The Recovery Slinky: Coping with Weight Gain

EnginArt.Slinky1

One of the trickiest things about recovering from an eating disorder is that nasty progressive “-ing.” It’s one thing to be weight-restored, and I’m by no means belittling the time, work, and distress that accompanied my getting there. But unlike the flu or mono, there’s no clear-cut moment when you can say, “I’m recovered. I’m healthy now.” Or, if there is, I haven’t found it yet.

I’ve reached a point where I no longer need to worry about not weighing enough. Anorexia dominated my doctor’s appointments for at least the past five years, and it set the limits about what I could and couldn’t do. I couldn’t give blood. I couldn’t go out in public without a sweater, since the least amount of air conditioning left me freezing. I couldn’t experience one of the most basic signs of womanhood: my menstrual cycle. Now, it’s my body that decides these things, not my disease.

Not that I particularly enjoy the miracle of menstruation, mind you. Whoever came up with that idea is a sadist. Still, it’s nice to know it can happen.

The point is, this all has to do with physical recovery. Mental recovery, as I’m learning, takes a lot more elbow grease, and is infinitely harder to pin down.

Yes, I'm perfectly aware this is a different kind of recovery. I happen to be a secret Eminem fan. Sorry.

Yes, I’m perfectly aware this is a different kind of recovery. I happen to be a secret Eminem fan. Sorry.

There are days when I think I’ve more or less moved on. Some days there are spans of hours when I don’t even think about meals or my weight. Some days, I can tell myself that I look fine, that no one is judging me because of my weight, that there are things (like my essay on Shakespeare’s Richard II) that are more important. Sometimes this works. But it doesn’t work all the time.

What I wish someone had told me about weight gain after anorexia is that it doesn’t work like weight loss did. At my most controlling, I could tell exactly what my weight was going to do the next day based on my calorie intake and my exercise time. Now, I feel like my dad when he tries to watch Real Housewives of New Jersey with me: completely lost.

How do I maintain this new healthy weight? I think I’ve forgotten how to “maintain” like a normal person.

A certain amount of weight gain from the depths of my struggle with anorexia was necessary. I accept this. I’m not suggesting that I was healthy at my lowest weight, and I’m not trying to go back there, either. No, the problem that I’m wrestling with at the moment is differentiating between the healthy weight I’m comfortable with and my body’s apparent “set point.”

I’ll admit, I’ve been trying to reject the notion that my body had a set point ever since a doctor mentioned it to me years ago. It seemed both ridiculous and horrifying that my body, independent of anything I told it to do, would decide that a certain weight was its “happy place” and would hang out there regardless of how I felt about it. Isn’t gaining and losing weight just an equation? Shouldn’t I be able to weigh whatever I want, if I want to?

Apparently not. I set myself a comfortable weight in recovery, deciding with the best of intentions that I would not go past this number. It was, I thought (and still think) a reasonable number. No doctor would warn me that this number was dangerously underweight. It was a compromise: give my body the extra layers of fat and muscle that it was crying for, while still allowing me to decide what my body looked like and how far I was comfortable going. I didn’t think that was too much to ask.

My body, on the other hand, had different ideas.

Weight gain, for me at least, is like taking a Slinky and putting it at the top of the stairs. All it needs was a little push, a little push that felt more like leaping out of an airplane without a parachute and hoping everything would work out all right. After the first push, the Slinky begins walking down step after step on its own, getting closer and closer to that goal weight at the bottom. Thing is, though, my recovery Slinky decided it would be a good idea to turn the corner, pass the landing, and start heading down the second flight. Not to push the metaphor, but I’d be perfectly happy to get off at floor two, thank you very much.

I haven’t quite come up with the perfect way to deal with this issue. I’m attempting to enlist the help of a nutritionist, who could hopefully explain to me how the calories I’m eating and those I’m exercising aren’t balancing the equation like they sued to. I’m trying to pay less attention to the size of the clothes I’m wearing, and to let it go that the pants I bought before beginning this year of college don’t fit me the way they used to (okay, let’s be honest, at all). While I still do weigh myself, I see the numbers that I don’t want to see and then have to try and push them out of my mind.

