A popular portrayal of eating disorder recovery is that a person with an ED has an epiphany or a life changing moment or just decides one day to not have an eating disorder any more and, just like that, they’re on the road to recovery. They might hit a few road blocks, but for the most part, they’re fully recovered in a short enough amount of time.
While I don’t doubt that is the case for a fair proportion of people in recovery/recovered from an ED, it isn’t always that simple. Sometimes it can take being involuntarily admitted into a treatment centre, sometimes it can come after a long battle within yourself as to what direction you want to, or can, take with your body and your health.
This blog post is a bit about the very beginning of recovery for me. Eating disorders are as nuanced and unique as the people who have them, and so my story is not representative of recovery as a whole.
I was never ‘sick enough’ to need treatment. My weight never got dangerously low, nobody was ever particularly concerned that I was ‘too thin’, and so that meant in my mind, I wasn’t. I didn’t need help because if I did someone would have said something by now.
I made several attempts at recovery over the years, some lasted longer than others, some weren’t real attempts – I was still counting calories, or I wasn’t ‘allowed’ gain any weight. My latest and I suppose most successful attempt began towards the end of 2014. I’ve fallen off the wagon a couple of times since then, but for the most part, I’ve been doing ok.
The thing about recovery is that it isn’t just about eating again. Because honestly after denying yourself cake and ice cream and cheese and pasta for so long, you miss it. And it is so wonderful to eat it again. But eating disorders aren’t just malnourishment – it’s not a lack of access to food that’s the issue. It’s a mental illness. There’s physiological aspects to it. And if those go untreated or un dealt with, ‘just eating’ is going to get you nowhere.
One of the biggest hurdles for me in terms of recovery, particularly at the beginning, is the weight gain and bloating that happens. When you’ve been starving yourself for a long period of time, your metabolism completely changes. You don’t digest food the same way. Your body goes into famine mode and strategically uses and holds onto every calorie you ingest. It’s the reason weight loss plateaus happen. But when you start eating ‘normally’ again, your body doesn’t instantly go back to normal. It stays in this tense, worried mode where it clings to every calorie. Because it doesn’t know for sure that the abundance will continue. So you gain weight. Quickly. And mostly on your abdomen. This is for incredibly sensible reasons – your abdomen is where your stomach is, where the food actually goes, but it’s also where most of the vital organs are. Your body wants to protect those. For a lot of people, myself included, the stomach is an area that you’re very aware of when you’ve put on some weight. When recovering from an ED, your digestive system and metabolism also take a while to get back into swing, so you tend to bloat. If your idea of recovery is weight maintenance but under no circumstances weight gain, this is going to be a massive problem. It’s almost visceral, and it is, I think, one of the biggest things I had to get over in my attempts at recovery. In all but my most recent, it’s not something I could deal with.
I think one of the reasons for this is that there’s this voice in your head that tells you if you eat that pasta or that chocolate bar or that slice of cake, you’re going to put all this weight on. And that’sa terrifying thing when you have an ED. Gaining weight is not something that is acceptable. And rationally, you know that a few slices of pizza isn’t going to make you gain 5 pounds (unless they’re like 17 thousand calories). But when your body is in starvation mode, when your metabolism and digestive system aren’t functioning properly – it definitely feels and looks like you’ve gained 5 pounds. So you get that ‘I told you so’ voice in your head and you think ‘fuck, never doing that again’ and you go back to your disordered eating habits.
The thing is, that weight and bloatedness doesn’t stay there forever. It can definitely take more time than I for one was comfortable with, but it does redistribute to your arms and legs and butt and boobs. Your metabolism revs up again. Your digestive system comes out of hibernation. The extreme hunger caused by your body trying to get as much as possible in case it has to go back into famine mode goes away.
This is something that I feel like isn’t really discussed when talking about ED recovery. It’s really fucking hard. You have to make a conscious decision every single day to keep going. Because you don’t want to. You want the comfort and familiarity of disordered eating, especially if it’s been a thing for a long time. It sounds bizarre, but at the beginning of recovery, relapse feels like the much easier choice. It’s certainly not the best choice, but it’s so easy just to slip back into old habits and not fight with yourself. I did that for years. I’ve done in since. Some days, it’s easy to choose to eat and to accept your body. Other days, it’s the hardest thing. It’s cliched but the main thing about recovery is that you have to keep going. Even if you fall, you get up and you keep going. Because you can’t live with an eating disorder. Not only does it consume you entirely, you can’t survive it. You recover or you die because of it. It’s a harsh reality, but it’s one of the things that got me to where I am today.
Bodywhys is Ireland’s eating disorder association. There are many ways to get in touch with them if you need to talk to somebody – via email, phone, or weekly online support groups.