By Marissa Pendlebury
(Not Your Average Nutritionist is not an affiliate. The ideas/opinions in this post are not necessarily the ideas/opinions of Not Your Average Nutritionist staff.)
Recovery from an eating disorder is quite a contested area.
For one, not everyone believes that full recovery is possible – particularly among the medical community, who might suggest that there will always be some element of control around food in a person’s life. However, there are many testaments out there, my own included, that recovery actually IS possible. So why is there a bit of a divide between the view of recovery of medical professionals and those in recovery?
In short, full recovery for me and many others, has its roots in the meaning that recovery holds for each individual – based on unmeasurable personal experiences and not a text book full of calculations and people’s opinions. Full recovery is a unique concept for every person who has encountered an eating disorder first hand, and is not for any medical professional – notably those who have never had a true insight into the eating disorder mindset – what recovery truly is or means. Still, look into any research journal and article related to eating disorders, and the word recovery and categorising recovered and non-recovered individuals is batted about more times than a hyperactive tennis ball.
For me, recovery is about regaining life, freedom and love of oneself. It is not just based on gaining a certain amount of weight, or getting within a Body Mass Index range that is deemed ‘healthy’ by medical standards (which tend to be flawed anyway). Equally, just because someone does get to a ‘healthy’ weight, which is the bench marker most research findings on eating disorders tend to use to assess recovery, doesn’t necessarily mean that individuals are free from restriction and control. For example, when a person does gain weight to a point that seems ‘healthy’, they may still be engaging in behaviours that provide them a feeling of safety, such as limiting the consumption of certain food groups and/or ensuring that they follow a particular diet (e.g. clean eating or plant-based food only). They may still, after eating over a certain quantity of food or Calories, feel an uncomfortable pang of guilt or an urge to compensate what they have eaten by using exercise or restricting food at the next meal or day.
Some individuals suggest that ‘normal eating’ should be the goal of recovery. However, there are many negative behaviours and feelings are encountered by the majority of the population in terms of the way they eat and see food. In particular, over recent years, we have created a diet-obsessed culture where fixations around healthy eating, alongside developing unhealthy relationships with food and body, is the norm for the many rather than the few.
With the above issues in mind, making ‘normal’ eating or getting to a ‘healthy’ weight the aim of recovery seems to be a substandard goal in reclaiming back life following an eating disorder. Moreover, what might seem a healthy weight to a medical professional, is not the true healthy weight for the person in recovery, since their body might naturally function more optimally at a higher weight – even above the optimal weight medically set out for their height. What we have to understand here is that, despite living in a world with an advanced medical system and forms of monitoring wellbeing, that medical standards of recovery are still flawed and not applicable to every individuals’ unique recovery journey.
So what does this mean for your own recovery and where do you set your own bar and goals?
In a nutshell, your recovery goals need to, ideally, be focussed around attaining a lifestyle that will allow you to feel free, able to socialise, revolve your activities around life rather than food, and be able to eat whatever foods you like without feelings of guilt or an urge to compensate. This lifestyle might look completely different to someone else’s in recovery, but it is important that your journey is founded upon your own values and what is ‘healthy’ to you. This might exclude the need to regularly consume nutritionally dense, low sugar plant based foods for the rest of your life (as might be advised for the majority of the non-eating disorder population). Alternatively, your values might involve being able to relive positive food memories and socialise with friends while eating pizza or your favourite fast food to your heart’s content – rather than a Calorie Quota or diet regime.
To help you gauge what recovery means for you, I’m going to share some of the key things that allowed me to understand what real recovery would look like in the context of my own life. These are listed below:
-Being able to go to sleep and wake up without wondering what I’m going to be eating in the morning.
-Scheduling my day around life, rather than around what I will and won’t be eating.
-Not spending hours planning meals for the next day or obsessively calculating Calories.
-Going to a restaurant spontaneously, rather than planning in advance and scrolling through menus online to pick a “healthy” or low-Calorie option.
-Ordering a meal to come as it is stated on a menu rather than making a billion adjustments so that it feels safer, ‘healthier’ and guilt-consuming to eat.
-Enjoying the prospect of eating with others rather than creating very safe and lonely spaces to eat in (with rigid controls and the need for everything to be perfect).
-Planning a day with social activities in mind first, and then food, without worrying about where and when we will be eating .
-Going into the supermarket and choosing foods that I genuinely enjoy, including my favourite chocolate bars, rather than healthy cereal bars that are lower in Calories but taste dreadful.
-Choosing snacks based on how appetising they look rather than looking at Calorie labels or how much fat and/or sugar that they contain.
-Looking forward to planning time out with friends without worrying about food or wearing a fake smile and personality.
-Feeling part of the real world and able to be fully myself while stepping outside the small bubble that used to keep me feeling safe but also restricted and lonely.
-Laughing whole-heartedly and finding joy and fun in everyday life.
-Not worrying about eating meals at certain time periods, and being able to eat spontaneously at any time of day.