It’s a balancing act, I’ll tell you that. Weight-restored, but not entirely comfortable with it.

Why can’t I decide where my set point is? Who says my body gets all the control here?

Then again, I suppose it is my body that’s most concerned with my body weight. It seems to know what it wants. I wouldn’t be opposed to giving it a few helpful pointers along the way, but it might take more time than I’m comfortable with before it’s ready to listen to me again. Heaven knows it has no real reason to trust me, considering all the lies and manipulation I’ve been putting it through over the years.

For those of you either going through recovery or beginning to take similar steps, let me assure you of this before my words get misinterpreted: it is still worth it.

All the things I can do now that I couldn’t do while in the stronghold of anorexia more than make up for this fear and discomfort. My parents no longer need to worry about me medically. I no longer need to worry about me medically. The physical recovery needed to come first; the mental recovery might take longer.

Working on this!

Working on this!

But I think it’s going to take this fear and pain to arrive at the place I so desperately want to be. That place where I can go out to eat with my friends and family and never worry about the calories in the meal or what other people are thinking of what I eat. That place where I exercise because it makes me feel strong and powerful, not out of fear or guilt. That place where I am me, and my eating disorder is closed in the pages of a journal that I will never open again, not even for the nostalgia.

And I’ll keep working until I get there, one flop of the Slinky down the staircase at a time.

Advertisements

100 comments

  1. I feel compelled to comment but really I don’t know what to say. I pray that your restoration lasts forever. I have “battled” on and off for over 30 years. I know you don’t like that word. However it seems to fit for me. I’ve had years when I didn’t think about weight or food or calories. I’ve written essays, got married, had children and a career. My life blossomed and I blossomed in my recovery. But restoration needed to occur in my mind. It wasn’t until I relapsed or broke down or became anorexic again in my 40’s that someone questioned why I was doing this. I told her no reason. There was no reason I was starving myself. She didn’t give up on me. She didn’t focus on weight or food. She developed my trust and made it okay to be vulnerable and I began to open up and share. Anorexia is just so complicated and not about the size of your pants or a number on the scale. I can still stand on the scale and the numbers are meaningless. It doesn’t even register. And I am weight restored. I could probably weigh more but I’m good where I’m at because I could probably with less. The important thing is that I want doing it for no reason and my mind, body and soul are healing. I wish you continued restoration and healing and beauty and grace on your journey.

  2. Thank you for the post, which like many of the others here I have found comfort in. I feel as though my weight gain occurred healthily and gradually in the first year of recovery but that in the last eight months it has absolutely sky rocketed, and I’ve put on basically XX a month. I just keep putting on more weight, despite not eating healthily and keeping up with exercise. Why is this happening now? I feel awful at this weight.

    1. Hey Anne,

      I’m glad you could find something useful in this post! I’m so sorry that you’re going through a hard time in recovery right now — it’s not easy to work through at any pace. I wish I could offer you more practical advice, but I really do believe that our bodies know what’s best for them. Even if it feels like we’re overcorrecting at times (keeping in mind that our disorder gives us a really terrible understanding of what “overcorrecting” actually means), your body’s doing what it needs to do to take care of itself.

      And as I like to repeat whenever possible, there’s no easy, obvious link between health and weight! If you’re engaging in healthy habits (which from what you say it sounds like you are), that’s more important than whatever a scale says about the relationship between gravity and your body’s atoms.

