"What does 'recovered' from an eating disorder look like?"
This is a question commonly asked by those struggling with eating disorders, trying to fashion their future. February is Eating Disorder Awareness month, and while often the focus is on increasing awareness of the signs and symptoms of eating disorders, it is equally important for people struggling with these conditions to be thinking about what recovery could look like.
The short answer is, "It depends." Recovery depends on your diagnosis, your biology, psychology and circumstances. Like clothing, recovery looks different on each person. Most importantly, it is possible. In fact, research supports the potential for full recovery regardless of age or length of illness. Do not sell yourself short of a full recovery. Invest yourself in making it happen.
Consider these recovery snapshots:
-- The young professional who used to build her social calendar around her workouts and her "safe" foods defines recovery as abandonment of the gym and regularly eating at an array of NYC food trucks.
-- A college student's friends speak of little else besides diet plans and exercise. She defines health as responding to the banter by asking herself "What's wrong with them?" instead of "What's wrong with me?" and then works to change the group's conversation altogether.
-- A mother of young children defines recovery as fully participating in family mealtime by eating the same foods as her kids and spouse.
-- The middle-aged man who once only saw himself as the number on the scale or on the waist-size of his pants defines recovery with a multidimensional self-concept that focuses on qualities like humor, tenacity and generosity rather than body size.
As you sketch out your own recovery picture, ask not just "What do I want it to look like?" but also "How can I get there?" If the process feels murky, you might draw on the following tips:
1. Dig deep for the courage to speak up. Eating disorders are often cloaked in shame and secrecy. If you find the bravery within to start talking about your symptoms, you will learn that you are not alone. This can be a tremendously relieving first step.
2. Don't go it alone. Recovery takes a village. Line up your supports including professionals, family, and friends. Consider the treatment dream team that will work best for you -- psychotherapy, nutritional counseling, medication, meal support groups. Try on different combinations until you've settled into the right fit for you.
3. Dream big, plan small. Consider who you were and what was important to you before suffering from the eating disorder. Contemplate what the illness has taken from you that you would like back. Think as well, about how the illness serves you (and it does) and other ways of getting what you need. After thinking through the broad strokes of your recovery, break it down into small steps and start making plans. Anticipate setbacks by making a backup plan for your plan.
4. Stem the tide of discouragement. Mark Twain wrote, "Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs one step at a time." Eating disorders are made up of a number of rigid behaviors and thought patterns that must be broken down and challenged systematically and repeatedly. Recovery will not happen all at once. Spending less time in settings that reinforce old patterns may help advance the process. Mood, concentration, anxiety and fixation with food are likely to improve before body image. Be patient and forgiving with yourself when it feels harder than you had imagined.
5. Find a metaphor that works for you. Because eating disorders can be associated with lifelong vulnerability, it is helpful to find a recovery metaphor to which you can return as needed. Maybe the illness is a box left in the middle of a road from which you are driving away, but can see in the distance through your rearview mirror. Perhaps the eating disorder is a tide and recovery represents treading water: to prevent drift from the shore or becoming disoriented, you must keep moving your limbs. If you experience the eating disorder as a voice from within, then think of it like a radio station that may become more static over time (or on which you might be able to better control the volume).
Whatever your journey, push forward towards greater flexibility with eating and body acceptance. Your recovery is out there waiting for you to try it on.
For more information on eating disorder research and treatment resources, please call the Columbia Center for Eating Disorders at 646-774-8066 or visit columbiaeatingdisorders.org.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Follow Deborah R. Glasofer, Ph.D. on Twitter.