Eating Disorders: The Recovery Process Is Key

Recent reports reveal that an eating disorder study billed as the largest analysis of U.S. teenagers ever is returning some depressingly large numbers: More than half a million have had an eating disorder, according to government research, with binge-eating the most common disorder.

In my book Why Can't I Look the Way I Want; Overcoming Eating Issues there is a section called 'The Inside Story: Types of Eating Disorders' that describes binge eating disorder as compulsive eating without purging.

People with binge eating disorder have recurrent episodes where they eat large amounts of food rapidly, even when not physically hungry. The person then feels a sense of loss of control, and embarrassment or guilt, which can lead to eating in secret. During and after a binge cycle, they have overwhelming feelings of self-loathing and depression about how much food they have eaten and this fuels low self-esteem. A person suffering from binge eating disorder will also be disgusted about their body size and have difficulty expressing their emotions.

In Australia the incidence of binge eating disorder in males and females is almost equal (i). The incidence of bulimia nervosa is 5 in 100 (ii).

Sadly, eating disorders continue to be prevalent with devastating repercussions on the wellbeing of our teenagers.

According to the Eating Disorders Coalition for Research, Policy, & Action eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. About 20 percent of all people with eating disorders will eventually die as the result of their illness. In those who suffer from anorexia, the numbers may be even higher. One-third of all patients will recover after an initial episode, one-third will experience a relapse, and one-third will suffer from chronic deterioration and multiple re-hospitalizations.

As someone who has recovered from anorexia I know that the process of recovery can be daunting and terrifying. Recovery means letting go of that which is safe and familiar and confronting the fear of the unknown head-on.

"It is not uncommon for a sufferer -- especially after numerous relapses -- to believe that recovery is not achievable for them," says Lydia Jade Turner, Managing Director of Bodymatters Australasia, an innovative eating disorder clinic specialising in treatment and prevention. "Some people resign to the fact that they are somehow uniquely "defective" and are doomed to a lifetime of illness. In reality, relapse is practically par for the course. It can be enormously helpful learning from relapse each time -- identifying vulnerabilities and triggers, and working out what helps to get you back on track with recovery."

Recovery also brings the opportunity to be true to who you are, learn how to practice self-love, trust the future and discover the enormous strength, pride and courage that comes with pushing through the fear.

When I interviewed Jenny I was moved by her story. She suffered through anorexia and depression for seven years and tried to take her own life several times. "There were periods when I felt as though I was getting on top of it and then I'd slip up and things would get worse again," she says. "It was during these times I had to remind myself of my reasons for letting go of the anorexia and how much better my life would be without it. Recovery is about finding out who you are. It is the greatest opportunity to create a new life -- one you truly deserve."

It is through recovery that we learn to trust and do what feels right for ourselves as individuals. I personally feel that there needs to be greater awareness around what is involved in the process of recovery to alleviate the fear of the unknown. As someone with intimate knowledge of this process, I believe that psychotherapy is an important part of the treatment process because it can be helpful in identifying underlying issues such as traumatic events or relationship problems, that may have contributed to the onset of the eating disorder. A trusting relationship with a therapist is an important element of psychotherapy as this helps to establish beliefs and motivation with the aim of encouraging a positive sense of self.

Ongoing support is important to a successful recovery as this helps to maintain the motivation to continue to move forward. Post-treatment support compliments the foundations and groundwork laid during the treatment phase, and will take an individual to the next level by helping them figure out direction and purpose, become clear about goals and taking the steps to make them a reality. This inspires self-confidence and a sense of purpose as the individual is channeling their energy in a positive direction.

"Recovery is never a linear process; it involves making errors and is more a case of two steps forward, one step back," adds Lydia Jade Turner.

The more widespread eating disorders become, the more we need to advocate that recovery is possible and raise awareness of the process it entails. Although it is a challenging period, the greater the level of support and encouragement individuals receive throughout the recovery process, the greater their motivation to move forward and create happy and fulfilling lives.

(i) Paxton, S. (1998), 'Do men get eating disorders?', Everybody - Newsletter of Body Image and Health Inc., vol. 2, August.

(ii) Women's Health Queensland Wide Fact Sheet 2.021, in Sanders, F., Gaskill, D. and Gwynne, E. (1995), Body Image, Sex Role Stereotyping and Disordered Eating Behaviours, University of Queensland.