Today, I’m honored to share my interview with Madeleine Wilson, an Eating Recovery Center alum. A senior in high school, Madeleine started struggling with an eating disorder her freshman year. What started as a “healthy” eating plan quickly turned into a full blown eating disorder. Below, Madeleine discusses her treatment and recovery, along with signs to watch out for and how loved ones can help—and a whole lot more. 

Q: What was the hardest part about treatment or recovery, and how did you get through it?

A: The hardest part of recovery was letting go of the lie that I was not worth recovery. When recovering from an eating disorder, as well as many addictions/mental illnesses, values play a large role in the process. My therapist pointed out to me how many of the things I value were affected by my eating disorder.

Therefore, the values became parts of my life I could gain back if I gave up the eating disorder. I had things I valued from the start of my recovery, but when I was stuck for a period of time, my therapist brought to my attention the theme throughout my values. The majority of them had to do with making others happy, and my therapist asked that I list valuable reasons to recover for myself. I wrestled with this request for quite a while before really realizing the importance of it. In order to fully recover, you must know and BELIEVE that you are worth recovery.

Q: What does recovery look like for you today?

A: This year (my senior year in high school), I have been the absolute happiest and most free in my entire life. I go to so many more social events, I enjoy laughter and relationships, and I am excited to head off to college at the end of the summer, which is a huge victory as college was one of my largest goals and values in recovery.

Recovery allows me to be carefree, show love for others, run around outside with friends and family, the list goes on and on. And anyone who is struggling with an eating disorder should know that each person has the opportunity to feel this good. Not all days are perfect by any means, but with my eating disorder around, my life was the complete opposite of all these happy things. You deserve a happy life!

Q: What eating disorder signs do loved ones tend to miss? Why do you think these signs go unrecognized?

A: A difficult sign to notice in someone struggling with an eating disorder is complaining about their body or talking about appearance more than others. This sign is becoming increasingly difficult to detect as our society becomes more and more anchored in outward appearance. Everyone already talks so much about body size, exercise, diet, etc. that it becomes difficult to differentiate between a problem and everyday speech.

Q: If a loved one notices a few signs, what should they do?

A: Err on the side of caution: Talk to them! What I mean is, if you believe someone you know well may be struggling, your instinct is most likely right. I think the reason confronting someone about a potential eating disorder is scary is because we often forget that confrontation can mean different things.

Approach the conversation from a place of compassion and concern, which should come naturally if you really love the person. The signs probably mean something is going on with them, and whether that be an eating disorder or not, both of you will be glad you talked about it earlier rather than later—even if it takes them a while to show their gratitude.

Q: What can a loved one do if the person doesn’t think they have a problem and refuses to seek help?

A: Though eating disorders vary per person, almost everyone denies they have a problem at the beginning. If you confront them about signs you or others have noticed and they seem defensive, they most likely have a problem. If they remain distant and you still notice signs, go to another loved one or professional if necessary. And don’t worry, they will thank you in the end. 

Q: How can a loved one be supportive in general?

A: Eating disorder recovery is a long, sometimes chronic process. Everyone who deals with an eating disorder has good and bad phases, just like every human. A persistent and loyal loved one who wants recovery for the person even when they themselves don’t is the best help for someone struggling.

Like I said before, go into the process [knowing] that your efforts of love will not be appreciated for some time. 1.) Know that you are not doing anything wrong. 2.) Remember one day they will see all the highs and lows where you stood by them, and they will appreciate it more than you know.

Q: What do you want readers to know about eating disorder recovery?

A: Your recovery is yours and yours only. If everyone’s recovery was the same, there would be a how-to book written and the joys of recovery would not be as special. It is so hard to not compare your own recovery to anyone else’s. But I can promise that everyone’s is similar in that no one has a linear recovery. Everyone goes through ups and downs; they just look different depending on the person. There isn’t a right or wrong way to recover, so focus on yourself and freedom to live life.

Q: What would you like readers to know about what helped you recover?

A: If you have the opportunity to recover somewhere other than home, I highly recommend that. My parents and I attempted recovery at home for a few months before I was admitted into a treatment facility. Sure, there are great books professionals have published, but physically going to classes to learn how better to recover taught me immensely more than I could have learned from books.

And also, realize that going to treatment is a privilege. That’s right, I said it. I know you might think I’m crazy for saying that. I would have thought so too 3 years ago. But the people teaching you really know what they’re talking about and there are many people who die before being offered treatment. The lessons you learn will make your life much better than you can imagine, so I dare you to take them to heart.

Q: Anything else you want readers to know about eating disorders?

A: If you feel like you might have an eating disorder, ask for help. This is not what anyone wants to hear because it is scary to ask for help! I know you may be worried about being “weak” or a burden if you ask for help, but I promise it’s the exact opposite.

The first step in recovery is admitting you have a problem, and by asking for help, you’re one step closer towards freedom from the disorder. And if you say you don’t want to recover, or you think no one will find out about it, that is not true. We can only last so long under the eating disorder’s grasp. And no matter how much we submerge it, it will come out in one way or another. So why not take the initiative and call it out yourself? That seems pretty brave to me.

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Yesterday was Eating Recovery Day, started by the Eating Recovery Center. The campaign’s aim is to help individuals recognize the warning signs of an eating disorder and not to miss out on a full life due to the disease. Check out my interview with eating disorder expert Beth Riley for more on signs, support and myths.