If you’re in recovery from an eating disorder, you know the feeling: you want to commit to recovery and not feel so miserable, but you refuse to gain weight or maybe you still want to lose weight.
So many of the questions I get here and on Instagram revolve around that–how do I recover without gaining weight? How do I know if I’ve gained too much weight in recovery? There’s always this energy of “I’ll recover, but only if _____________.”
First things first, in an effort to be completely transparent, this is NORMAL. It’s hard to just quit your eating disorder cold turkey with little to no hesitation–in fact, I’d be willing to say it’s impossible. No matter how badly you want recovery, it’s terrifying to step away from a coping skill that has been so reliable (and just because it’s reliable doesn’t mean it’s healthy).
People develop eating disorders or disordered eating for a reason–so it’s no surprise that the recovery process is so long and hard. But the point of this post is to shed a little light on the stages we go through when we’re working towards a full recovery.
*My understanding of these stages is definitely based on my own recovery and the ways I’ve seen my clients move through them, so keep in mind that this might not completely align with your journey, and that’s okay!*
To me, it seems like a lot of people get stuck in the gray area of disordered eating when they first begin recovery. They might be at a place where they’re following their meal plan–or maybe they’re even at a place where they can eat more intuitively–but it can be hard to really break free from diet culture. This is the stage where “I’ll recover if” happens!
A lot of people will recognize that they need some carbs, but they make sure to not “go overboard.” I’ll recover if I don’t have to eat a bunch of carbs. Similarly, someone might make an effort to decrease their purging, but they might up their exercise in another form of compensation. I’ll recover if I can still exercise to make sure I burn off some calories.
There’s a little bit of shifting that can occur in an attempt to avoid the big consequences of having an eating disorder (missing work/school), but to still reap the “benefits” of one (a thinner body, feeling in control, etc.). Does that make sense? It’s the whole idea of “well, I’ll gain some weight, but I won’t go over Xlbs.”
But here’s the truth–this in between area, this “pseudo-recovery,” if you will, doesn’t get you very far. You’re not living completely free from your ED or from diet culture in this place–you’re still holding yourself hostage to the unrealistic (and often misinformed) rules of diet culture.
The reason I say all of this is because I believe each and every one of you deserves to live a life where you are not ruled by your eating disorder or by diet culture. You deserve to trust yourself and your body to make the right decisions for you.
So how do you move past this stage and begin to live a life free from your ED? My recommendation is: (you guessed it!!) THERAPY.
Like I mentioned above, eating disorders serve a big purpose for people. They masquerade as comforting, they pretend they keep us safe from rejection and feelings of loneliness or disconnection. But the reality is that eating disorders make us MORE lonely. They make us MORE disconnected. And not to mention that they risk our health and sanity.
Working with a therapist who specializes in eating disorders can really help us understand the ways in which our EDs “keep us safe.” When we learn more about our eating disorders and how they “protect” us, it can be easier to move away from them with compassion and understanding.
If you’re not currently able to work with an eating disorders therapist, I recommend paying attention to your triggers. What are the moments your ED swoops in to save you? Is it before a date with someone you’re crushing on? Is it after a fight with a family member? (See those themes of rejection and disconnection popping up?)
Better understanding these themes and the ways in which our ED protects us can be a hard and long process.
Recovered versus In Recovery
I also want to take a second to address another topic. Whenever I talk about the stages of recovery that I’ve experienced myself or that my clients have experienced, I always make sure to address the idea of “recovered” versus “in recovery.”
I believe that each person is entitled to their own definition of recovery and recovered. To me, I knew I was in recovery when I was actively working against my ED, trying to understand it, and move away from symptom use. I knew I was recovered when I didn’t find myself reverting to old behaviors or thought patterns when life got tough.
I consider myself recovered because I no longer use my eating disorder as a way to cope with my emotions. Instead, I go to therapy, talk to friends and family, write songs, do some art, and practice self care.
Sometimes people will message me and ask “so–does the word ‘recovered’ mean you’re totally over your eating disorder and you never have any disordered thoughts?”
My answer is no. Maybe there are people out there who truly feel that they never have a disordered thought about food or body, but as far as I’m concerned, we live in a society where that’s pretty impossible.
No matter how long you’ve been in recovery or how stable you feel, we get triggered sometimes. Walk into the grocery story and see an obnoxious diet ad at the check out lane? Yikes. Hear your Aunt Susan talking about the weight she needs to lose for her vacation? Double yikes. It’s hard to not get triggered once in a while when we live in a world that is extremely triggering for those in recovery from eating disorders and disordered eating. Diet culture basically makes it impossible.
For me, if I notice a thought that aligns with diet culture or my eating disorder, it’s more about staying curious about that thought. I try to understand why it popped up (are there other ways I’m feeling inadequate lately? Am I wrongly comparing myself to someone else because the media basically sets me up to do that?)
My definition of recovery, though, means that no matter what thought slips in, I do not revert to old behaviors. I can take time away from the thought and get a better understanding of what I really need in that moment (hint: it’s not a smaller body!).
And that’s how it works most of the time: you don’t actually need to lose weight. You don’t actually need to have more muscle or avoid this food or be this pant size. Most of us need love, connection, validation, and acceptance.
But the truth is that your eating disorder won’t ever give you those things–despite the fact that it tells you it will. No diet or eating disorder will make your feel more accepted or connected to those around you. Your eating disorder won’t bring that, but recovery will.