TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains information about eating disorder recovery, including eating and exercise.
Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2018 (EDAW2018) wrapped up last week, and I’ve been reflecting a lot on what it means to be recovered from an eating disorder.
Throughout EDAW this year (and in year’s past), a lot of the awareness raised comes via those who have survived eating disorders sharing their recovery stories.
So, what does recovery of an eating disorder look like?
This is going to be underwhelming, but I legitimately don’t have a straight forward answer for this.
Eating Disorder recovery is ambiguous.
Is recovery the absence of eating disordered behaviours? Of eating disordered thoughts? Of biological measurements? Of negative body image? Of low mood?
In a word: yes.
But all to varying degrees.
One of the main issues with eating disorder recovery is that it hasn’t been concretely defined yet in the research literature, or in practice.
Eating disorder research is still in its infancy compared to other mental health research.
We need more money. We need more resources. We need more treatment options. Which is why initiatives like Eating Disorder Awareness Week are so important.
So, if we don’t know how to measure the thing we’re trying to achieve, can we even do it?
Strangely enough, we can!
We don’t necessarily have a prescriptive plan of how, but people recover all of the time.
So, it can (and does) happen, but we have not yet identified the specific way that this occurs.
Eating disorder recovery is hard.
Another tricky thing about eating disorder recovery is that individuals still need to engage closely with the illness’ symptoms on a daily basis.
We need to eat. We need to move our bodies. We probably need to look in the occasional mirror. God knows we have to deal with Instagram, Facebook, and/or Snapchat.
This engagement with eating disorder symptoms is distinct from other forms of recovery, such as what we might see in substance abuse.
For example, if someone is in recovery from substance abuse using cocaine, the absence of using cocaine is one pretty clear and objective indication that the individual is in recovery.
Abstinence from cocaine = recovery
Using cocaine = not in recovery*
*Obviously this is an oversimplification of substance abuse recovery for demonstration purposes.
Now, can you imagine if that same individual was required to use a specified amount of cocaine every single day as a part of recovery, without getting out of control? What about if everyone around him/her/them was also using any amount of cocaine they pleased?
This is what eating disorder recovery feels like.
You have to stop restricting food in a society where calorie counting is not only encouraged, but regarded as a desirable trait of control and willpower.
You have to stop bingeing on food in a society where overindulgence is not only a social pastime, but also an expectation for most social gatherings.
You have to stop the continuous calculator in your head in a society where now even coffee menus display calorie counts next to each item.
You have to stop overexercising in a culture of Soulcycle and Crossfit.
You have to stop believing that your body is your worth, while being inundated by a beauty industry that profits off of our self-hatred and insecurity.
And I’m not even going to get started on social media, because that’s going to be its own post.
It. Is. Hard.
But it is possible.
Eating disorders are scary.
There are recovered people that by all accounts have no physical, psychological, or behavioural remnants of their eating disorder and are recovered.
There are recovered people who by all accounts have no physical or behavioural symptoms of their eating disorder, but still experience disordered thoughts.
There are recovered people who still experience both behavioural and psychological symptoms of their eating disorder, but much less than they did in the crux of their illnesses.
There are people who will die from this.
As Blythe Baird says:
“If you are not recovering, you are dying.”
I have to be honest, I really mulled over whether I should include this last section in this post. This topic is a hard one.
I’ve seen so many recovery stories that briefly cover “how bad it got” before moving on to the positive feel good part of getting your life back on the other side of recovery, and they should.
It is positive, it’s the most positive. Recovery is not only literally life-changing, but it is unimaginably better than anything you can dream of while you’re sick.
But something in me was whispering, “Maybe there is also value in exploring the ‘how bad it got’ abyss a little further?”
Well, actually that’s not true. There was no whispering. It was more like:
Me: “I don’t want to scare people”
Also Me: “But eating disorders are scary”
Me: “But I don’t want to make people feel sad”
Also Me: “I hear you Ash, but isn’t there value in people knowing how serious something is? Remember that time you watched The Cove and you were really upset, but you were also glad you learned about those dolphins, so you could do something about it? Things can’t get better unless people know how bad they are.”
Me: “Don’t you dare bring The Cove into this”
Also Me: “Real talk though: You want people to understand eating disorders and take them seriously. If not now, when?”
Me: “…maybe writing out this internal dialogue will help lighten up this very serious topic?”
Also Me: "Or maybe you've just finally managed to casually work marine life into a blog post?"
Here’s the thing: recovery is scary, hard, and sometimes devastating.
Here’s the other thing: recovery is incredible, inspiring, and life-saving.
And although I generally like to leave people feeling happier than when we started, sometimes it’s important to focus on things that illicit more difficult emotions in us.
One of the reasons I started this blog (and heck, became a Registered Provisional Psychologist in the first place) is because I want people to understand the seriousness of eating disorders.
More people die from eating disorders than any other psychiatric illness.
Which is why recovery is so important to talk about, learn about, and understand.
Eating Disorders are serious, but recovery is possible. Recovery is so possible.
I will leave you all with an excerpt from an email that I wrote years ago to an acquaintance who was on her own path towards recovery:
Recovery is such a bizarre thing. It reminds me of a quote from Prozac Nation, about depression, about how it's "gradually and suddenly", and in my experience, that's really how it happened. It's little moments and steps forward (and sometimes backwards) every day, and sometimes you aren't sure that you're moving at all, but then one day you realize that your days are measured less by symptoms and numbers, and more by people and experiences; and that living a real life as a full person is actually pure gold.
Take care of yourselves and each other out there.
If you or anyone you know in the Calgary area is experiencing a mental health crisis call the 24-hour Distress Centre line at 403-266-4357 or 911.