      Sending you Internet hugs!
      -A

  3. Thank you for posting this. I know it is an older post but I searched for “coping with weight gain after eating disorder” and this entry was one of the search results. I’m having the exact same issue right now (although I was more of a fasting builimic than anorexic). Still, I managed to lose weight and am finding myself mentally incapable of dealing with the weight gain that’s coming along with recovery. It’s making me hate my body again and that’s what started this whole mess to begin with 13 years ago.
    I loved the slinky analogy and find myself having the same thoughts, wondering why I can’t have more control over my weight. Like you, I have a healthy weight I’m comfortable with, it just happens to be less than my body’s set weight and it’s incredibly difficult coming to terms with it. I know enough to avoid weighing my self but the tightness of my clothes (the ones that fit) and the mirror are constant reminders. I just don’t feel good about my body right now. I know it sounds hopelessly superficial but I can’t even bear to look at older pictures where I am thinner.
    I know I am too old for this and can’t stand the thought of losing more of my life to this disease but I am struggling and your post really helped me try and keep things in perspective, so I just wanted to say thank you!!

  4. Thanks for your post. My daughter is 15, recovered through Maudsley method and released from treatment over a year ago. Her recovery has never slipped, and she is much happier and healthier than ever. However, her weight has never really found a set point….continues to rise, which worries her (and me, although I was never say so). Is there a point where we shiuls reevaluate? She eats happily and freely, but often complains about her body. I feAr we have overshot the mark as she is probably 15 to 20 lbs past her target range (given by therapist during treatment). Thoughts?

    1. Hi Carol,

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      I’m not a medical professional nor a therapist, so I’m definitely not able to give you a medically informed answer to your question. If you have concerns, I would take them to a medical professional. That said, if your daughter is “much happier and healthier than ever” and she “eats happily and freely,” I would encourage you to value that far above the “target range” a therapist has given you. A “set point” isn’t an exact number, and expecting your daughter’s body to stop on a dime on a certain (likely arbitrary) number is probably not the best way to go.

      I probably don’t need to say this… 🙂 But I would urge you not to voice your concerns about your daughter’s weight gain to your daughter. If her current behaviors help her be both happy and healthy, then that’s what matters, not what the number on the scale says.

      I’m probably a little past what a doctor would call my “target weight” personally, but I haven’t weighed myself in over a year. I judge my health based on how I feel, both physically and emotionally, and I know I’m in a healthy place. Are you in a place where you can consider forgoing the scale, at least for a while? It sounds like that would help put your minds at ease.

  5. Thanks, this made me feel better and made me laugh a lot! “Whoever invented it is a sadist” – my thoughts exactly xD
    I literally doubled my weight and am struggling with the belly factor. I don’t even mind all the rest, it’s just the belly. I think it has partly to do with a really bad episode of substance abuse o_O which I am not proud of but I hope the effects are reversible, for all I know it could be years or never before I’m back how I used to be. You just have to remember that there really are more important things than your size, and whenever you see those people who never get hungry and are naturally slim, realize that it doesn’t make them superior, and it shouldn’t prevent you being healthy.

  6. I’m trying to recover form anorexia and bulimia but honestly it is so hard. I’m 5’8″ and this summer i weighed X pounds which was lovely to me, but I decided I deserved better and I went from eating X-X calories a day to eating probably around X overnight. My body did not quite understand what was happening and I gained weight. It is now December 10th and I weigh X. Am I happy with my weight? I am disgusted. I can’t look at myself in a mirror anymore, I can’t wear jeans or leggings or shorts because my thighs touch, to I’ll wear skirts, I can’t wear tank tops because my stomach is huge and my hips stick out. My friends told me I gained weight and I smiled and said ‘I know, I’m trying to’ Am I really? no! I’ve never been at a worst place in my life. I’m seriously considering quitting this whole recovery process.. It isn’t worth it.

    1. Hi Victoria,

      I hear your pain and your struggle, and I’m sorry that you’re having such a hard time. (Note: I did edit the numbers out of your comment — company policy. But the rest is untouched.)

      Recovery is a bitch, is the unfortunate truth. And I identify so hard with the “I’m trying to” lie. But your body needs to be fed in order to be strong and to survive, both of which are way more important than the way your body looks when you wear leggings or skirts. No matter whether you’re trying to gain weight intentionally or not, feeding your body a reasonable amount of food (which, by what you tell me, you are finally doing and that’s great) is the right thing to do.

