I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be “fully recovered” from an eating disorder.
The best books I’ve read on this subject are “Life Without Ed” and “Goodbye Ed, Hello Me” by Jenni Schaefer. These books promote the message that it is possible to be “fully recovered” from an eating disorder. They give me hope that anorexia isn’t something I will have to struggle with for the rest of my life. I’ve read the books at various times when I’ve felt overwhelmed or hopeless and they have always helped me stay positive. I truly admire the author’s dedication to having a life free from ED, or in my case Ana.
But if I’m 100% honest with you, I’ve never even TRIED to be fully recovered.
I’ve been in imperfect recovery for years. At times this has meant being at a healthy weight, but still struggling with unhealthy thoughts and habits related to food and restricting food. At times, this has meant slipping back into controlling my body, purposefully eating less and obsessing about taking up less space. I know how imperfect recovery works. It keeps me “functional” and sometimes even “looking healthy,” but inside I am never truly free. The thing with imperfect recovery is that Ana still controls my life to varying degrees, depending on how much I’m struggling.
It’s not possible to tell by looking at a person whether or not they have an eating disorder. Being at a “healthy” or “normal” weight means nothing. Being at a “healthy” weight doesn’t even mean a person is medically stable or in recovery. In my current situation, my weight is higher than it’s been in years, but my eating disorder is causing me MORE trouble, not less. I feel exhausted mentally and physically most of the time.
I’ve been in hospital treatment programs in the past. Inpatient programs where I was “forced” to eat large quantities of food. I was supervised after eating, a staff member watched me to make sure I ate all of my meals and snacks. I followed the rules because I had to, even though I was there voluntarily, I was able to comply because it was required.
But let’s be honest. I never attempted to be fully recovered. I have never, in 20 years, been even willing to CONSIDER giving up Ana as a coping technique. I’ve used it to varying degrees at various times, but I’ve never committed to letting Ana go.
I stayed in treatment until I was functionally recovered. Until I could eat without panic and physical discomfort, until I could have the energy to get through a day, until I could think more clearly and re-engage in life. Then I discharged myself every time. I wanted to be healthy and eat, but I didn’t want to gain too much weight or give up my obsessive compulsive thoughts and habits. I wanted to be in control, even of the recovery process. I told myself I could do it by myself, I could do it my own way, I didn’t NEED the program.
I was told again and again that I needed to follow a meal plan and eat mechanically for at LEAST a year before trying things on my own. I was told again and again that I needed to gain to my goal weight and maintain it for a year in order to recover. I was told again and again that I needed to stop controlling food and my body in order to heal. But what did I do? I poured out my juice when nobody was looking. When I got out of treatment I stopped drinking juice altogether because it was unnecessary! I cheated in a million little ways.
When I was younger, I thought I knew better. I thought I could do it on my own. I thought I could let go of the horrible life threatening aspects of Ana, but hold onto the comforting habits that kept me slim. I thought I would be happy about 10-15 pounds below my “goal weight” and that I would be medically stable. I thought Ana and I could dance together this way forever. I thought I could have Ana on my terms, not hers.
But I’m not a teenager anymore. I’m pretty close to my “goal weight” now, but I feel worse physically than I have in years. I can’t push my body the way I used to. I get migraines, physical body pain, exhaustion and lack of patience. I don’t dance with Ana anymore…instead we are plodding, dragging through life, in a way that has very little meaning to me.
Because I have never embraced “fully recovered,” I have instead remained sick. Because let’s be honest about this too, if Ana is driving, I’m sick regardless of my weight.
For a long time, imperfect recover was enough for me. It was such an improvement, I was proud of myself. People stopped bugging me about gaining weight. I was able to eat most things without panic. I was able to eat around other people. I was able to attend social events. I was more relaxed.
But even at the BEST of times, there were always rules, calculations. I always felt that I deserved to eat only as much as I needed to survive each day. Never more. I wasn’t starving myself literally, but I was starving my soul. I was depriving myself of more than food, I was depriving myself of joy, connection and abundance.
Recently the stress in my life has been almost more than I can bear. I’ve been waiting for 5 months for the outcome of a year long family law trial. I’m waiting for a stranger to decide the future of my children. Many important aspects of my life are quite literally out of my control.
I struggle daily to accept my body at this weight. I struggle daily feeling like I am too big, seeing parts of my body as fat, living with body distortions and hating myself.
I struggle daily with the lack of control and the waiting.
And quite honestly, I CHOSE to let Ana start driving again. I saw it as a necessary evil, to help me keep functioning and keep moving forward through each day. I opened the door and let Ana right back in. I welcomed her. I almost felt happy that I had a way of modulating and distracting from the unbearable stress.
I changed a few things here, a few things there. Nothing drastic, but small changes. I felt okay about it. Maybe I could lose just a few pounds. But it isn’t really about the weight, though I might say that it is. It’s all about feeling in control of my body and thus, my life.
Irrational. Magical thinking. Self-destructive. Self-punishing. Illogical.
But even though I’ve let Ana drive many times before, always with varying degrees of disastrous results, I STILL believe deep down inside, that she is my friend who will NEVER leave me. I love Ana for getting me through years of sexual and emotional abuse. I love Ana for never letting me down, for always being there.
But Ana is an abusive partner. She isolates me. She makes me say no to eating dinner with friends because she makes me ashamed and afraid to eat in public. She makes me tired from restricting food. She makes me impatient and she makes me struggle to connect with those around me. She helps me to disassociate by numbing out through the physiological effects of semi-starvation. Ana is abusive even when I let the door open a crack. Ana is abusive even when I’m not emaciated. Ana is abusive even when you see me eating. Ana is abusive right now.
Ana tells me that I don’t deserve to eat. That I don’t deserve to take up space. That I’m bad or weak for needing food to survive. Ana tells me that the high of restricting food means I’m strong.
Ana lies. She lies like any abusive partner. She gaslights me. She lulls me into thinking she is caring for me while she is trying to destroy me.
Today, I am at the stage of contemplating full recovery.
When Ana drives, I eventually feel like life is not worth living. I can’t imagine living another 20 years this way. Half living, half dying. I’m tired.
To me, full recovery means more than changing my eating habits.
Full recovery means letting go of giving meaning to food. Letting go of believing my food intake or weight has anything to do with my worth. Letting go of trying to control my body as a means to feel safe in this world. Letting go of believing that being thin will protect me from being raped again. Letting go of trying to disappear to stay safe or avoid hurting anyone.
Fully recovered means eating when I’m hungry and stopping when I’m full. Fully recovered means going out to dinner with friends, even if I ate lunch. Fully recovered means eating lunch daily. Fully recovered means eating 3 cookies. Fully recovered means breaking all my food rules, even drinking juice! Measuring nothing, counting nothing, giving food no value other than nutritional. Fully recovered means not cheating, by holding on to “just one or two habits.” Fully recovered means committing to staying alive until my natural death. Fully recovered means learning to like myself, then learning to love myself. Fully recovered means reconnecting with the world, trusting myself and opening myself up to others. Fully recovered means healing from years of abuse, by self compassion rather than self hatred. Fully recovered means accepting my natural body shape, no matter what size that turns out to be.
Fully recovered means letting go of fear.
I hope fully recovered means living with joy. I hope that one day I will experience fully recovered and it will be wonderful.
Today, I still feel lost and stuck in survival mode. If you have tips for finding “fully recovered” please share them in the comment section below.