Mythbusting: Eating Disorder Recovery Edition

Mythbusters and associated logos are under copyright by Beyond Entertainment and the Discovery Channel.

Mythbusters and associated logos are under copyright by Beyond Entertainment and the Discovery Channel.

This post was originally published for Adios Barbie and can be read in its original context here.

September 1st was my one-year anniversary.

Not a romantic anniversary with a candlelit dinner and diamond earrings. The one-year anniversary of my recovery from an eating disorder.

I don’t know if taking a day to celebrate the recovery process is common, but I wanted to commemorate the year I began taking care of myself. I’d thought I was taking care of myself before – avoiding weight gain, exercising, eliminating “bad” foods. In the name of getting healthy, I reached what looked to be the point of no return.

Operative words being “looked to be.”

Here I am, one year later, at or near my body’s set point (my body’s natural, comfortable weight). All my blood work comes back consistently normal. I can run up stairs without getting tired now, and I don’t wear hooded sweatshirts in 80-degree heat anymore. I think celebrating a different kind of health is worth it.

There are plenty of resources for people beginning recovery from any kind of eating disorder.NEDA provides an extensive list to get you started. Doctors, therapists, nutritionists, and well-meaning friends and family might be present at every turn, or they might not be. And yet, it’s still difficult to get a straight answer for the most pressing question on people’s minds.

What is recovery going to look like? Will it go on like this forever? Will I be strong enough to make it?

My experience was my own, and I can’t pretend that it will ring true to every person beginning a recovery journey. But I think this episode of “Mythbusters: Eating Disorder Edition,” if you will, is pretty universal. Take it from me: this article is not a magic spell. Recovery is hard. But it doesn’t need to be any harder than it has to be.

Myth One: You need to meet with a full treatment team three times a week, or you don’t really want to recover. And if you don’t want it, you’ll never get better.

Truth: You probably do need support, but what form that takes is up to you.

Recovering from an eating disorder isn’t easy. If it were, we wouldn’t need to talk about it. And as with any difficult life issue, it helps to have people on your side.

But support looks different for everybody.

If you don’t meet regularly with a physician, a therapist, a nutritionist, and a psychiatrist, that doesn’t mean that you don’t want to get better or that you’re not trying. It just means that your needs are different from other people’s needs.

Some people benefit from in-patient treatment centers. Others try out-patient programs at hospitals or other facilities. Some meet with a therapist a few times a week, go in for nutritional counseling, or try to go it on their own with family and friends on their side. I’m not suggesting that anyone should discount therapy or nutritional counseling. They’re valuable techniques that help many people sort out complicated problems. By all means, give them a go. But recovery and treatment are not one-size-fits-all.

Use your voice, not your eating disorder’s, to direct your life. Doing recovery your way (whatever way that is) means you’re beginning to take charge. For many, this comes with some kind of professional help or guidance from a trusted therapist. But the biggest change has to come from within. Find the help that works for you, and don’t give up.

Myth Two: Shifts in weight will happen at a rate of X pounds/week.

Truth: Honestly? Who the heck knows.

Not all eating disorders result in a drastic change in body weight. But some do. Whether you are hoping to lose weight after fighting with BED, gain weight after anorexia, or settle into your body’s set point and a regular pattern of eating after any eating disorder, your body is influenced by a number of factors. The duration of your disorder. Your height. Your family history and genetics. Your body type. Your metabolism. Your current level of stress. Heck, your sodium levels and how much you tend to sweat.

Your set point isn’t something that can be predicted. Bodies change with age and life circumstances, hormones and stress. I had a weight in mind I was comfortable with when I began recovery, but my body decided on a different one. All of this is scary, but it’s okay.

Medical professionals told me that my rapid weight shifts would stop after about six to eight weeks. I was also told a pound range that was normal to expect per week. Well, I gained about twice that per week, and it didn’t stop after eight weeks. It took me nine months. Disinterested strangers watching me might have mistaken me for a pregnant woman (Ah, recovery bloating). And that’s okay too. Your body is going to do what it needs, no matter how frightening that might seem.

The theory of a “set point”? I thought it sounded like the stupidest thing I’d ever heard. And then I found mine. It took longer than I wanted, but it does happen.

Every body is different. Just give yours time.

Myth Three: Relapsing means you failed at recovery.

Truth: Relapsing means you hit a setback. It’s how you deal with setbacks that matters.

A huge step in recovery is being able to step back after a moment of relapse and say, “Yes, I made a mistake,” or “I wish that had gone differently.” And then you continue on, planning to do better next time.

Relapses are not the end of the world. Of course, we try to avoid them at all costs, but sometimes learning what sparks a relapse can be important. What issues cause you to retreat back into destructive behaviors? What problems are still unresolved in your life? What is it about this situation that makes you want to wrench back control in this way?

Just because you have problems doesn’t mean that you can’t overcome them. You are strong and powerful and you can do it. You’ve proven that by deciding that you want recovery in the first place.

Need more reassurance? Watch this great video from Arielle Lee Bair on relapse in recovery. This inspiring poem by Portia Nelson captures the spirit of relapse and recovery—a comforting thing to keep in mind during hard times.

Beating yourself up over your mistakes is part of your disorder, not a viable way of ending it.

Myth Four: If you are underweight, you’ll feel way better as soon as you start gaining the weight back.

Truth: Weight restoration is hard.

Not necessarily because it’s hard to gain weight. It’s hard because it means looking your biggest irrational fear in the face and saying, “Come at me, bro.”

