feel like a loss. It’ll be a weight lifted, and well worth the frightening journey.