Recovering from an eating disorder is the most frustrating, confusing, and aggravating process I have ever endured. Of course, it is also rewarding, empowering, rejuvenating, and meaningful, but all that good stuff can take a while to be realized. You have to fight like hell before the all the rainbows and daisies. I remember when I decided that I needed to rid myself of the eating disorder, I thought I could do it quickly. I told myself that in one year (yeah, one year), I would be 20 pounds heavier, a faster runner, and loving my body. For an overachieving perfectionist like me, this goal was rational…reasonable.
Of all the crazy thoughts I have ever had, that’s got to be the best one. In all fairness, I was a recovery newbie; I was optimistic that my journey would be a constantly upward sloping line. Of course, as we all know, that is not the case. Recovering from an eating disorder is having to face a destructive, implicitly cruel demon that is unrelenting in it’s advances. On top of that, eating disorders are unlike other addictions, disorders, or diseases because you can’t just give up food, you face to face your demons at least three times a day. You fight like hell…and like any war, you win some and you lose some. So to me, the essence of a meaningful recovery is not that you don’t mess up, it’s that you don’t give up.
I mean, it’s been four years and I’m still struggling with it. I’m certainly in a way better place than I was before – period restored, weight restored, eating habits mostly normalized, more social, physically stronger – but I still face eating disorder thoughts relatively often. It’s hard to exist in this “semi-recovered” phase, where you look fine and feel fine most of the time, but you still feel like the eating disorder has a small grip on you.
I’m just like… “WHY CAN I NOT BE FREE OF THIS?”
I’ve become so frustrated lately that my perfectionism has crept back, but not in the way you might think. Initially, I was obsessed with being the perfect example of anorexia, the five star version of a malnourished runner. Then, I wanted to be the perfect example of recovery, eating all the right foods at all the right times and in all the right portions. I began criticizing myself if a destructive thought popped up, admonishing myself for failing to be free of my eating disorder. I think the driving force for that wasn’t just a desire to be perfect, but an expression of my exhaustion from dealing with my eating disorder. I was sick and tired of living half a life, and I wanted nothing more than to be the girls I saw on social media with the amazing transformation pictures: incredibly malnourished to vibrantly healthy. I wanted to be that girl. Unfortunately, there were two main problems with this…
- I developed a specific idea of what a sick body looked like as compared to a recovery body. There was only sick, and recovered. No in-between. In my mind, the eating disorder was the rail thin bodies, the bony backs, the sunken cheeks. I didn’t stop to consider that maybe eating disorders don’t always manifest like that, maybe people who appear at a normal weight or overweight might also struggle with an eating disorder. In my mind, the bigger bodies were the healthier bodies, bar none. I wanted this transformation so badly that I didn’t stop to think about the intricacies of the process, and how my recovered body might not look those “recovered bodies” I saw all the time.
- I didn’t think to appreciate the process enough to realize that it would have a lot of setbacks. I started thinking about my recovery like a runaway train to heaven. So sure that my journey would be straight uphill, I started pressuring myself to maintain the perfect recovery. I did not want to jeopardize my chances at recovery, so I had to be spot on, all the time. What happened was that I fell deeper into polarized thinking; either I eat the cookie like a good recovery girl, or I don’t and I’ve then failed myself. Thus, I began a nasty process of either having amazing recovery days where I eat balanced and feel great, or having horrible binge-eating days where I tried to justify eating two pints of ice cream by telling myself it was all the name of “recovery. By denying the existence of setbacks and stumbles, I led myself further down a path of self-hatred and destruction.
There was one time when I was at home alone, reading my newest Stephen King. I got hungry, so I went downstairs for a snack. Once in the kitchen, I saw a plate of cookies my mom had baked that morning. Immediately, my brain split in half: one side urging me to take one with a glass of cold milk, and the other saying I should go for an apple instead. The recovery side of me knew it wanted the cookie, so it would be in my best interests to have the cookie. However, I also knew that eating it at that moment (home alone, having a bad day) might not be the best idea because I knew I struggled with binge eating. I ended up taking the cookie because I wanted to be an example of recovery, to be the girl that can have one cookie and not cry about it or eat ten more cookies. I ate it, and then felt poorly, so I at three more…then another three, and so on. The issue here, I later recognized, was that I was not in tune with my body or my emotions, and instead walked blindly into a firestorm, guided by a need to be perfect. I knew that perhaps I should have waited until a friend came over, or my parents returned home so I could share the cookie with someone, having a positive social interaction. Deep down, I knew that’s what I needed in the moment. Unfortunately, it was shadowed by this “perfect recovery girl” who compulsively needed to be an example to others.
I’ve realized that the only way around this is to accept the inevitable…I’m going to mess up, a lot. I’m going to slip up and have bad days. I might not be the girl in the recovery pictures with a seemingly flawless relationship with food, and a body to match. My recovery is my recovery, with an emphasis on the possessive pronoun. Making the choice to be happy isn’t a choice you can make every day with ease. Some days, you don’t want to recover. You want to stay in bed all day, starve yourself, and talk to no one. But then come the days where you get up, and face the world with buoyant optimism, determined to live a better life by starting with a better day. It’s a mix of these two, but eventually you’ll notice that the good days start to outnumber the bad days.
There is no perfect recovery. That is a concept that shouldn’t exist, and the sooner we accept this, the sooner we can heal.