Eating disorder recovery is hard.
It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The most challenging things? Weight gain and eating more. I can’t deny that. But those are obvious difficulties that most people would expect me to say. There are so many other hidden difficulties in recovery that we don’t talk about; things that make it such a roller coaster process.
Everybody will have their own versions of recovery and their own things they have found difficult. For me, each time I have been through this recovery process there have been several road blocks that stalled me as I went along. They haven’t stopped me, but they were jarring in their own ways.
Losing your identity. The first and biggest is the identity shift that comes with letting go of yourself as an eating disordered person. That’s a huge, slow undertaking that follows you through recovery and is incredibly hard to move on from, especially when it’s something you have dealt with for most of your life. Bar a couple of years after the last time I left treatment, I have never been either an adolescent or an adult without one eating disorder or another. Building and rebuilding who you are is a massive challenge. But there are many smaller moments running concurrently with this that are all difficult in their own ways.
Throwing away clothes. Letting go of your ‘disordered clothes’ is an enormous task. Once you accept those clothes don’t fit you anymore, you have two choices. You keep them just in case they do again one day (knowing that if they do, you will probably have relapsed), or you make the decision to fully commit to recovery and you get rid of them. During my last round of treatment did I finally do this, and it was almost like a mourning process. You are saying goodbye to an enormous part of your life, and accepting that your new body, one that you hate so intensely, is sticking around. I admit to keeping one item of clothing still. Not because I think I will (or plan to) ever fit into it again, but to prove to myself that I once did. I know that this is disordered, I know one day that I will throw it out, and I know I will never wear it again, so right now it sits in that limbo where my mind feels comfortable with it being. In the same vein, buying new clothes is also very hard – these are sizes you aren’t used to being. During my most recent relapse, I didn’t even bother buying new clothes. I just lived in ones that were too big for me, knowing that they would fit me again one day.
Getting a healthy blood test. Your first healthy blood test – if you’ve had bad ones – is a huge marker that you have started to nourish your body properly, and comes with very mixed feelings. It is both a happy and an anxiety provoking affair. Proper nourishment means food, and food is bad. But food isn’t bad, and this moment is actually something that can be used as a marker to celebrate progress.
Getting your period back. This time around I lost my period at a higher weight than when it returned, so it took me by surprise. I instantly was drowning in thoughts saying that if my body was well enough for my hormones to kick in again, I couldn’t justify gaining any more weight. Luckily I had a team of professionals around me to help me to challenge those thoughts and encourage me to push past them and keep gaining weight, but it was hard.
Social media detoxes. Instagram for me was anorexic fuel. I followed hundreds of people in the ‘recovery’ community, which is actually very often a toxic and disordered place (more on that another time). I didn’t ever post anything, but I was deeply entrenched in the lives of a pool of beautiful, thin girls and women who shared ‘progress’ pictures alongside photos of a spoonful of overnight oats heaped with mountains of fruit, or doing ‘pint party’ challenges knowing that half of them probably threw it out after the photo was taken. I had to decide to cleanse myself of these accounts. I can’t imagine how difficult this is to do when you are an active part of a community like this, as so many are. It was difficult enough for me as just a bystander.
Digestive issues. No-one talks about how much starvation messes with your digestion. When I started treatment this time around, because I was so malnourished and my stomach had shrunk so much, I would literally be doubled over in pain over eating half a sandwich – your body just doesn’t know what to do with itself initially. This is magnified if you’ve had difficulties with laxatives or purging, which many of us have. And the bloating, oh my god the bloating. It’s so, so uncomfortable, physically and mentally. I promise you it will pass, you just have to persevere.
The inevitable comments. “You look well”, “you are looking much healthier”, “you look so much better”, “nice to see you’ve put some weight on!”. These statements replace the ones you are so used to: “you’ve lost weight”, “we’re worried about you”, “you’re looking thin”, all of which spurred me on and showed me what a ‘good anorexic’ I was. People mean well when they tell you that you are looking better, usually they are genuinely pleased to see that you are ‘getting better’. Many of them don’t realise that weight gain might not actually be an indicator of recovery, and those comments, as well meaning as they are, are often incredibly painful to hear. It has taken a lot for me to try appreciate them for what they are: people who care about me rooting for me and my progress, and in turn me accepting that weight gain was a necessary part of my recovery that I am just going to have to deal with.
There is so much more to recovery than eating and weight gain, and there are a lot of hurdles that I don’t think people realise. But none of these hurdles should mean turning back.
What hidden challenges did you face in recovery?