In the movie version of my life, eating disorder recovery would probably go about like this:
- A: Movie-me hits "rock bottom", realizes she has a problem.
- B: Movie-me enters a recovery program, thinks she is not like the others but through trials, tribulations, and maybe a montage or two, overcomes adversity and finds full recovery.
- C: Movie-me reunites with lost love; screen fades to credits while we walk hand in hand eating ice cream, never to count calories ever again.
In real life, recovery has not been nearly so easy, nor has it involved even one joyous 80s song montage. In fact, in a lot of ways it has sucked and been really hard. This post is dedicated to people who may be entering recovery--I want to tell you some of the hard stuff, not to discourage you, but so that you can know you are not alone when it comes up, and so that you can keep on going.
1. Recovery is actually not a straight road.
In the recovery world, there are literally a bazillion different quotes used to describe the fact that recovery is not a straight road. There are bumps in the roads. Keep going! Hang in there!
Learning that recovery is not always a straightforward journey via uplifting quotes is one thing. Experiencing it firsthand, however, is a whole different beast. Recovery is a nasty bitch at times, a seemingly all-uphill road, with constant rain. At many points it just seems so much easier to go back to the disorder, which seems so much easier and more familiar than the rocky road of recovery.
Unfortunately for cynics like me, this is where faith comes in. Recovery requires bravery and trust that even if it's all uphill and rainy for now, the sun will come out eventually.
2. It is boring.
This was perhaps the biggest "surprise" lesson for me: RECOVERY IS #$%*@ing BORING. Think about it this way: pre-recovery, about 70% of my time/energy was spent obsessing about food, eating or not eating food, plotting out what I would or would not eat, trying to get out of plans that involved socializing with food. It takes up a lot of time to have an eating disorder, and when you don't have it, you get bored.
The hard part is that when you are bored, you are tempted to have something to do, and the eating disorder is right there waiting. To resist it, you have to take on activities with the zeal of Tracey Flick running for class president. Take a knitting class. Start yoga. Do things where you are accountable and are around other people. For me, yoga was this thing. It became a huge part of my life, and I had room for it because I no longer had the eating disorder. Now, I am a yoga instructor! A+ for me!
3. Life doesn't get easier, it gets harder.
In the movie version of your eating disorder recovery, you'd have a big epiphany moment that you need to get better, indulge in a little montage involving eating healthy foods and putting yourself out there, and then you'd magically be living a lovely life.
Thing is, in real life, you've probably messed up a lot of personal relationships and aspects of your life in the name of your eating disorder. I know I did. Recovery is the time when you need to dig in and really repair all of the damage that you have done, not just to your body but to your life. And it gets harder before it gets easier.
4. You will lose some friends.
You might lose friends along the way when you decide to enter recovery. I sure did. There were a few reasons why:
-some of my friends had eating disorders and we were actually secretly reinforcing each other's behavior. We were nasty bitches, getting competitive when the other person looked thinner, etc. When one of you decides to leave that cycle but the other is still in it, you don't have much in common any more.
-personally, I was really whiny and annoying for a long time. People lost patience. They didn't disappear, exactly, but certain friendships went into a sort of hibernation while I got myself right enough to function again.
-you can emerge from your eating disorder as a new person. I was. I had opinions where once I was compliant, I told the truth rather than lying and being secretive. Not everyone will like the new you. It's OK.
5. You will regress to the point where your eating disorder started.
I developed an eating disorder around the age of 12-13. In some ways, my emotional growth was stunted at that point, so when I entered recovery and no longer had my eating disorder as a crutch, I basically had to have a crash-course in emotional intelligence that I should have been slowly learning through my late teens and 20s. So, I became a 30+ year old who dealt with emotions like a 12 year old. I cried a lot, I was immature, I was super sensitive, there was a lot of "why are you being so mean to me". Yeah, it was awesome. Not.
6. Your body will do strange things
I knew that when I stopped eating a crazy-restrictive diet that I would gain weight. But I did not know that my body would go through a full revolt.
When you begin gaining weight after such an extended time restricting, a strange thing happens: you gain a ton of water weight. I did. For 2-3 months, my skin stretched and became swollen, making me feel like I had gained 30 pounds instead of just 5 or so. I had swollen ankles and abdomen. My skin felt too big. I started getting my period again after about 7 years without, and the cramps hurt like a mother. I broke out. I felt uncoordinated. I began to sweat. It was not my most dignified time.
It was very hard to persist during this phase, but I basically dealt with it by only wearing elastic-waisted clothing and throwing out everything fitted, and hiding from the world. Luckily, it leveled out after a while.
7. Everything is magnified.
For me, my eating disorder acted like a big ball of cotton candy, insulating me from everything life had to offer. I didn't experience high highs, but nor did I experience the lowest of lows. I didn't cry a whole lot. I didn't really feel much of anything.
Once I stopped having my eating disorder, everything, and I mean everything, was magnified, as if in technicolor. Every feeling, every emotion, every insecurity. Without the eating disorder to act as that buffer between me and the world, I had to feel everything up close and personal. Sometimes, feeling things so much can hurt. Sometimes, my heart literally aches from feeling. That never happened during my eating disorder. It has taken some getting used to, but the good feelings and the love feelings tend to make the hard feelings worthwhile.
8. You might not be the person you think you are.
I thought I knew who I was when I had my eating disorder, but really, it was the eating disorder that defined me. I said no to just about everything. I was hard and thin. I didn't do things that hadn't been planned. I didn't like anything involving spontaneity, the outdoors, or the word "potluck". There were a lot of rules.
As the world began to expand in recovery, so did I, as a person. I began to let things in, like nature, and accepting impromptu coffee invitations, and attending potlucks and actually eating things. I surprised myself by liking things I never thought I would or could. It can be scary and weird to discover the new (real) you, but in a way, it's also exhilarating.
9. Recovery is S-L-O-W.
When movie stars or celebrities go through recovery, they go into a 2-month program and come out triumphantly declaring themselves as recovered on magazine covers. Me, I have been in recovery for about 4 years and I consider myself advanced, but still very much on the journey. I think that part of it is that my definition of recovery keeps on changing. At a certain point, I would have labeled recovery as "not throwing up" or "eating with others" or "not counting calories", but as I reach those milestones, I keep on realizing that I have further to go, and that I want to go further, because I like the life that is opening up in spite of all of the crazy that comes along with it.
Recovery is very slow, and not always steady, especially in the face of crisis. Just knowing that it is a slow slog can be helpful.
10. It's worth it.
Gosh, in reading this list, you might be thinking "is recovery even worth it?". The answer is yes.
I mean, it's hard, it's awkward, it's emotional, it can manifest physically. You'll battle more than you ever thought. You'll be crazy and weird and cry a lot, probably.
But you will also freaking be alive and in the world. You'll be living, not just existing. As an annoying inspirational poster once said, "If you are going through hell, keep going." Life is waiting.