There’s no question that letting go of an eating disorder is one of the hardest things a person can do. It’s also important to note that each individual will follow their own unique path to recovery.
While there is no magic wand to wave away all the stress, challenges and difficult moments, I’ll try to provide the next best thing: some secrets shared by individuals who have been in your shoes and ended up being able to kick ED to the curb.
1). Practice Self-Compassion: Decide that you are worthy of recovery and living a joyous life full of ups and downs. Forgive yourself when you have a bad day. Acknowledge when you are tired and need rest. And keep reminding yourself that you are doing the best that you can.
2). Feed your soul: If your body and brain are being deprived, you are less likely to reap the benefits of everything from therapy to mindfulness. Regardless of body shape or size, malnourishment increases the risk of medical complications, co-morbid psychiatric symptoms and distorted thinking. Consider ways to nourish yourself beyond just the physical piece. Look at ways to feed your soul. We nourish our bodies with food, and our minds and hearts with knowledge and love.
3). It takes a village: One person can’t give you the keys to recovery. Rather, you likely require a team – one that holds you accountable and provides the knowledge and skill set you need for recovery. A dietitian specialized in eating disorders can help you navigate your food rules and ultimately normalize your eating. A medical doctor (MD) or nurse practitioner (NP) can monitor you for medical complications and provide a much needed reality check regarding the seriousness of your illness. Finding a therapist that you really connect with will give you an ally to help better understand yourself and your eating disorder. While it isn’t unheard of for people to recover on their own, it is immeasurably easier with a strong team of professionals by your side.
4). FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is real: You have your clinical team, but where is your squad? Don’t let ED isolate you from those you care about; and those who care about you too! As one recovery pro put it…
“If you have friends who want to do things with you, it helps to keep you out of your head and also forces you to go to meals. Eventually the fun of having friends will outweigh the fear of eating. They also provide a good model for more normalized eating patterns. But mainly I think friends give you something to live for because you make great memories and truly feel a sense of support. Also FOMO is real.”
5). Don’t forget the best policy: Many recovered individuals will stress that honesty is key to success. Because the eating disorder thrives in secrecy, being honest is a way to defy ED and stake a claim on recovery. In addition, being open with your family and friends can be a great motivator to keep going.
6). Be wicked “skilly”: An eating disorder is an incredibly effective coping mechanism…until it isn’t. And while this is an oversimplification of a very complex disease that can involve genetics, temperament, trauma and a host of other contributors, it is undeniable that the use of eating disorder behaviors meets a very immediate need to dull or distract from unpleasant feelings or things.
You cannot take away a coping mechanism (whether it is maladaptive or not) without replacing it with something else. How about adding healthy coping strategies to your toolkit? This is where all those hours of DBT are going to come in handy. How about mindfulness, art or yoga?
The key to internalizing skills is to practice them often, at all times of day. Repetition and time will help the brain form new neural pathways, and slowly but surely these habits will replace the old, unhealthful ones.
7). Find yourself: Eating disorders are often ego-syntonic, or in other words, consistent with one’s sense of self. When you make the decision to break free of ED, it can feel like giving up a part of your identity, maybe one that you have held on to for a long time. In the same way you must add new ways to self-regulate when you begin to abstain from your eating disorder behaviors, rediscovering your sense of self is key to maintaining your recovery. A journal can be a great way to do this, especially if you use writing prompts. Make lists of the things that define you outside of your eating disorder. Explore your relationship to others in your life, as a child, parent, spouse or friend. What are you passionate about? Do you prefer horror movies or comedies? What subjects do you like best in school, or what is your favorite thing about your job? What makes you feel connected? What are your pet peeves? As the eating disorder identity fades away, making sure that YOU are there to take its place is the best way to ensure it never comes back.
Ongoing change is achieved by building a life that has meaning to YOU, as an individual. Be open and willing to try anything, stick with what works, be kind to yourself and never forget: recovery is possible.
As always, Walden is here to help if you need guidance and support.
Fiona LaRosa-Waters is Community Relations Specialist for Walden Behavioral Care. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Human Services at Lesley University, and is currently pursuing an M.Ed in Health Education through the Eating Disorders Institute at Plymouth State University. Prior to coming to Walden, Fiona held positions as a professional outreach representative for eating disorder, substance use, and trauma treatment facilities, was a counselor in a treatment center for adult women with eating disorders and provided outpatient case management for clients struggling with addictions and eating disorders. She is passionate about helping people locate resources to support treatment and recovery, advancing education about eating disorders and addiction and about connecting with the mental health community.