It’s hard. And it doesn’t always feel great, especially right away. In fact, weight gain can feel horrible (and terrifying) at first. Bloating, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, gas, night sweats, impossible clothes shopping… It’s not fun.

But it gets better.

It’s a gradual better. You might not even notice it while it’s happening because you’re caught up in all the problems. But when you take a step back and realize, “Hey, I’m not cold all the time anymore,” or “I just ate breakfast and I didn’t think about the calories,” that’s when you see it. And it makes the rest a lot easier to take.

Myth Five: Complete recovery from any eating disorder is impossible.

Truth: If you’ll pardon my French, bullshit.

Recovery is hard work. I’ve been working at it for a year, and I’m still not totally there. But every day, I get closer.

I fall in love with my former off-limits foods. (Looking at you, French fries. Delicious.)

I continue to re-evaluate my relationship with exercise.

I think critically about weight-loss tabloid articles and the latest fad diets.

I surround myself with body positivity, whether through online communities and articles or re-directing conversations with friends and family that turn to body-snarking.

I might not love my body 100% of the time, every time. But I respect it for what it does, and it’s forgiving me for what I’ve put it through previously.

Looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.


Russian Roulette in Recovery

On one of these numbers is a medical professional that can help me...

On one of these numbers is a medical professional that can help me…

Here’s a Friday afternoon challenge for you, to get you revved up for the Sunday crossword. Can you guess which of these is a conversation with a medical professional and which isn’t?


Conversation One

Me: So, I was wondering if you could help me. I’ve been recovering from an eating disorder for the past five years, and while I’m now at a healthy place I’m gaining more weight than I might like. I don’t think my current diet really explains how quickly it’s coming on.

X: Hmm. Well, if you’re eating what you say you’re eating, that doesn’t really add up. Do you have thyroid problems?

Me: No.

X: Do you think you might have a problem with night eating and you don’t know about it?

Me: You mean, do I eat in my sleep?

X: Yes.

Me: Uh, no.

X:  Are you pregnant?

Me: *double-take* Am I pregnant?

X: Is there a possibility that you’re pregnant?

Me: Uh, no.

X: I’m not sure, then. Maybe try eating some brown rice with your vegetables, to shake up your metabolism. And work out less.

Me: That’s all?

X: Sorry I don’t have better answers. But you’re crying now? You look really upset. Have you considered how big of a problem this is in your life? It’s taking up more of your emotional energy than it should. I don’t understand why you’re so emotional right now.


Conversation Two:

Me: I’m really upset that I’ve become weight-restored after dealing with all of this, but I can’t seem to slow down the weight gain. I’m so frustrated that there’s nothing I can do.

Y: I know you’re frustrated. Objectively, you look fine, but I know that you want to be able to slow down your weight gain and maintain the healthy place you’re in now. We’ll see what we can figure out.

Me: So you have no idea what’s causing this? Because it doesn’t make any sense. 

Y: No, I’ve got to admit I don’t. But I’ll make sure you get an appointment with a doctor who knows your history and can give you the answers that you’re looking for. You’re doing everything right, and you need to hang in there until we can get this all sorted out.


Did you guess?

Conversation One was the condensed version of my most recent appointment with a nutritionist, who I consulted in the hopes of forging a weight-maintenance diet and exercise plan. Conversation Two was my father, who has no experience in medicine or body image issues other than talking with me.

And then I get asked why I’m not interested in therapy.

I’m not against the idea of getting a treatment team behind you in the recovery process. Actually, I’ve wished I had a treatment team consistently over the past five years. A group of professionals who could answer all the pressing questions I had about what was going on with my body, who would be there to help me overcome and understand my feelings, who I would know constantly were on my side. I tried five different therapists, two nutritionists, a slew of medication from my GP… I even signed up for group therapy (the group leader rejected my application, but that’s a different story.)

And yet, here I am at the end of the day, on the phone with my dad.

What is it about eating disorders that sends the medical field fleeing to the hills? Maybe I’m biased because I’m experiencing it from the inside, but it seems like it shouldn’t be that difficult to know what one should simply not say to someone with problems with weight and food. You know, things like, “Do you think you could be pregnant?” Or “If you’re not going to be more honest with me, you’re never going to get better.” Or “Good to see you’ve got a little more meat on your bones.” Or “Have people told you that your thinness scares them?”

Yep. I’ve heard it all.

Why don’t those of us struggling with eating disorders turn to professionals for help? Naturally, there’s the stigma of trying to explain to friends and family that you have a mental disorder. It doesn’t get the same reaction as telling them that you have cancer. If I came out and said that I had leukemia, my peers might feel uncomfortable, nervous, and sad, but they would not try to write it off as “narcissism.” I wouldn’t have gotten cancer as “a plea for attention,” or because I was “too stupid to know when to stop dieting.” I would not be told to “get over” my cancer and to just make my cells start reproducing normally again.

Eating disorders are diseases, but they are also condemnations. They are seen as something we should have stopped.

We should have known better.

And then there’s the yawning gap between what we need and what so many professionals are able to give us. We reach out for help, and we are judged and slapped back down and our questions go unanswered because we are too ashamed to ask them. We retreat back into silence, screaming into pillows because they, at lest, won’t tell us to just get over it.

Still, I’m not giving up that easily. I’m not ready to resign myself to a life of non-answers and stigma. I’m going to find out what’s going on with my body right now, and I’m going to sync it with my mind once and for all.

It’s my body, after all. I’m the one that has to live in it. The least I can do is make it comfortable.