For anyone who is currently struggling with an eating disorder, I would like to offer strong words of encouragement. Recovery is attainable no matter how hopeless your situation may seem. There was a period in my life when I could not imagine being free from this all-consuming illness, and for a long time it seemed the harder I tried, the worse it got. I began my recovery process 30 years ago and have enjoyed over 25 years of freedom from the behaviors that had such a grip on me for almost a decade. I attribute this to my willingness to continue seeking help and answers even when faced with setbacks and feelings of hopelessness and despair. In the most difficult times, I remember thinking that if I had just one good day in a year, that was enough reason to not give up. I attended support groups, counseling, and an outpatient eating disorder program. I went to 12-step meetings and found a wonderful sponsor, whom I talked to on a regular basis.
Finally, there was a point when everything I had been working on came together and the other dimensions of my life began to come into focus. For so long I was defined by my eating disorder, and now I was beginning to find other outlets and ways to express myself. So much of my recovery process was about acceptance and shifting the focus onto the small things that were right in my life rather than what I felt was wrong.
The progression of an eating disorder is insidious, and true insight into the variety of conditions that fall under that title has evolved over time. It was easy for me to blame everything on my mother’s poor parenting skills in light of her extreme mental illness, and this was reinforced by early theories of how eating disorders were developed. It seems it was always the mother’s fault. It is now understood that this is a narrow view that doesn’t take into consideration the many factors that contribute to these illnesses. There is a strong genetic component, as well as temperamental and co-existing conditions, in combination with stressful or traumatic circumstances that can lead to the development of an eating disorder.
The mixture of guilt, relief, and anxiety after my mom’s first hospitalization, the rapid weight gain that occurred when I turned to food for comfort, the insecurity of entering high school and not feeling accepted, and our financial problems all contributed to my eating disorder. As with many addictions, initially I was focused on the pay-offs that it provided for me. I shed enough weight to feel “normal”, it was an outlet for my anxiety and worries, and it was a distraction from the problems at home. I didn’t even consider giving it up and ignored the obvious dangers of bingeing and purging on a regular basis. I accepted it as a way of life because I felt I had no other choice.
Unfortunately, the gradual loss of friendships and trust, engaging in reckless behaviors like lying and stealing, dropping out of college, and getting fired from several jobs were not enough to get me to face my problem. It wasn’t until after I was married at age 23 that I began to feel the negative health effects and was forced to admit that I had a problem. I was unable to handle the stressors of adult life and began to worry that I was becoming mentally ill like my mother.
That fear was enough to prompt me to quit the behaviors cold turkey. This led to an immediate return of the anxiety that had plagued me as a teenager. I was flooded with all of the feelings that I had been trying to numb for all of those years, and that became the biggest challenge in my recovery process. I had a relapse after the birth of my first daughter that lasted for nearly two years, as I struggled desperately to gain control. By the time my second daughter was born, I had another small relapse but this time it was short lived, as I had many recovery tools to fall back upon.
The most important elements of the recovery process for me were self-compassion and acceptance. At first, when I started my recovery process, I tried to practice acceptance but didn’t really understand how. I thought acceptance was a one-step process and became frustrated when I was unable to experience it readily. Later I realized that it isn’t that simple. First, I acknowledge my feelings and approach them with compassion and understanding, allowing myself to express them freely, and then I begin to gently work on acceptance. Acceptance is about making peace with reality and facing one’s doubts and anxieties in order to deal with it more realistically. This has been a life-long process, and although I still struggle with it at times, this formula works well when I am willing to take the time to use it.
If life were always easy, then perhaps we wouldn’t need to find constructive ways to cope. Instead of resisting my feelings about difficult times because I think they shouldn’t be happening, I have learned to accept them like I would the blustery, cold winter months. Once I was able to find value in all of life’s circumstances, while also finding value in my own thoughts and feelings about them, it was much easier to practice acceptance and gratitude.
Recently I heard someone say “never cut down a tree in the winter”. The same tree that appears to be dead, may explode with blossoms with the coming of spring. I have found this to be true during so many trying times in my life.