Recently I keep coming across the argument that recovery isn’t possible – that symptom management is the best those with eating disorders can hope for. It’s not one blog, it’s several/a general atmosphere, so please don’t think this is addressed to anyone in particular. It just seems to be a cyclical thing – sometimes the blog world is a little too saccharine, and then it becomes a little too cynical, and repeat. I am most certainly NOT a happy clappy, recovery-solved-all-my-problems-and-I-totally-love-myself-now kind of person, but at the same time I think sometimes people confuse not being recovered with recovery not being possible.
If the definition of “recovered” is to NEVER experience eating disordered thoughts, urges or behaviours then I’m not recovered, and I think it would be a little overambitious for me to expect to be 100% eating disorder free after two and a half years of recovery compared to twelve years of illness. Ostensibly I don’t believe in the version of recovery so often portrayed in the media either: girl becomes skinny, girl enters hospital, girl learns a valuable lesson about herself, girl eats cake with impunity. I suspect that people with this story are few and far between. But I also don’t think that the best sufferers can hope for is to learn how to cope with urges without acting on them, or to manage the urges by keeping very strict control over their eating habits. Not only do I want more than that from my own life, I know that approach isn’t sustainable for me because I tried it in several different ways over the course of my illness.
I’ve believed that:
– eliminating all but the safest of foods would stop me bingeing;
– keeping myself underweight to varying degrees would keep me from freaking out and losing more weight;
– avoiding foods which made me feel guilty would help me avoid guilt-induced restriction;
– weighing myself every day would stop me imagining I weighed more and panicking;
– adhering to a strict meal plan with every calorie counted and every cherry tomato weighed would mean I was less likely to overestimate my intake and restrict in compensation. And so on.
In all of those cases I believed I was doing myself a favour, and that if I let go of that control I would either balloon out of all proportion or panic and starve myself. But harm minimisation didn’t work for me. What I was essentially doing was trying to control my eating disorder by using eating disordered behaviours, which worked about as well as an alcoholic trying to get rid of their cravings with vodka. It made me feel better in the short term, but in the long term it just added to the problem by keeping my brain and body undernourished, which perpetuated the biological conditions responsible for the intensity of those thoughts and urges. What did eventually work was gaining to a weight which was healthy for my body by using a structured meal plan, then learning to eat intuitively. This was necessary but not sufficient for recovery – there are lots of other important biological and psychological factors which can influence the degree of freedom from thoughts and urges. So I also worked on my motivation, reconditioned myself to use healthy coping behaviours when I was stressed out rather than lapsing into the ED on autopilot, and I saw a lovely eclectic therapist with whom I worked on anything which could be an obstacle to recovery or a trigger for future relapses. I started overexercising and messed up my hormones again so I had to sort that out, and I made sure I ate a balanced diet, with enough fat and carbs as well as the less scary protein and vegetables.
I didn’t actually KNOW if this would work, of course. I worried that I would get to a truly healthy weight, be free of behaviours and feel like utter shit mentally and physically. I worried that I would still be obsessed with food, still want to binge, still want to starve myself, still be unable to eat chocolate without freaking the fuck out and skipping dinner. But I also knew that my previous attempts at getting my shit together had always resulted in relapse, so I was willing to give it a try. I gave myself five years, just so I could say I’d done everything I could before I gave up.
I’m a little over half way through those five years. As I said, I’m not recovered – not by those fairy tale standards of never experiencing ED thoughts, urges or behaviours. But neither am I stuck in the limbo of physical health and mental illness. If anything it’s the other way around. My bones are still weak and my digestive system revolts on a fairly regular basis, although my stupidly low blood pressure and arrhythmia have improved drastically since I started eating meat again a couple of months ago (damn it. Honestly, after 17 years of vegetarianism, although I wanted to feel better I also wanted it not to work so I could say I’d tried and go back to being meat free. But I can’t sacrifice my health for my ethics – it’d feel disordered to me, eating in a way which clearly disagreed with my heart. My body never acts the way I want it to! At least I am eating local, free range meat. Sorry, bit of a tangent). But emotionally, cognitively and behaviourally I am the healthiest and most stable I have been in fifteen years. I don’t restrict. I don’t binge. I am at a healthy weight for my age, gender, ethnicity and body type. I get my period (painful, but great for the poor bones) regularly. More importantly than all of that is the fact that 95% of the time, I have no desire to engage in eating disordered behaviours. If I’m under a lot of stress for a few weeks, or if I get a stomach bug and can’t eat properly I do experience some urges to restrict, but that’s just the way my brain reacts to undereating, regardless of the reason.
The best thing is, I don’t really think about food. I get hungry, I eat whatever seems appropriate/appealing in the house, and then I go off to work or college or back to my room or into town, and don’t think about food until I’m hungry again. I can eat in any restaurant I like without anxiety or the need to look up the menu online first (as long as it has a few dairy free options – freedom around food is one thing, health threatening allergies are another). I am not even slightly worried about Christmas – I’m looking forward to going home to Dorset and pretty much living on red wine and chocolate for a few days, to be honest. I know from experience that when I get back to Newcastle my eating patterns will settle back down of their own accord and my weight will remain the same. Sometimes I’m in danger of taking all of this freedom for granted – which in itself is remarkable, as it was such a novelty for a long time.
I know everyone is different, and I know that most people with eating disorders can think of a million compelling reasons why they are different and incapable of recovering to the extent at which they are in full remission from the thoughts and behaviours, rather than just managing them. But I hope no one out there is selling themselves short. When I believed that symptom management was the best I could hope for I felt safe – because I didn’t need to contemplate giving up ALL my eating disordered behaviours – but it also made me feel kind of hopeless, like if I couldn’t be free from all the psychological crap there was no point putting myself through the torture of weight restoration in the first place. That belief became a self fulfilling prophecy as it made sure I never gained enough weight, ate enough, worked on my over-exercising or addressed my triggers sufficiently for my brain and body to start healing and the thoughts and urges to dissipate. Now, even if – atheist equivalent of God forbid – I relapsed at some point in the future through some unforeseeable set of circumstances, I would know that I am capable of living without my eating disorder being a part of my day to day life. And I would know how that feels.