      I can promise you as someone it’s happened to, the weight does taper off. This post is two years old, and as of now I’ve been maintaining my weight range for almost a full year. Not going up, not going down, just taking basic care of myself and chilling somewhere near my set point. I know it’s hard right now, when nothing fits and it feels out of control, but it is worth it. And the feelings of discomfort and disgust will pass, if you give them time to sit.

      You’re doing everything right, even though it’s hard to see it in that way. Take good care of yourself. Sending you positive thoughts.

  7. Hello Allison,
    I find your words so eloquent and encouraging, and must thank you for sharing with the internet. Putting oneself out on a public forum with such a vulnerable, touchy topic is extremely brave, and with your entire site, you’ve done it so successfully and gracefully. Its very admirable!

    I was wondering if you would be willing to share whether or not you relapsed for any major time period, and how you got back on track. I am trying to be one in your company as far as recovering from an eating disorder goes, but am on my second major relapse back into it, and it just seems that there are some shackles that I’ve not yet been able to break free of. It sounds like, in your slinky metaphor, you may be familiar with these feelings, but you’ve been far more successful in finding that freedom, as you have gone as far as to reach the point of weight gain and finding the comfort that should come with it.

    You write about the fear and guilt that you used to feel if you didn’t exercise, and the worry about calorie intake, and I was just wondering if you wouldn’t mind sharing how you were able to reach the freedom of those anxieties, as I desperately would like to be in the same place, but cannot seem to let myself break from the set path that those suffering from eating disorders design for themselves to safeguard against weight gain.

    Either way, I appreciate your time, and will continue to read your posts, as I find them enjoyable and very inspirational. Thank you!!

    1. Hey there, J,

      Thank you so much for your kind words! Although “graceful” is not a word I would use to describe myself. I have walked into three walls today, and it’s only 6:30am. Such is life.

      I’m wishing you all the best in your own journey. It sounds trite and like something you pull out of a Hallmark card, unfortunately, but it’s also true: relapse isn’t the end game. It’s what you do after relapse that matters. I can absolutely sympathize with the thoughts that it would be easier just to stop trying and go back to the way things were. Change is hard. Sometimes taking one or two steps back from the battle to re-center yourself and try again harder the next day isn’t the worst thing in the world. Just want to be clear that I’m not encouraging relapse here—just that relapse isn’t the end of the world, and you can try again tomorrow. Today, actually.

      One of the things that helped me was (and you’re not going to like to hear this, because I didn’t like hearing it) not weighing myself. Basically ever, but it was too much going cold-turkey all at once so I tapered down to once a week. Then every two weeks. And now I actually can’t remember the last time I weighed myself. Two months ago? Let me tell you, it’s a liberating feeling after the initial shock and discomfort. I don’t even look when they weigh me at the doctor’s office. If you have a kind physician, they might let you stand backwards on the scale.

      I also found it helpful to go to someone I trusted and tell them that I was having thoughts (actions) of relapsing, but that I didn’t want to. It upped the accountability factor because, as I imagine you know, a lot of an eating disorder can be done most easily in private. But it’s hard as hell to go to dinner or breakfast or whatever with someone who knows you should be eating X and then not doing it. They don’t have to nag or feel responsible, but just telling them you need a kick under the table helps. If you’re living alone (I am), I’d recommend cooking several days’ worth of meal plan-approved meals and leaving them in the fridge. There’s no excuse not to eat (“there’s no food” or “there’s no time” were my favorite excuses) because it’s already made. And then do something else while eating. Silence gives you too much time to think. Turn on the TV. Text a friend. Listen to a podcast or NPR. (I love NPR so hard.) Something to make the time go by.

      Exercise, well. I haven’t quite figured out that myself, and won’t pretend to. The best thing I can say is that what I’m trying to do now is find peace with working out less and sitting more. But there’s still some guilt and anxiety when I’m trying to figure out if I should go today when I’m tired or just want to sit on the couch. If I find a solution, I’ll be sure to pass that along 😛

      I don’t know if any of this was helpful or if it’s just me rambling over breakfast, but I hope you can use at least some of it. Hang in there—the eating disorder will not win. You will win.

