The most common assumption about eating disorder recovery is something along these lines: I’ll just go to treatment, gain the weight I lost, and I can get out of there. Sound familiar to any readers? I was so set on weight restoration that my focus was diverted from what was REALLY going on. While it’s huge progress when we stop restricting and start nourishing our bodies, the work isn’t quite done here. The recovery road ahead is a long one, but a necessary one. 

What do you actually enjoy?

Recovery requires that we participate in activities that don’t actually involve food or emphasize appearance. As I’ve stated in a previous post regarding the role of Instagram in recovery, often times we see the instant shift from treatment to food photography or transformation photos. Isn’t this just another way to remain fixated on food that has somehow become socially acceptable? Recovery means recognizing what you enjoyed before your eating disorder, or what you would like to try out for yourself. Recovery means finding things that add happiness to your life.

Ability to communicate

Recovery means that we are able to identify our needs, and communicate them effectively. Has anyone else noticed during treatment that their needs never felt fully met? This may have simply been because we had no rational way of expressing them at the time. Recovery means accessing the emotions and thoughts that the eating disorder would have otherwise numbed out. It means accepting that these emotions exist and allowing yourself to feel them fully. Recovery means learning the appropriate ways to interact in order to get the support you need. So often throughout my struggle and towards the end of my recovery, I still relied on using my anger, rage, and constant crying as a way to gain a reaction or attention from others. While it’s of course okay to cry and to feel angry, my reasoning behind WHY I was acting this way was because this was the only way at the time that I felt I could be heard. Recovery means recognizing that being heard and being supported requires actual verbal communication.

Admitting what behaviors still exist

Great, you are weight restored. However, what else is actually going on outside of treatment? Stepping on the scale daily? Measuring out food to ensure that you’re getting “correct” portions? Restricting at breakfast in order to redeem calories at dinner? These are just a few behaviors that we can engage in and potentially still maintain our weight, and yet they are not helping us progress mentally. Recovery means that we admit when we are still engaging in behaviors that are eating disordered and that adhere to our eating disorder’s rules. It also means creating a plan for ourselves to break these cyclical behaviors and taking action.

Variety and flexibility

Recovery means recognizing when we may feel guilty for eating a certain food or type of food, and understanding where that guilt is stemming from. It means challenging ourselves to introduce a variety of foods into our daily intake and accepting that fluctuation is a normal part of being human. Recovery requires us to be honest about what foods are safe to us (even when we are still maintaining our weight while eating them). When I was discharged 10 years ago, I maintained my weight for a solid six or so months! However, the food I was eating ranged from oatmeal, to frozen meals, to cereal. “But I’m at least eating!,” I told my parents and my therapist. Recovery doesn’t mean we limit ourselves to specific foods eaten at certain times of the day. It requires that we are flexible with the food we “allow” ourselves to eat.

Combating perfectionistic thinking

You’re allowed to make mistakes. Recovery does not mean that you have a perfect day every day. It means that when slips occur, or we’re less than “perfect,” we are able to compartmentalize it from “ruining” the rest of our day. Part of recovery requires us to identify where we feel that our perfectionistic thinking lies, what it is doing for us, and considering what it would feel like like to live in the “grey” area of life. It means that we recognize what two extremes we’ve created for ourselves (failure or perfect), and that we place ourselves somewhere in between the two.

You’re still allowed to struggle

Of course this was not an exhaustive list of what it means to recover; hell, it’s not even close. But, it’s a start. Recovery is not a one-time-and-done experience. 10 years later after my hospitalization and almost five years after my relapse and recovery, I am still in a constant state of recovery! There are still things I need to work on, and I openly own up to that. An eating disorder is a form of addiction; there is obsessiveness, ritualistic behaviors, and what feels like an instinctual need to engage in behaviors in order to feel a certain way. So to expect that an eating disorder, like an addiction, can be cured overnight is setting ourselves up for unrealistic expectations! Recovery means that we have self-awareness of when we’re struggling, and then take action to get back on track. Recovery does not mean you’re not allowed to struggle.