The person that I am today is practically unrecognizable from the person that I was when I was in the depths of my nearly ten-year struggle with anorexia nervosa. I’m confident, I’m at a healthy weight for my body, and I’m able to take advantage of my opportunities and natural talents to catalyze successes for myself somewhere other than the scale. What may look like an effortless existence now actually took years of work to achieve. This week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and in honor of all of those struggling right alongside my former self, I want to share the ten ways that I learned to thrive in recovery from my eating disorder.
Disclaimer: I’m not a professional. I can’t speak to anything except for my own experiences. These tactics worked for me personally, and certain ones have also worked for my friends and acquaintances that struggle with eating disorders. But. This is not a treatment plan. This is not a guaranteed cure. This is just some extra help for when you feel stuck, from someone who might understand more than the average guy on the street :)
Helpful info to start on the road to professional help:
CONFIDENTIAL NEDA HOTLINE
Text “NEDA” to 741-741
Without further ado:
1. Get the right support.
Without the support of my family, friends, treatment program(s), and professionals, I would never have been able to maintain recovery. Support looks different for everybody; for some, it’s a parent. For others, it’s a teacher at school. It might be a therapist or a group, and even higher levels of care might be needed depending on your personal needs. It’s okay to ask for help, and it’s going to be the first step in your journey. Eating disorders thrive in isolation; they will lie to you and tell you that that nagging guilt you feel will only get worse when exposed to the light. But if you don’t let it breathe, it can’t ever heal. It will hurt at first, but I promise, letting people in is the best thing that you will ever do for yourself. No matter how independent you are, or how private you keep your problems, or how high you’ve built your walls. You need support. And asking for that support does not make you weak. It makes you brave.
2. Trace it all back.
You’re going to have to figure out why this all started. Rarely are eating disorders about the food. “Just eating” is going to put a band-aid over a gaping bullet hole, and makes you incredibly susceptible to relapse. The minute that you feel the need to cope again, restricting/bingeing/purging is going to be the first thing that you go back to, unless you can manage the thing that you have to cope with in the first place. So why are you coping? Why are you compensating? Low-self esteem? OCD? Perfectionism? Trauma? Whatever it is, find it, and work through it*.
*This is best done with a professional. If you are a student at Saint Louis University, you can obtain professional help here.
3. Politicize your healing.
This one was big for me. I started to get angry: angry that diet culture had promised to solve my problems by shrinking me right alongside them, angry that people felt the need to comment on my sick body as some sort of “goal” that they needed to achieve, angry that I felt the need to struggle in silence because of the societal misconceptions of eating disorders. So I decided to raise my middle finger and go against all of these things by getting the hell better. I couldn’t ethically preach against something while also perpetuating its validity by inflicting it upon myself.
Not to say you can’t struggle– lots of times, our eating disorders go directly against our moral codes, and that does not make us bad people or hypocrites! But. It’s good to feel like your journey could mean something greater in the grand scheme of things. For me, that was a huge help; sometimes, if you can’t heal for you, it helps to start healing with other people in mind.
4. Make a list of things that you love about yourself, things that you want to do, or impacts that you want to have on this world. Refer to it often.
I lost just about everything to anorexia: friendships and high school prom and my favorite pair of jeans and the trust of an insane amount of people. What kept me going when I had nothing was the prospect of someday having everything. I wanted to travel the world, to fall in love, to have friends that felt like home, to develop a sense of style that made me confident, to become a writer, to get a dog, to do something bigger than getting smaller. Something inside of me cared enough to hold on and to see these things through.
5. Be honest with yourself and others.
Honesty is hard when your entire world is built on lies: “I’m okay!”, “I already ate!”, “I just have to use the bathroom real quick!”
Start somewhere. Write a letter. Talk to someone who legally can not tell anyone, like a therapist. You don’t have to come straight out to the world with your deepest, darkest secrets. But you have to stop holding them in your stomach and pretending they can keep you alive. They can not. You can not have an honest, lasting recovery if you are still living in a lie.
6. Get rid of clothes that don’t fit.
Newsflash: you won’t ever fit into them again. And you need to learn to stop craving to. Donate them, take them to a resale shop, and erase them from your mind. Buy items that make you feel confident and that don’t encourage you to give into the nostalgia and work backwards.
This goes for absolutely anything that reminds you of your illness. Paint your room. Burn the pictures. Throw away the belts that you carved eighteen extra holes in. You can not heal in the same place that you got sick.
You can not heal in the same place that you got sick.
7. Prepare for relapse, but don’t accept it.
Lots of people say that relapse is inevitable and okay. Yes, it is highly likely that we will all have thoughts of relapse. But that doesn’t mean that we have to sink back.
This rhetoric about relapse was really damaging to me, to be honest. I would tell myself that it was normal to relapse, and that it was okay, and that struggling was normal. I was letting myself live in loopholes, and only ended up digging my grave deeper in the end.
Try to stop your relapse at the thought instead of allowing yourself “passes” to use behaviors because you think it’s “normal” or “inevitable.” It’s not normal to starve/binge/purge. Recovery is worth more than that temporary satisfaction or relief.
8. Acknowledge that the damage you have done is enough, and the desire to do any damage at all is an indication of sickness.
“I don’t need help”
“I’m not sick enough!”
Okay, so when will you get help, then? How do you define sick enough? And isn’t…wanting to be sicker…not exactly characteristic of a healthy mind anyway?
Much of the damage you are doing can not even be seen. Do not wait. Do not hurt yourself more. And do not discount the mental and emotional damage that you are doing by encouraging yourself to “get worse” as if that could ever bring you any satisfaction.
9. Stop judging your progress based on your body.
Once I was weight-restored, I was certain that I was cured! Wrong! So wrong!
There’s a mental switch that has to flip before you can enter real recovery and start leaving your ED behind for good. A healthy weight is not indicative of a healthy mind, and weight gain can be forced whereas psychological healing can not. Don’t give your body size any power anymore. Focus on what’s going on inside instead.
And oh! Guess what! You’re still just as valid struggling in a bigger body than you were when struggling in a smaller one!
10. Find other things to define you. Find other things to give you the same high.
I had to untether myself from my eating disorder, which was hard to do, considering it was the defining aspect of my being for most of my adolescence. It was exhilarating to go on my search-for-self, but scary knowing that I was nineteen years old with no idea who I was outside of my body.
I found writing, traveling, and lovely friends who now define my life and make me feel more full of excitement and adrenaline than any number ever did. My happiness was not automatic; it was something I had to hunt for, and something that I’m still developing. But it grew as I let myself grow, as I cleared space within my head and my heart for all of the good things that I never believed that I deserved.
It will be easier to let go when you have something better to hold on to.