Recovering from my eating disorder was, hands down, one of the best things that ever happened to me. Becoming free from the constant stress, worry, anxiety around food, and feelings of inadequacy was one of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve ever had.
Recovery is a path that is open to all. But while encouraging people to pursue recovery is a great and worthwhile topic, we don’t always talk about what it looks like in practice. Especially if you don’t have access to a treatment program or an in-person therapist, recovery can seem incredibly daunting even if it’s a journey you want to take. The good news is that there are things you can do in addition to some of the more conventional resources to make the road ahead a little easier.
In no particular order, I want to share with you some of the everyday things that helped me along on my road to recovery from an eating disorder:
Find a mantra – A “mantra” in this case is a phrase, an image or a piece of art, that is meaningful to you and will encourage you toward a more positive mindset when you refer to it. I’m a lifelong reader who has always been strongly affected by the power of words, so for me, this was the phrase, “I am enough. I have enough. I do enough.” For you, it may be a different phrase, a line from your favorite book, an aspirational painting that you love, or something else to redirect your thoughts when you feel yourself falling back into harmful patterns or coping mechanisms.
Recognize your destructive thoughts for what they are – Speaking of harmful patterns, discovering what yours sound like is instrumental to your recovery. Eating disorders can be prone to developing amongst high achieving, perfectionistic, and particularly busy people. If you’re a conscientious student or worker who often uses busyness as a reason to skip meals, I praise your work ethic, but martyring your health for the sake of short-term productivity will only hurt you. If you’re a competitive athlete who restricts their diet to reduce body fat, dedication is a great thing, but your body needs fuel to perform. Over the course of my disorder, my reasons for starving myself ran the gamut from “I am a terrible person and I don’t deserve sustenance” to “I have an exam tomorrow and I don’t have time for a dinner break.” I had to learn to recognize both of those impulses and a whole range in between as harmful, and learn to work around them. Disordered eating and the thought processes that go along with it can take many forms, and they aren’t always easy to spot, so you have to learn to be wary of any urge that serves your disorder’s agenda.
Find someone to be your reality check – As is so often the case when you are so close to a situation, it can be hard to remain objective when it’s your own problems you’re dealing with. A caring friend who is willing to step in and give you a little nudge in the right direction when you need it can be invaluable. I had a roommate in college who would give me a gentle reminder during stressful times that I needed to take care of myself first in order to take exams or finish final papers. Beyond the practical reminder to keep my mental and physical health as a foremost priority, it helped to know that there was someone else who noticed if I wasn’t in a good place.
Get to know your body and what you actually need – This tip may not work for everyone but for me, learning the science behind hunger and the way the human body processes food helped me to remove some of the emotional significance I had been attaching to it. I began to look at food more objectively, as fuel, as something I needed to live and function and even enjoy. We don’t feel ashamed of putting gas in our cars when the tank is empty or plugging in our computers to charge when the battery is low. Your body can’t run on empty, and learning why you need to eat regularly can help remind you that food is not the enemy.
Remember that taking care of yourself is something to be proud of – As I mentioned above, eating disorders can be all too easy to develop in the high-pressure world we live in because it’s so easy to justify them. It takes effort and discipline to change your eating habits so drastically, and in some cases, you can even talk yourself into believing you’re accomplishing something great by keeping your food intake under a certain threshold or hitting a certain number on the scale. There’s nothing wrong with having fitness goals, but good goals come with a basic respect of yourself and a realistic idea of what you can accomplish. Taking the time to care for your body and treat it with kindness can be a challenge when you have so many other things demanding your attention, but it’s a vital piece of your recovery and well-being.
It’s okay to focus on yourself, until you need to stop – Anyone, medical professional or not, will tell you that if you have a serious illness, you don’t just go about your business and pretend it isn’t happening. You make your health and recovery a priority and put other things on the backburner until you’re better and able. If you need to turn down an invitation out because you’re not feeling up to socializing, that’s okay. If you need to say no to a few obligations this semester or this year because you don’t have the brain real estate to devote to them or can’t take on the extra responsibility right now, that’s okay. If you need to withdraw from some of the things or people you usually spend your time on or with and focus on your own mental health, that’s okay. But, if you need to get out of your own head for a while and focus on something else, find a volunteer opportunity. That probably sounds a bit unrelated, but if you are feeling stuck in your recovery journey or are tired of focusing so much on your own health and mind, it’s okay to take a break from that, too. Spend a few hours playing with dogs at a shelter or picking up trash on the beach. Offer to rake leaves for an elderly person who lives in your neighborhood. Doing something good for someone else can not only be a good self-esteem boost, but it redirects your thoughts into something completely unrelated to mental health and recovery. And sometimes you need the break.
Find your thing worth waking up for – There will be days when it feels like you can’t do this, times when you backslide or relapse and don’t want to try again. When that happens, find something that will help to pick you back up and motivate you to keep going. Maybe it’s your dream trip, your dog, or tomorrow’s sunrise. Whatever it is, find something that encourages you to put one foot in front of the other on the road to recovery.
Recovery can seem impossible. I know it did to me. But it is worth it. I hope some of these practices help you get there.