Eating Disorders: Recovery 101
In this post, I answer some questions that I'd love to have known the answers to back when I was struggling with Bulimia Nervosa.
1. Am I sick enough? Am I thin enough?
This a question our eating disorder often asks of us. And the answer is: no. You are not sick enough or thin enough for your eating disorder, and you never will be. That's because at its core, this is not a need for a particular weight or shape. It is about something else, something painful that may be hard to admit and talk about such as:
I want to matter enough that people actually notice me.
I want to be deserving enough of love and care.
I want to be small enough and insignificant enough that people forget I exist.
I want to be worthy enough.
I want to be enough.
If you focus on being sick enough, you will not get there, because this was never about your weight. These thoughts and urges come from unmet needs in your life, and that is where you need to focus. You can learn to acknowledge and grieve the times in your life where your needs weren't met. You can tell yourself that you are a deserving human being, and that you're worthy of love. You can reach out and receive care from those around you, and take a risk in connecting with others. You can build a life for yourself that you cherish which has no place for an eating disorder!
2. How can I resist the urge to use disordered eating behaviours?
First off, take a look at the picture of your eating for the past few hours and the past week. Is there a pattern to your eating, such as bingeing followed by restricting, or purging later in the day? I myself, found that I often went through cycles in my disordered eating behaviours that in retrospect, I could recognize. I knew that hunger, strong emotions, tiredness, certain foods, the time of day, and the amount of structure and routine I had in the day, all affected the intensity of my urges.
At those times, it was important for me to immediately reach out to my supports. I found it helpful to be very specific in what I was dealing with, and what would help me, for example: "I have very strong urges to binge and purge right now. I would like you to help distract me by playing a game". This was very hard to do because of the shame I felt over my struggles, but I knew that I could not recover alone; I needed help.
Once I could identify risk factors that led me to act on my urges, I could start to change how I dealt with these difficult thoughts and feelings. The more I reflected on my disordered eating behaviours, and asked myself the all important "why?", the more awareness I gained, and the more choices I had. At first I could only delay acting on my thoughts, which was still a win. Then I started to let people in some of the time, and not finish the entirety of my rituals. Each day that passed without me acting on my urges, was a positive. Over time I increased my capacity to sit through intense thoughts and feelings, and grew more motivated to fight to get rid of my eating disorder.
Be patient. It takes your brain time to wire new pathways.
3. How can I accept myself after a binge?
First off, you have eaten food. That is all. It is not a disaster. It is not the end of the world. Your body can cope. The food is not harming you. You are fuelling your body, that is all. It is possible to pick yourself back up.
It is important now that you don’t get caught in a cycle of self-destruction and self-criticism. The things you do to punish yourself for bingeing may well be more harmful to your body than the food you have eaten. If you have strong negative feelings following the binge, do something that soothes you. It may sound cliched, but try to breathe deeply, and sloooow down.
Later on, when you are feeling more calm, you may want to try to trace back why you binged, so that you can try to do something different next time.
4. How can I let go of the drive to lose weight?
When you notice the drive to lose weight, ask yourself: what is it that you want to get rid of? And no, the answer I’m looking for is not ‘my fat’. Look deeper. What is it about yourself that you are trying to lose? What is it that you feel you have too much of? What does ‘fat’ mean to you?
Let me just say, that there is nothing as irrelevant to your character as how much you weigh and what shape you are. If you think about what you value in your friends, is it really their weight? Or is it how they make you feel, their positive qualities such as outgoingness, a sense of humour, and how they show that they care?
Is your weight really what you want to be remembered by? Is that the impact that you want to have on the world? Remember, you only have the one life to make of it what you will. And with your focus on losing weight, you will miss out on other important things, like relationships and opportunities.
I say again, there is nothing so irrelevant and meaningless as your weight. Be brave. Let in the possibility that you are more than your eating disorder, and you might just find so much more from life.
