Today is Eating Recovery Day, a day dedicated to removing stigma, raising awareness and inspiring hope for eating disorder recovery. This year’s theme is #MyRecoveryLetter, and invites individuals struggling or recovering from eating disorders, along with their loved ones to pen letters of gratitude, reflection and inspiration.
There’s a lot of misunderstanding about eating disorder recovery, starting with the biggest one: What does recovery really look like?
This is why I interviewed Bonnie Brennan, MA, LPC, CEDS, a senior clinical director of adult services at Eating Recovery Center in Denver, Colo., about this topic. You’ll find her excellent insights below. Tomorrow, I’ll be sharing more illuminating responses from Shannon Kopp, an eating disorder advocate.
Q: How do you define recovery from an eating disorder?
A: Recovery is a process. It starts with a willingness to recognize that your eating and body behaviors have become a problem, which is often an attempt to solve another problem. It is acceptance that what you are doing is taking you away from life, from the things that are meaningful for you.
Recovery is about making choices, however small, towards a life free from eating disorder. The more choices you make towards a recovery life and the more actions you take, the greater distance you will get from the eating disorder thoughts and behaviors and the more space there will be for other parts of your life.
Recovery is different for everyone. For some, recovery comes in many chapters. For those who have found their way to “recovered,” they will say they are no longer terrorized by eating disorder thoughts and behaviors and do not think about choosing these behaviors anymore.
Q: What are several myths about recovery that you’d like to clear up?
A: “If I don’t do recovery perfect, I don’t deserve it.” It is important not to try to do your recovery “perfect.” Thinking you need to be perfect is often linked to eating disorder thoughts. Allow recovery to be messy, to be human.
Recovery should be “one and done.” Many people enter treatment for the first time thinking that they will eradicate the eating disorder from their life quickly and completely. What they find out is that to recover from an eating disorder, one has to learn to have a healthy relationship with food and their body every day of the year, every time they need to eat. It’s like taking an alcoholic into a bar and saying “here, try to have a healthy relationship with alcohol.”
“I’m not sick enough to get help.” Eating disorders are competitive. Especially anorexia. The mind of the person tells them that they aren’t sick enough, they aren’t in the hospital yet, so they must not “deserve” treatment. This is a lie the eating disorder tells. The real truth is that the sooner you get help, the better your chances for recovery. Early intervention is key.
“I don’t fit the profile of an eating disorder patient.” Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes, are found across all ages, genders, races and socioeconomic groups. Eating disorders do not discriminate. In the past, many treatment centers only offered services to women. This has changed dramatically in the last 10-15 years and you will now find treatment centers like Eating Recovery Center to be much more diverse.
“I need to figure out how to do this myself.” Family and friends are essential to a solid recovery. Eating disorders thrive in secrecy and isolation and one cannot recover in a vacuum. The most important thing a support person can do is to care enough to see you are struggling and offer support. Even if it is just a hug or listening to how hard it is to recover.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge in recovering from an eating disorder? How can readers navigate this challenge?
A: The biggest challenge in recovery is that you have to heal in the environment you struggle with the most, your body. One of the things I have my patients practice at ERC is to recognize that their body has all kinds of thoughts, feelings, body sensations and memories and some of them may be quite painful. An eating disorder serves to help get relief from problems and pain. It numbs the body from feeling anything and keeps you in your head.
When you start to recover, and interrupt those eating disorder behaviors, all kinds of stuff will boil to the surface, kind of like the gunk that rises to the top of homemade chicken soup. All that gunk is necessary to feel and make room for.
When you practice letting yourself feel again, you will also regain the ability to experience other thoughts and feelings, like joy, connectedness, meaning and purpose, love, contentment, peace, etc.—the ones that will help you move towards what you want your life to be about
Q: What seems to be especially helpful for your patients in achieving and maintaining recovery?
A: Getting treatment early, finding a treatment team you trust, allowing the support of family and friends and remembering to turn towards the life you want and start practicing going in that direction, even if, you are not fully recovered or think you deserve it.
Q: How can friends and family support a loved one in getting and maintaining recovery?
A: If you notice there is a problem, say something, even if the person may get upset. You may be saving a life. Anorexia Nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any other mental illness. Offer to help find treatment options and an eating disorder expert to talk to like a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist (CEDS).
Family and friends are also encouraged to be part of the treatment process. At ERC, we have the Eating Disorders Family Connection group on Facebook for family and friends. We also offer family programming and therapy as part of the treatment experience and a family support portal on our website at www.eatingrecovery.com.
Q: What do you want someone who’s struggled with relapses and feels hopeless right now to know?
A: Recovery is possible! Even if you don’t feel it right now because the pain is too intense, it is there. Get support and enlist your family and friends. Take the risk to believe that change can happen, even if you don’t know exactly what it will look like and how it will happen.
Consider composing your own recovery letter, and sharing it at http://myrecoveryletter.com; and becoming part of Team Recovery to amplify eating disorder awareness and encourage individuals who need it to seek help.