Content warning: I do discuss some eating disordered behaviours in the following post.
Since starting treatment for anorexia again in 2019, I have overcome hurdles that I never could have imagined would be possible.
It’s easy to celebrate the big markers of progress: eating a certain food, reaching a target weight, finishing therapy. But there are so many other achievements that happen along the way that can be easy to overlook. Here are some of my biggest recovery achievements over the last couple of years.
Breaking anorexia rules:
I had many rules enforced upon me by anorexia. Some of these were semi-logical like not eating things with artificial sugar or saturated fat for example, or only things below a certain calorie limit. However, the more unwell I got the more nonsensical these became, until wet food, hot food, cutlery and plates were all off limits. The more rules you have, the less you can eat, so my options ended up being very limited. Breaking these rules that kept me shackled and starving was a huge feat because there were so many layers of them, but now I can eat so much more freely and I am constantly still trying to break rules that my eating disorder made to keep me trapped.
Engaging in therapy:
Therapy is hard. Like mega hard. Especially when the work you are doing goes against everything your brain is telling you. The most difficult thing about therapy however, isn’t always baring your soul for that hour, but the work you have to put in between sessions. It’s easy to go along and pay lip service once a week, but this time around I have really, really tried my best. And it has paid off.
Completing day patient:
Admitting things were bad enough that I wouldn’t cope with just outpatient treatment was hard. I felt ashamed at being so utterly out of control and so completely drowned in anorexia. I felt like as somebody in their late 20’s who had been in and out of treatment so many times, that I should know better. I knew that going into day patient meant giving up a huge portion of control and facing challenges that I would never manage independently. I knew the rate and level of weight gain expected of me was going to be more painful than I could ever imagine. Despite knowing these things, I got up every day to wait for my hospital transport, I sat down and ate every meal and I engaged in every group until I got to my target weight. That took guts.
I hadn’t eaten out in a restaurant at all for a long time, and even the times where I allowed myself to over the last few years were then ruined by the many compensatory behaviours that I would need to put in place before and afterwards. But since starting treatment I have gradually started to venture out for lunches and dinners, even at places where I don’t know the calories of what I am ordering.
Excessive and compulsive exercise has been a huge struggle of mine in this most recent relapse, and has probably been the hardest compensatory behaviour to challenge and overcome. But slowly I have been managing to cut it down, and there are now occasions where I go a whole day skipping any exercise entirely. This felt like something I would never be able to achieve, but I am doing it step by step.
I have never been anything but honest with my treatment team, even when I knew that my weight or behaviours could put my treatment in jeopardy, and I think the fact that I have done this has actually made them trust me more. If people don’t know the truth then they can’t help to the best of their ability, and I think me telling the truth enabled me to get the most out my care.
Even when things scare me, I am starting to agree to them. That unplanned hot chocolate with a friend. That activity that means I can’t go for a walk when I usually would. That bag of sweets in the kitchen cupboard. Gradually I am saying yes to life, freedom and happiness.
I am getting better every day at saying no to the rules anorexia demands I follow. I am saying no to hating myself, to hiding away and to making myself smaller. I am also better at asserting myself: although I am more open to challenging myself and being brave, there are things that do feel too much and too overwhelming, and saying no to them means I remain stable in my recovery and progress.
Part of my treatment this time around was mirror exposure, an activity in which you stand in front of a full length mirror and describe your body in non-judgement, neutral language. Even talking about this task with my therapist brought me to tears, but not only did I do it with him twice, I’ve also managed to do it alone. And it is getting easier each time.
One of the scariest things about being open and honest is that it makes you vulnerable, but that vulnerability is what lets people in. I have cried and shouted and sworn my way through recovery, and I’ve allowed my therapist to know the parts of me that I am most protective and fearful of. I have shared my difficulties with people around me and I have made myself vulnerable. But with that, I have made progress that would have otherwise been impossible.
Weighing myself less:
When in the depths of relapse last year I was weighing myself well upwards of 100 times a day. Now I can go four or five days without checking it at all. Although that is more frequent than I would like it to be, I have weighed myself every day for years and years, so this is a huge achievement for me and one I hope I can continue building on once I am discharged from the service
This is a huge one for me, as purging by both being sick and laxatives are behaviours I have struggled with for years. I was diagnosed with purging disorder long before my anorexia relapse last year though I don’t talk about it often, but as I remained a healthy weight there was little treatment available. It wasn’t until my symptoms shifted, as they so often do with eating disorders, that I was rediagnosed with anorexia and started treatment again. I have completely stopped purging of any kind since starting treatment and I feel pretty confident it’s not something I will ever dare myself to do again.
Responding to hunger:
Prolonged periods of restriction can lead to topsy turvy hunger cues, and it can take a while for them to come back in recovery. Most days I eat quite mechanically, the same sort of things at the same sort of times, and I don’t really allow myself to get hungry because it’s a sensation I am very fearful of. However, there have been times recently where rather than ignore my hunger or fill myself up with liquids, I have actually reached for an extra snack or had a slightly bigger portion. Those are words I never thought I’d say.
The best thing about this is that I have the rest of my life to keep challenging anorexia and progressing in my recovery, adding to this list as time goes on!