There have been times of confusion within myself in regards to understanding what recovery from an eating disorder is, and is not. It is important here to be realistic. Recovery is definitely possible, if you have a realistic expectation and acceptance of what that means for you.
For me, it meant not having a dire need deep within myself to be less, smaller and smaller. It meant not being deeply angered and upset at seeing a weight that would be considered “healthy”. It was being able to regain some form of true enjoyment for food that went beyond, “I can’t believe this is only 5 calories!”, but instead to enjoy the taste, texture, the energy, the feeling of having eaten a good meal and nourishing my body. It meant being able to go to the gym and not only focus on calories burnt, and having goals beyond burning hundreds of calories but instead being able to focus on stamina, heart rate, and strength. It meant not calculating a tally of every calorie I’ve eaten all day every day, physically or mentally. It meant not weighing myself 20 times a day and being so OK with it that I have better things to do. It meant not having an inch goal for my waist, and not making restrictive dieting plans designed to retain order and control over all of my life problems.
You can see, from just these few aspects how much of a journey recovery is. I could go on more, but the ultimate bottom line is that for me, recovering from an eating disorder meant losing the obsession, the compulsion of the obsession and being able to enjoy food without being racked with guilt, shame and anguish. It also meant learning to accept my body, and learning to not hate it. I didn’t have to love myself, but I didn’t want to loathe every aspect of myself. Finally, it meant learning what triggered me, and learning to manage, control and if necessary, walk away from those triggers. Walking around certain fashionable shops when I’m not feeling my best for example is a minefield of triggers that I sometimes just need to walk away from – but I can and I do.
Having said that, there are some little quirks that remain from those days, but for as long as I am able to manage them and control the need for control then that is recovered for me. I have had to explain and justify many of these quirks to my partner as she initially saw them as “eating disorder related behaviours” that she would otherwise consider concerning.
For example, if I am eating a new food, most particularly cereals and nuts, I will weigh them out into a ‘portion’ as indicated on the packet. Sometimes, I do not necessarily know the calorie content of my breakfast, but I will have checked that it is reasonable, balanced and not overloaded with sugars when I was browsing the cereal aisle. Another thing is that, I will read food labels in the shop, but that is to make sure I am happy to eat it. Are there chemicals that I’m not too keen on? Is it overloaded with sugars and saturated fats for the portion? Is it balanced nutritionally? I would prefer to call this healthy awareness and concern for what I am feeding myself. If it has passed the test in the supermarket, then I do not worry about it at home so much.
I have also retained a need to ‘feel in control’ of my life, but I have found other ways in which to fulfil that need. In the first instance I make my own choices and can say no. Another is that I will keep records and diaries detailing factors of my life that I can monitor: my exercise regimes, my moods, my energy, what time I woke up at, how I felt and what I did. Even though it doesn’t really mean I am in control of every aspect of my life, the awareness of where I am at, and recording all of those factors has replaced my need to record food, calories, weight etc. I also record my weight but I weigh once every 7-14 days, and record it on a ‘Healthy BMI’ app in order to keep my focus and weight goals healthy: the goal being, stay in the green.
So even though I am somewhat picky about the health content of my food, I sometimes weigh my portions, I weigh myself, I make lists and recordings of factors in my life to feel in control, and that I need to do that in order to feel sane is not pathological because it is not interfering with my ability to function. In reality it is working with my neurotic traits in order to function at my most. I have shifted those needs from unhealthy focuses to healthy focuses and am able to put limitations on any urges that may arise. So it is fine to weigh my dinner as long as I am not getting distressed over every gram to the exact figure – and that once I have finished my dinner, I move on; it no longer bothers me. In addition, weighing myself helps for those moments when my mind is playing tricks on me and making me feel like my body is expanding by inches upon inches in a matter of hours, when I think I can ‘feel’ how my lack of exercise has affected my thighs, and ‘see’ how my face is bulging amongst folds of exponential fat. I can stand on the scale now, see that I am a ‘healthy weight’ and rationalise that I am fine. It is OK. I do not need to go on a diet. Especially as a few times in those moments, I have not budged a pound on the scales, which furthers my evidence that it is all in my head and that now I am aware of that, it is my job to manage those feelings healthily.
Despite that on the surface, the needing of weighing scales in the bathroom may seem eating disordered, it is not that mere fact but how I interact with those scales and what they mean to my day that us of importance. Accepting that management for me is as good as it gets, and that I need to remain aware of my vulnerabilities is recovery. Now when I think about food, I think about enjoyment, health values and new recipes. More over, it no longer consumes my existence.
Many people I have spoken to who have suffered from eating disorders admit that “it never 100% goes away, it remains a battle” but what is important is how you manage that battle in order to win. How you turn how you fulfil the needs that you do through the eating disorder into healthier methods and modes is what recovery is about, in addition to learning to think, view and accept a different healthier perspective of the world, your body, food, weight and coping, and how you relate to each of these aspects of living.