From the Archives: WHAT RECOVERY REALLY LOOKS LIKE
By Megan Mottola | Dec 8 2015 10:47AM
I recently came across a quote that said, “Recovery is difficult because it means first deciding that you want to save yourself, and then continuing to make that choice multiple times a day.”
This has got to be one of the truest statements I have seen relating to recovery. Often times, those who go get treatment return and people expect them to “You’re not better yet?” “Just eat!” “You look healthy though.” “You were fine yesterday.” “You just need a cheeseburger.” “Ew, throwing up is gross. I could never do that.” “But you had pizza last week, why are you crying over a salad?” “Just don’t run.”
These statements are some of the many that are said by people to those in recovery. My point of this article is to talk about what recovery from an eating disorder really looks like (from my own experience) because so many people do not understand the complexity of it.
The Bigger Picture
When you go to treatment or see a team of specialists, you’re often told “It isn’t about that food or the weight.” No, it isn’t when we are looking at the bigger picture, but a good portion of the beginning of recovery is. It’s meal planning. It’s setting an alarm so you can eat breakfast because if you don’t then it’s the perfect opportunity for the eating disorder to get ahold of you for the day.
Sometimes it’s making your perfectly plated oatmeal and making it look like a masterpiece because it makes it easier to eat that way. Other days, it’s having a muffin with butter and a glass of whole milk because that’s what your meal plan says and you clench your fists trying to hold back tears because the thoughts running through your head won’t stop. But you don’t voice those thoughts because if others really knew the mind of an eating disordered person, they would be in for a surprise. It’s not a fun place to be on hard days.
In fact, that’s why so many of us end up slipping and relapsing; the thoughts are so unbearable sometimes that giving in seems like the only option to quiet the voices. But you soon realize that this makes the voices louder and the only way to quiet them is to go against them and eat that muffin with butter and glass of whole milk.
You go through the whole day eating your meal plan. Maybe you were reluctant or maybe today was a really good recovery day, but either way you did it. That is something to be proud of. This type of pride is foreign to those who don’t have an eating disorder. But for those who suffer, this can sometimes feel like the biggest accomplishment. You might feel guilty for choosing recovery (and that is ok — it’s part of the process) but you would feel guilty if you gave into the eating disorder. Might as well feel guilty doing the choice that is going to propel you in recovery. But a little disclaimer: the guilty will subside. DO NOT give up on recovery.
Other times recovery from the outside looking in looks “normal.” You ask us to go grab dinner with you. So we go out to eat with you because we are taught that isolation isn’t going to help and challenging yourself will get your further in recovery and the more we are able to do it, the easier it will get. We get handed a menu and there are so many options. “What’s the healthiest?” “Maybe I should have stayed home.” “I need to get a salad.” “But a cheeseburger actually sounds so good, and it’s been so long since I had one.” “Ugh, no I can’t do it.” “Forget it, I’ll just get a salad.” The waiter comes over to you and asks what you would like. You hesitate and say “I’d like a cheeseburger with fries, please.”
You choose recovery.
You go against what your eating disorder wants because that is what your dietitian and therapist tell you to do.
“Clean eating” is no longer in your vocabulary. “Moderation” “Balance” and “Variety” become key words when working on your relationship with food. That is what you are learning in your recovery. Anxiety fills your chest, the thoughts are still going, but you choose recovery because you’ve denied your body for far too long of the foods you used to love. And damn, a cheeseburger just sounded good. You choose it because you realize you that are worthy and deserve food. You choose recovery because you want a life that isn’t ruled by numbers and food rules.
From the outside looking in, I just ordered a cheeseburger with fries, but on the inside looking out, it feels like my world might end. Rattling nutrition facts in my head, talking back to the eating disorder, telling myself: “No! I do NOT have to go workout as a result.”
I made one of the hardest decisions all day, after having to make that same decision (choosing recovery) throughout the entire day. Although closer, one is not yet recovered because they chose a cheeseburger. It just they’re a little bit stronger than the last time the waiter asked them what they wanted and they said “a salad.” So, next time you say to someone with an eating disorder “Just eat a cheeseburger” realize that it doesn’t quite work that way and there is so much more that goes into just “eating a cheeseburger.”
Another disclaimer: This gets easier too. One day you will be able to go out to eat order a cheeseburger and fries and laugh and the thoughts won’t be there. I promise. DO NOT give up on recovery.
As recovery continues, you realize that you’d rather lay in cold snow for hours than step on a scale. You know how that cycle goes, and you no longer are going to let a number determine your mood for the day. You get rid of the scale. You smash it to pieces. You run it over with a car. You take a hammer to it. You have a celebration. You are slowing letting go of your past. The smaller clothes in the back of you closest are now all cut up into pieces because even giving them away feels wrongs. It’s like those clothes are cursed and you never want anybody to have a piece of them.
Tiny Black Ashes
You take old journals filled with disordered thoughts after disordered thoughts and you burn them. You burn those papers until you see the sky filled with tiny black ashes. You feel like you are losing a huge part of yourself. You will regret it when you have a hard day and will want nothing more than something to hold on to. You try to convince yourself you need all of those things “just in case.” But you realize that having those things only enabled the disorder; your job is to kill it, so it doesn’t kill you. Your job is to recover.