5. What are some tips for buying clothes and food?
I used to find clothes shopping agonizing, especially in a changing body. It was helpful to shop with understanding friends. They helped to ground me, and remind me that actually, shopping for new outfits can be fun! I would try on clothes facing away from the mirror, and step outside the changing room to look in the mirror, so that I didn’t get trapped in there scrutinizing and criticizing my body. I’d also recommend cutting the sizing tags out of your clothes if its something you fixate on!
Because I struggled with bingeing, I found it helpful to write a list of everything I needed before going to the supermarket, and trying not to deviate too much from that list. I don’t recommend challenging yourself by buying lots of binge food to keep in the house – this can just be a sneaky way for your eating disorder to get access to food! If you are working on incorporating binge foods into your meal plan, do not buy in bulk, and once you are home, divide the food up into single portions. When you serve it to yourself, put it on a plate, instead of eating out of a packet. All these steps will help decrease the likelihood of bingeing.
Also, don’t shop at the supermarket when you’re overly hungry, and set a time limit for yourself so that you don’t spend ages just looking at food. That’s not helpful; it will just increase your obsession with food and mean you don’t have time for thinking about things that are actually important! I can remember how exciting it was to find a new safe food; however, looking back, I can’t believe how tasteless and unappetizing that food was which I tried (unsuccessfully) to convince myself I liked.
As well as writing a shopping list, I found it helpful to have some flexibility in what food I chose. I learned to tune in to the flavours and textures I was attracted to, which in turn helped me to get more in touch with my body. Try not to focus on nutritional information; this won’t help you to recognize your taste preferences and cravings.
6. Should I follow a meal plan or eat intuitively?
Following a meal plan means eating according to an agreed upon timetable of 3 balanced meals and 3 snacks per day (with roughly measured portions of protein, carbohydrates, fats and fruit/vegetable sources).
Eating intuitively is about tuning in to and acting upon your hunger and fullness cues, and eating the foods you are craving in the moment, regardless of ‘health’ value.
For me, the most useful style of eating was somewhere in between the two. I had to loosen up on my rigid food rules, and also create some guidelines for myself, such as eating 3 balanced meals per day plus snacks as required.
Because I struggled with both restrictive and binge purge behaviours, I not only had to teach myself how to eat, but also how to stop eating. Both were difficult; I had a frustrating pattern whereby the anxiety I felt at the start of the meal meant I didn’t feel like eating, but then by the end of the meal, my binge habits would get triggered, and I would desperately want to keep eating!
I also had a lot of obsessional worries about food. For example, I constantly checked the fridge and pantry, because I was worried about the possibility of running out of food. I would also respond in anger if someone interrupted me whilst I was preparing a meal. These worries speak to the rigidity of my eating disorder, which over time, I had to challenge very deliberately.
7. How can I stay motivated during recovery?
An eating disorder is, by nature, a very tricky illness. Its voice is very compelling; it tries constantly to convince you that there is nothing more important in life than your weight and food intake. You can have a burst of motivation, and five minutes later, be planning how to reduce your carbohydrate portion at dinner. Repetitive, obsessive thoughts are very common in eating disorders. So is losing your identity (becoming 'an eating disorder'), and your ability to make flexible choices.
I did not want to recover from my eating disorder for a very long time. Years, in fact. Even when I was actively in treatment, there were still parts of me desperately clinging to it. To this day, I still fight thoughts of relapse. But I don't listen to those thoughts.
I now know who I am outside of an eating disorder. I know that there are aspects to me much more important than my weight and shape. My body allows me to do many wonderful things, and for that I am grateful!
If your eating disorder is your best friend, this diminishes all other relationships in your life, especially the relationship you have towards yourself. If you're turning to disordered eating
Ultimately, no one can make you change. Not even your treatment team, or your loved ones. No one can fix you either. This is something you need to decide to do for yourself, and need to keep committing and recommitting to until you achieve freedom.
Recovery can be beyond what you could possibly imagine