CW: discussion of eating disorders, but not of specific ED behaviors
Today marks the start of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week (#NEDAwareness). This week holds personal significance to me, as I’ve struggled with an eating disorder myself. Starting recovery has been life-changing, and I’ve already learned so much about intuitive eating, food freedom, body neutrality, and just why life is so much better without worrying about food and my body.
It’s important to note that I am still on my recovery journey and I know that it is not going to be a short process. I have years of unlearning, relearning, and growing to do. What I can do is share how simply starting my journey has already helped me become a happier, healthier person, and what it’s taught me with those who may be going through similar experiences. While not everyone will experience an eating disorder (ED) in their lifetime, many may experience disordered eating, engage in diet culture, or find themselves unhappy with their body. Regardless of the severity or length of your struggles, your individual experiences are valid. I hope that my words may resonate with others and offer motivation in starting your recovery journey or encouragement in continuing it.
Here are a few things I’ve learned from starting my eating disorder recovery:
1. If you’re struggling, you are “sick enough” to start recovery.
Just thinking that you have to become increasingly ill to need help is a sign that you deserve support now. Before seeking treatment, I constantly invalidated my experience and compared it to those who were seemingly worse-off than me. Looking back, I regret believing that I didn’t deserve help when I needed it. Starting recovery has brought so much joy into my life already, so I wish I’d started it sooner.
2. You can have an eating disorder at any weight or size.
Often being “sick enough” is a means of conveying whether or not a person is “thin enough” to have a serious eating disorder. Not only does this fail to account for eating disorders where weight-loss isn’t common, it perpetuates the myth that people with eating disorders must “look” a certain way.
You can still lose weight and feel the physical symptoms of anorexia without reaching a perceived unhealthy weight. Eating disorders are mental illnesses and come with serious psychological symptoms regardless of the person’s weight. Atypical anorexia is a mental health condition where a person matches all the psychological and behavioral criteria for anorexia, but is not at an underweight BMI. The range of disorders goes beyond anorexia nervosa and atypical anorexia, and includes binge eating disorder, bulimia, orthorexia, OSFED, and more. By forgoing the stereotype that a person needs to be incredibly thin to have an eating disorder, more people will feel comfortable getting help when they need it.
3. Your eating disorder is the one controlling you, not the other way around.
Your eating disorder will try to convince you that starting recovery means failing and that an ED is the only way you can maintain control. It is wrong. Food freedom and body acceptance will give you more control over your life than your eating disorder ever did.
4. You are more than your eating disorder.
Sometimes it can feel like an eating disorder is an integral part of your identity. Who am I without my eating disorder? Well, for me, less time engaging in ED behaviors means more time spent on mental health advocacy, with friends and family, enjoying music, writing, etc – the things that really make me who I am. My eating disorder isn’t what made me interesting or special, it made me sick. Giving up ED behaviors can be scary and uncomfortable, but it’s necessary to live a happy, healthy, and fulfilling life.
5. There will be bad days in recovery. That doesn’t mean your progress wasn’t real and that you don’t have more good days to come.
There are days where it’s hard to overcome eating disorder thoughts or to avoid body-checking. I still have periods of times, ranging from one mealtime to a week or so, where I’ve lost my appetite and find it hard to listen to hunger-cues. For me, it helps to have go-to nutritious and/or easy-to-make foods that I can eat when I’m not particularly craving anything, but know that I should eat something.
6. Surrounding yourself with encouragement is key to a successful recovery.
Unfollow any accounts on social media that make you feel as though you need to change your diet or your body to be happy! This includes fitness or “healthy eating” accounts, especially those not run by registered dietitians (RDs) or nutritionists. I personally love seeing educational Instagram threads, intuitive eating and body neutrality content, motivational sentiments, and recovery tips on my feed.
7. There are no good or bad food groups!
All foods can fit in a healthy diet. While it’s okay for your body to change throughout your life, it’s not going to change drastically with everything you eat. So go have dessert or that extra bowl of pasta, I promise it won’t hurt you.
8. Feeling sick all the time sucks.
Not everyone has physical symptoms of an eating disorder or experiences weight-loss (your ED is still valid if you don’t!), so I can only speak to my own experiences here. Hair loss, tiredness, feeling unnecessarily cold …I can assure you that losing weight is simply not worth it.
9. Your relationships will grow once you start recovery.
Going out with friends used to bring me so much anxiety. I’d obsess over the menu at the restaurant we planned to go to and let thoughts of what I might eat later control my eating and exercise patterns for the whole day. When I did go out, I’d be tired, stressed, and just not myself. It’s impossible to have fulfilling relationships and fun with friends when you’re worried about food or how you look the whole time. Now, when I’m with friends, I can actually focus on the quality of the time spent together, rather than on what’s on my plate.
10. My body was never the problem, my relationship with it was.
I’ve dealt with depression and anxiety throughout my adolescence and into young adulthood, but try to channel my experiences into my passion for mental health advocacy and helping others. Often I’ve dealt with a constant battle between my understanding of mental health issues and the thoughts I’ve experienced due to my own. I had this idea that all my problems were rooted in not liking my body, and that if I could just be skinnier, everything else would work itself out. If it’s not obvious at this point, that thinking was seriously flawed. How I looked was never the problem, how I felt about myself was. Losing weight wasn’t what I needed to make me happy; working to release my perception of “how I wish I looked” and learning to accept and appreciate my body as it is has helped my mental health improve tremendously.
Above all else, I’ve learned that recovery has brought and will continue to bring me more happiness than my eating disorder ever did.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, don’t hesitate to reach out for support. NEDA can provide help over text, call, or chat.