  8. Everyone needs a healthy and well-balanced meal plan in order to control weight as you aged. If possible try to indulge in some forms of exercises to boost metabolism so your fitness level will maintain and you’ll be healthier for sure. All the while I am not fond of any exercise but my mindset has changed for good. One of the best ways to recover from any illness is to exercise or take up sports. Eventually you’ll life style changes and of course healthier. Good luck.

  9. You articulate very well the feelings that so many of us share in the process of becoming whole again. I won’t go in to my entire story here, because like everyone else it is more complicated than a synopsis. Or is it? I am 52, rapidly approaching 53. My post anorexia weigh gain seemed to take on a life of it’s own, complicated with the fact the ahhhhh yes, menopausal me has given my body that double dose of accelerated weight gain that I feared prior to ever considering myself someone with issues.It’s funny talking about set points. I had one, for years, that I was perfectly okay with, as long as I didn’t weigh myself. Because the number in my head felt at odds with what my body told me was okay. At 5′ 6″. and in my 40’s my body said “147” not 145, not 150, 147. That is where I parked and lived for several years. I ate “healthy” for the most part and exercised religiously, taking on triathlons and extreme workouts. Then the scale moved upward. I hit 150 and freaked out. Let’s make the long story short. The weight spiraled lower and the high from it was intoxicating. I hit a bottom, and have worked my way back. But I have to say the weight came back so rapidly (weight plus) that I felt out of control there as well. Here is where I find myself today. Trying to find that balance in healthy eating, exercising and body image. I fear my own ability to maintain a healthy weight. I am not there at the moment. I am overweight, not by just what my mind says, but by reality. I nearly dropped all exercising because the extreme was the only way I knew how. I worry about wanting and needing to drop some pounds, and finding that place that says… “GO” go back to restricting, and obsessing. It’s not where I want to be. So I guess my question for any of you out there is how do you get back to “normal” for you?

    1. Thanks for sharing your story, Judy. I really feel for where you are right now, and I hope that you’re doing all right. And way to go for working your way back, even though it’s difficult.
      Dealing with healthy ways to take care of ourselves after recovery is an extremely tricky process – this post is from about a year and a half ago, and I’m in the “I’d like to lose a little weight but in a healthy way and without going off the deep end” place myself. I also have some issues balancing “extreme” exercising and no exercising at all, so the best thing that’s worked for me is settling into a routine and telling others what it is so they can keep me accountable. I’ll work out x amount during a week, and because I have someone else other than me to hold me to it, it helps me stay in the swing of things. Another thing I try seems a little silly, but I repeat a kind of mantra to myself when I catch myself trying to do “healthy” things for the wrong (i.e. ED-reminiscent) reasons.
      “Weight isn’t health. I can take care of myself without losing weight and still be better off for it.”
      I’ve tweaked my exercise lately and know that it’s having tangible benefits on me and my life, even though I’ve actually gained a few pounds. Not that that’s easy, but repeating the words (which are true!) in tough times helps.
      I’d be very curious to hear what suggestions others have as well!

  10. I really need help with this. I am now the healthiest I’ve ever been in fifteen years of being an anorexic, but I hate my body. I was alright as long as I could stay a size 8/10 UK but now that I have gained more weight I am freaking out. I’m wavering on the edge of making really bad decisions, and the weight gain is really sending me into a depression tail spin. I want to lose some weight so badly, but I don’t know how to do it safely, I don’t know who I am if I’m not the size I was. I’ve been looking all over the internet for recovery support when gaining weight. I’m glad to have found you. Thanks for speaking.

    1. Thanks for your kind words, and primarily congratulations on the healthy changes you’ve made! I’m sorry that the process has been so difficult for you – weight gain after anorexia is never easy, and you should still be proud of how you’ve taken care of yourself even when you’re not happy with how it currently feels.

