When you get down to it, recovering from an eating disorder is pretty simple. It boils down to this:
Just eat normally.
Yup! It's as simple as that! The books, the hospitalization, the therapy, they're not necessary at all! You just need to eat normally! Have a hamburger, just eat in moderation! Along similar lines, allow me to quickly cure all sorts of other ailments:
The cure to alcoholism: Just stop drinking!
The cure for drug addiction: Just stop doing drugs!
The cure for anxiety: Just relax!
The cure for OCD: Just calm down already!
I hope that you can tell by now that I'm joking. Yes, these solutions are simple, and they are what most people in fact are looking for. However, theory versus practice = different entirely. The clearest and most direct way to be recovered from an eating disorder is to "eat normally". But it's not as easy as that, and that's not the whole story.
There are all sorts of obstacles and landmines along the way.
Allow me to go on a tangent for a minute and tell you a personal story.
For years and years, I restricted calories. If I ate more than the certain "safe" number in my mind, it truly Fucked My Shit Up. OK, most sites about ED recovery don't give numbers, but I'm going to give numbers. At first, my "safe" number was 1700 calories per day. Then it dipped down to 1500 calories per day. Then, for a time, I really just felt better if I hovered around 1200 calories per day. But I would always "round up" calories--for instance, if a label said that an item had 60 calories, in my inner ticker, I'd log it as 100 calories. Just to be safe.
Not too long ago, Whole Foods began listing calorie counts for all its foods. As it turns out, there was a bakery item I was buying there fairly regularly during my low calorie days. I estimated that this item contained 250-300 calories. In truth, years later I learned that this item contains more like 700 calories. In going back in time, I can see that without realizing it, because of this inconsistency in my count, I actually was eating a "normal" amount of calories. Honestly, the me of that time period would have DIED had I known how many calories I was consuming. It would have been the Worst Thing in the World. And yet when I think back to that time, I always felt hungry and miserable and...lacking.
Yes: without realizing it was eating a "normal" and acceptable amount. And yet I still had an eating disorder.
This long story is to say: eating disorders are not just about physical hunger, so to expect them to be "cured" by eating a normal amount is total bullshit.
An eating disorder grows from issues and emotions that are not food. So really, food is not the problem. However, through the disordered eating behaviors that the person in question manifests to deal with said issues and emotions, food becomes a problem.
So really, to recover from an eating disorder, one does have to start by addressing the food issues, because they're dangerous and not healthy and they are a problem. However, it's just the first layer of recovery.
From there, you have to keep peeling back layers of those issues and emotions that drove you to disordered eating in the first place. And with every layer, stuff comes up, and you want to turn back to the comfort of letting food be the scapegoat. Sometimes, you do.
I don't think that the idea of eating disorder recovery is to peel back every layer and just be totally raw and come to a point where you're like "voila! I'm all good now!"
More, it's to get to a point where you can permit life to be messy and uncomfortable and not turn to food as your only way to deal with it. Or, at the very least, to recognize that this is what you're doing with food.
Consider, for instance, these very normal reactions to events both positive and negative:
- You have a bad breakup and eat a box of bonbons and drink a bottle of wine by yourself while cry-watching The Holiday.
- Your niece makes a truly terrible and monstrous cake from a mix, and even though you're not hungry you force yourself to eat it. Because you love her.
- You are too busy at work to eat lunch, so when you get home, you devour half a bag of potato chips.
These are not signs that someone has an eating disorder. They're pretty normal yet isolated events that one would hope is not the norm. However, this is to say that eating disorder recovery won't necessary look like "eating normally" all the time, because all of the above things are normal.
Ultimately, "just eat normally" isn't terrible advice. Because coming to a more accepting and peaceful place with food is important for someone with an eating disorder. However, it's incredibly dismissive advice that shows little understanding of the inner torture that is an eating disorder. It's just recovery 101. Eating a proper amount of calories IS something that can be corrected. But what got you to the point of an unhealthy relationship with food is the real problem. So while your sentiment is appreciated, don't bother saying "just eat normally" to someone with an eating disorder. This thought has in fact entered the person's mind, I promise you, but they have to find their own path there.