This is a question I frequently hear from clients as they struggle to overcome their eating disorders. I usually respond to this question with one of two answers: “Yes it is! I wouldn’t work with clients with eating disorders if I didn’t know that was true.” Or “Yes it is, because I live it.”
I, myself, am recovered from an eating disorder. I know people who subscribe to the addiction model would say I’m “in recovery” but I disagree with that evaluation. I feel, and have felt for years, that I am fully recovered.
I think what is important to discuss, however, is what recovery looks like. And also, what one can do to continually protect their recovery.
What does recovery look like?
It is wonderful! I remember when I walked out of my last personal therapy session, over 15 years ago, and turned my face to the sky and really, truly felt the sun on my face for the first time. I remember thinking in the moment that this epitomized recovery: truly feeling sunshine for the first time.
I cannot express how liberating it feels to not have my thoughts consumed by food, calories, weight, exercise, and pant size. I found myself having real relationships, and real connections. I discovered what I really valued in life and had the energy and resources to genuinely pursue those values. In a real sense, life became richer, fuller, deeper.
Recovery isn’t always easy. Recovery means navigating life’s ups and downs allowing the full impact of events and relationships to bore into your soul because you no longer have the protective façade of an eating disorder to soften blows. That vulnerability can be very hard, but it is meaningful and worth it. It allows you to know that you are truly present in your life.
But, one needs to anchor them self in the value of vulnerability in order to avoid the Siren’s call to escape to the blunted world inside an eating disorder when the pain of real life becomes overwhelming. I have learned to value and accept life on it’s terms, and as a result, am better able to accept what comes my way.
Recovery isn’t trigger free. As long as I am a living, breathing female residing in North America, I recognize my life will be replete with triggers. Book club chatter always turns to diet and weight. Close friends are surgically altering their appearances and ask me when I will get enhancements done myself. New moms are desperate to get in shape and over-exercise under the guise of marathon training. Because I engage in real relationships in my community, I am exposed to triggers weekly.
The good news is that in recovery, triggers ebb in their strength to impact me. Most of the time I can simply roll my eyes and shake my head. I know the cost of buying into the views and perspectives these friends are advertising and I’m not biting. Other times, it’s more vulnerable and harder to not buy into those triggers.
So how do I protect my recovery at times like these? Well part of the answer is that I do not just protect my recovery when I’m vulnerable. I protect my recovery at all times so that I am continually anchored in my true values and beliefs.
Here are some guidelines I live by and encourage clients in recovery to live by as well.
Throw Out the Scale
I have not owned a scale for at least 15 years and it’s incredibly liberating and powerful to not allow an arbitrary number to dictate your worth. As I say to clients and other women in the community, “If you have no medical reason to track your weight (which very few people really do need), get rid of the scale!”
This causes anxiety for many people but that anxiety will go away over time. You will find you truly can trust your body to take care of you, as you continue to take care of it. Throwing out the scale allowed me to learn to listen to what my body was communicating to me. We have developed a very healthy reciprocal relationship of trust and care as a result.
I explain to clients that just like recovering alcoholics “never get the luxury of casual, social drinking,” individuals recovering from an eating disorder “never get the luxury” of dieting, ever again. This can be tricky when your best friends or family members are going on the latest fad diets and “achieving success.” But trust what you have learned in recovery: diets do not work. Plus, diets (at best) are miserable to follow for many physical and psychological reasons, and (at worst) they open the door for an eating disorder to sneak back into your life.
I know I never want my life to be consumed with fear of food and weight again and that dieting is dancing with the devil. So, I eat chocolate every single day and when my daughter asks why I have fat hanging over my jeans, I explain that it’s because I love myself and I love her. She doesn’t understand what I mean, of course, and I don’t expect her to. But it’s true. I have fat on my body because I love my body, I take care of my body, and I embrace the changes it goes through. And I love my daughter so much that I will protect our relationship through never sacrificing my time, physical energy and psychological stability in service of unnecessary weight loss.
Exercise, if not done right, can be just like diets: an open door to invite an eating disorder back into your life. However, unlike diets, exercise is good for you. There are many valuable physical and emotional reasons that exercise can and should be part of your life. But navigating exercise, especially if exercise historically was part of an eating disorder, needs to be done with extreme care. What I recommend is intuitive exercise. Let me explain what I mean by this:
First, find exercise that you enjoy and look forward to doing.
There are so many ways to exercise today that you are bound to find at least a couple activities that put a smile on your face. It can be Zumba, yoga, hiking, downhill skiing, walking your dog, rock climbing to name just a few. I encourage clients to not use machines (or watches or apps) that will count calories burned and time elapsed.
These mechanisms distract you from the real purpose of exercise: connecting with and caring for your body. They draw you back into the quantification game and trigger anxiety to “burn enough calories” or exercise for “enough time” or the “minimal distance.” If you chose to run, try to run outside where you can feel the wind, sunshine, or even rain on your face. Try to have a different experience with your body and the world around you.
Second, beyond finding exercise you enjoy, include a variety of exercise in your life.
I know it’s an indicator to myself that I am not exercising for the right reasons when I am repeating the same exercise over and over again. It’s also healthier for your body (and your mind) to engage in a variety of activities. It allows for your body to achieve overall, health, strength and wellness. Overall health, strength and wellness also includes days of rest and recuperation. Do not exercise every day of the week!
And finally, and perhaps most importantly, know when to back off.
This is the hardest for me and I think for many clients. It’s humbling to recognize that I shouldn’t exercise the way some of my friends who haven’t had an eating disorder, exercise. Last year I trained for a half marathon. I have been in recovery for well over a decade and have been exercising intuitively for years and subsequently felt a false sense of security and confidence. I was quite surprised when half way into training, old familiar feelings of anxiety and stress popped up for me.
Thoughts such as “I must run x number of miles today!” and “I can’t go out with my friends because I need to get my run in!” crept into my head. I began to plan my days and weeks around my “training schedule” and sacrifice people and things in my life that were important. Maybe people who train for distance races without a history of an eating disorder have a similar experience and consider rigidity par for the course. But one thing I know that is crucial in recovery is flexibility. Both psychological and physical flexibility. I was becoming rigid and inflexible about running and quite anxious about adhering to my training schedule.
When I recognized this, I humbled myself and reached out to people in my support system. With their support and my ability to be accountable to them, I backed off on my training. I engaged in serious introspection about whether I should even continue with plans to run the half marathon. I ultimately decided to continue only because I was able to re-establish and re-anchor myself in my genuine values and goals for this event: honoring my body and connecting with my husband (who was running with me). This experience was humbling as it reminded me that even 15 years later, I need to be careful about protecting my recovery.
People ask me if recovery gets easier? Even though I take proactive steps protect my recovery, I can say, with a resounding YES, recovery gets easier! I would even say for myself that most of the time, at this point in my journey, recovery is EASY! Early in recovery, it can feel like so much energy is spent making sure you are crossing your T’s and dotting your I’s to protect your recovery. It may even feel that it was easier to have an eating disorder than to try to live in recovery.
However, as you get further into recovery, you won’t need to expend so much energy on protecting recovery as the habits you establish will become intuitive. You will find you have the energy you crave to engage in your life the way you truly dreamed; the way you envisioned that led you to pursue recovery in the first place! And that life will be full, rich and deep!