      I sympathize with the resurgence of wanting to lose weight post-recovery. I wrote this particular post about a year ago, and right now I’m at a weight that I’ve never been before. It’s a tough process to remember that it isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and that your body will settle to a weight that’s functional for it so long as you’re taking good care of yourself. Healthy lifestyle habits like getting enough sleep and eating regular, nutritious meals are way more important in the scheme of things than whatever the scale or the tag on the inside of clothes says. While I’m still getting used to the changes, I’ve more or less stopped weighing myself at all (I’m holding steady at doing it only once or twice a month, which I’m pretty proud of) and trying to pay less attention to clothing sizes (cutting out the tags if necessary).

      Though it sounds like new-age psychology tactics, another thing I find that helps is asking myself (sometimes out loud): what’s the absolute worst thing that would happen if I don’t lose the XX pounds that would put me at my ideal weight? When I can take my emotions out of it, the response is usually something like “I wouldn’t be able to wear those jeans from two years ago that were really comfortable” or “I might weigh more than some of my friends at a high school or college reunion.” The way I see it, the only way to get through recovery’s tough moments is to work like a Vulcan: take the emotion out of your body and of food and treat it like a physics equation or something equally objective.

      Sorry to ramble on a bit 🙂 Thanks for reading, and best of luck going forward. You can do this!

  11. Hello,
    I’m so glad I stumbled across this post because that’s the exact fear that’s stopping me from wanting to recover.
    How did things work out in the end? If I start eating again I don’t know when I’ll stop putting on weight, what if I don’t maintain a normal weight, what if I become heavier than I was before all this started.
    I hope things worked out well for you, take care x

    1. Hi Rebecca,
      I’m glad you found this as well! This post is from a little over a year ago, when I was just beginning recovery and the weight gain was coming quickly, as it tends to do when you go from not eating enough to eating a reasonable amount. Now that I’m about a year and a half into recovery, my weight has more or less stabilized – I’m not sure exactly where it is right now, because I’ve deliberately not weighed myself for the past two months (and even though it sounds like it would make it worse, I highly recommend doing that!), but I’ve been pretty stable and in a healthy place for some time now. I’m eating without worrying every time about how much weight it will or will not make me gain, which is incredibly liberating, but more important than that, I’m way healthier now than I was before. That’s worth it for me, no matter what the number on the scale might say if I did decide to go look at it.
      I encourage you to work toward recovery, even if it seems like it’s not exactly what you want right now. The results of recovering are so beyond worth the pain and the hardness of working through the process, and I think deep down you know that or you wouldn’t have come to and commented on my blog. You’re worth putting in the effort to take care of yourself, and I hope that you are well and take good care of yourself. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  12. This is so helpful, thank you. I Googled “anorexia recovery weight restoration”, because I’m struggling with moving from ‘almost’ weight restored to ‘actually, genuinely, fully’ weight restored… 12 years after I left hospital following a 5 year battle with anorexia. Since then I’ve very eaten well, maintained a decent (but below normal) weight, had a child and lived life fully.. But now it’s time to do the last bit and exchange my jeans for a healthy sized pair.

    1. Congratulations on all the progress you’ve made, Esther! It’s an enormous process, and it’s never easy, but it sounds like you’ve made amazing progress. I know that rationally we both know that having a child and a full, great life is more important than whatever size your jeans are, but it can be tough to remember that in the moment. Just know that you’re not alone in this, and even though it’s hard at times it will so be worth it in the end. I’m glad you found my post, and I hope that you keep working at recovery, because you can do it!

      1. Allison, thank you so much. I really appreciate your encouragement. I find it hard to admit to the outside world that sometimes I still need encouragement and reminders to stay with recovery. So I am extremely grateful to you for your understanding and support! I shall be keeping an eye on your blog to help me stay on track. All the best to you in all areas of your life and recovery journey. You should be so proud of how far you’ve come xx

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s