-Baking cakes and tray bakes, licking the mixture out of the bowl before it goes in the oven, and actually eating the results myself.
-When going out to a cafe, ordering coffee and tea with ‘normal’ or full-fat milk without asking for skimmed or ‘skinny’ alternatives.
-Being able to eat a main course AS WELL AS a starter and/or dessert without guilt – and continuing to still eat throughout the day or evening if I feel peckish.
-Honouring feelings of hunger, even if I might feel like I have probably eaten my energy requirements for that day already.
-Hearing about a new diet or wellness regime on social media and not being tempted to follow it; knowing that it is just a lure away from what is going to help you find life rather than more restriction and rules.
-Being able to have a full day of relaxation and spending large amounts of time sedentary without worrying about how much exercise or physical activity I “should” be doing.
-Walking around the block for enjoyment rather than trying to walk a certain number of steps and obsessively trying to walk further in order to burn off more energy.
-Being able to move my body for pure fun and enjoyment rather than because it makes me feel like I can deserve food, or compensate for what I have recently eaten.
-Looking in the mirror and feeling appreciative of my body rather than focussing on the parts that don’t appear perfect or like someone else’s body I admire.
-Being able to listen to other people talk about dieting, losing weight, or their body shape without feeling the urge to restrict food.
-Not feeling guilty for eating more than other people I am eating with.
-Not feeling triggered or having the urge to restrict food when encountering someone who is slimmer than me, or has an eating disorder.
-Carving out time for self-care everyday without needing to “earn” permission to take care of myself and enjoy things.
-Allowing myself to buy nice things that I like or enjoy without feeling that I don’t deserve them or have to earn them in some way (other than actually earning money).
-Sometimes eating more than my body needs or what i’m hungry for, just because I can and am enjoying eating, without directing negative thoughts and feelings towards myself afterwards, or trying to compensate later.
-Knowing that my identity and purpose of existence on this planet is not to worry about the quality of food I eat, what I weigh, or the thickness of my thighs.
-Being able to love who I am right now, unconditionally, while being able to think about life goals that don’t involve or revolve around food, exercise or trying to control weight.
With these different aspects and dimensions of recovery in mind, you might be able to see how ‘real’ recovery is not just solely based on a physical marker of health. Recovery is just as much about emotional and social functioning in the real world, alongside an identity that is separate from a being who revolves their world around food, weight and/or exercise. Real recovery, for me, requires us to not only to gain weight, but also the courage to step out a transparent bubble that has held us feeling both safe and a captive prisoner. We may have been able to see the real world, and even believe that we were a part of it, but this bubble has been an unbreakable barrier between the life we currently live and the one we deserve and were born to thrive in.
When we can step outside of this bubble, or even burst it all together, of course the world is going to feel overwhelming, scary and even foreign in terms of your ability to navigate every day social and emotional situations. However, the more your identity and self-worth grows beyond the limitations of a specific weight or the amount and types of food you eat, the chains of restriction become looser and looser every single day. Real recovery isn’t about waking up one day and having your eating disorder cast aside by a magical spell that bursts the bubble. Real recovery is the journey itself – each day making a choice to choose life and your long term happiness rather than pleasing the anxiety relief of succumbing to the controlling voice of an eating disorder.
Maybe real recovery for you still involves hearing a foreign voice every now and then, tempting you back into the false sense of security an eating disorder one offered, but then having the strength to say no and walk away. For example, despite feeling unworthy of food or needing to earn it through exercise or hard work, you choose to eat that biscuit with your tea anyway and order whatever the hell you like off a menu without succumbing to immense guilt.
Recovering from any type of trauma follows a similar path – recovery from trauma isn’t about never experiencing trauma again, but it is about having the strength to conquer anxiety, tackle fears and navigate your own life again. In a similar way, real recovery is the non-relinquishing strength and determination to reclaim back our lives. If we can think of it like this, then there really is no black and whites of recovery, no specific weights and nothing we can set in stone on a medical chart or research article. The realm of real recovery is within the depths of your own mind and personal functioning. No one on this earth can determine or understand your real recovery other than you, but this is part of the beauty that makes the journey towards recovery such a wonderful one. Not only does it make us stronger, but it allows us to ask ourselves questions about our true values, beliefs and purpose. In this way, even though eating disorders can be soul destroying, and recovery seems like a constant uphill battle, it prepares us for an inner journey. This is a journey to really know, in our hearts, who we are, how we are connected with the world, and the enormity of what we are capable of.
On a final note, I would just like to say, your eating disorder and mission for recovery so far, no matter where you are at, is not wasted time. Every day you have battled on, even when you have felt you couldn’t fight any longer, have all played a role in making you YOU. Your real recovery is all about you – finding the courage to look inside the darkness, but also the immense beauty, intelligence and wisdom that you were born with. Never lose hope, because real recovery is always just a heartbeat away. When you choose the life your heart beats to no one other than you can say that real recovery isn’t possible.