Your eating disorder does not care what you want. You get rid of your gym membership, you trade your running shoes for a yoga mat, or maybe you start running again because you once loved it and your eating disorder took that from you. But you are getting healthy again and that is a good thing. You don’t work out for hours anymore. You fight the thoughts that tell you that you have to. You get rid of My Fitness Pal. No more Fitbit.
You throw away anything that is considered eating disorder paraphernalia because you are now moving on. You politely decline going to the gym because you’re tired today. You just want to kick back and watch some Netflix. You no longer work out because you need to burn off what you ate or if you don’t you’re worried you’ll gain weight. You work out because you already love your body, not so you can love it. You start trusting your body and your decisions in life. You slowly start to accept changes happening both with your body, your personality, and everything around you.
Living with Changes
Relationships will change. The same people who were with you at the start of recovery might not be there anymore, and others will be there the whole way through. You will remove negative people as your journey continues. But you’ll meet others who will completely change the way you look at things and help in a way you never thought was possible (Dean, I’m talking about you. Shout out!).
Now this is long enough and this is only an extremely small portion of what recovery looks like. But there aren’t always difficult moments on the recovery journey. Life after immense struggle is interesting and I mean the part of the process where you’re pretty far along, not just starting. It’s no longer looking at the back of a package immediately after making a purchase but instead opening the package because you’re hungry. It’s not calculating calories in your head like you’re trying to solve a math problem, or thinking about all of the ingredients that are in what you’re eating. It’s walking inside a dining hall and looking for your friends instead of trying to find an excuse on how to get out of lunch. It’s looking up restaurants but not to find ones with the calories on the menu but instead one that is the cheapest and closest to where you are because after all you’re a broke college student.
It’s late night bar trips for a glass of wine instead of mile long runs. It’s getting hot chocolate and not opting out of the whipped cream because you want a taste of childhood again. It’s not looking sick and drained anymore but alive and full of life. It’s rosy cheeks instead of sunken eyes. It’s going to the bathroom at the bar to take selfies with your friends instead of throwing up in the toilet because you fear the calories. It’s not lacking sleep because you were too busy meal planning for yourself but instead because you had to study for your final or your friends invited you over for dinner and drinks at the last minute.
It’s going out and being that girl who says, “Heck yeah, I’ll get cheese fries” because you denied yourself enjoyable food for far too long. It’s staying in bed on a Sunday morning or going for a 6 am run because the sun is rising and you’ve never felt more alive. It’s sitting down to a family dinner and eating as the conversation is filled with laughter and love instead of silence because everyone is watching you pick at your food.
It’s pushing yourself to do that extra rep one week but also pushing yourself to take that extra rest day the next week. It’s listening to your body even if it’s not what you might want. It’s learning to take comments with a grain of salt and keeping your head held high. It’s salad for lunch one day and a sandwich the next. Sometimes it’s getting a bad grade on an exam or paper and your first instinct isn’t to self-destruct but to realize you tried your hardest and moving on is what needs to happen. It’s not the craving to want to be the sickest and thinnest but feeling a sense of sadness for those who are having that internal struggle. It’s letting go of friends you were in treatment with because they served the part they were meant to in your life and other times it’s keeping lifelong friendships with other friends from treatment because you both see life beyond an eating disorder. It’s suggesting ice cream to friends because you know frozen yogurt isn’t going to cut it.
It’s falling in love with someone and letting them love parts of you that you never thought were lovable. It’s letting them see your body in a way you thought was never possible. It’s 2 am diner trips, and belly laughs, and road trips to unknown places. It’s no longer sitting alone in your bed, shivering cold because you let things get to that place again, but it’s cuddling with someone and keeping them warm because you are ok now. It’s listening to an old song that brought you back to a dark place and feeling as though it’s just a distant memory. It’s being in a new body and mindset and knowing that not every day will be perfect; you are human and self-love is a journey. It’s letting go of expectations and embracing what’s to come with open arms. It’s like meeting yourself for the first time.
Recovery is so incredibly difficult a lot of the time, especially in the beginning, but it feels so good when you stick with it. It isn’t rainbows and sunshine all of the time because that’s unrealistic and life is general is not like that. But it does have its awesome moments and it’s worth choosing every single day. DO NOT give up on recovery.
Love and light,
About the Author:
Meg Mottola, 26, is an east coaster but a traveler at heart. After taking time off and traveling a bit, she is currently pursuing a degree in Psychology. Beyond that she plans on getting her Master’s in Sports Psychology. She’s also in recovery from a 7+ year battle with Anorexia and Compulsive Exercise. Aside from writing for the foundation, Meg enjoys hiking with her twin, yoga, jamming on the guitar, and photography. She believes the key to life is to surround yourself with positivity. You can follow her Instragram, @meggmott, where she posts pictures of adventures with her girlfriend, her love for nature, and much more!