Can we ever fully recover?

Recently, I finally got around to reading the book, "It's Not About the Food" by Esther Kane. Esther was kind enough to personally mail me a copy months ago and being pregnant and then having a newborn, it has sat in my living room calling out to me every few days. I wanted to touch on one thing she writes while telling her own story of disordered eating because it jumped out at me at a perfect time. She writes:

Recovery has not come quickly or easily; eating problems are complex and difficult to overcome. After all of this time in recovery (approximately eighteen years) and through my years of work as an eating disorders therapist, I no longer believe that one can completely recover from a severe eating disorder. Even after all these years of recovery, I still have a little voice inside my head that tells me life would be perfect if only I was thinner or that I would be more successful in every area of my life if, somehow, I could change the way I look.

I read this and thought, "Thank GOD I'm not the only one!" I write a lot about body image and eating disorders and have been pretty open about my own struggles. I've come a tremendous way in recent years, but every once in a while....I slip. I do love my body and do my best to stop negative talk but every once in a while I find myself wishing something was different in hopes that it would make me happier. I am quick to recognize it and usually laugh it off. But, I wonder how others feel- other women (and men) who find their passion in helping others free themselves from body loathing and/or an eating disorder. I've met some amazing people on Twitter and Facebook who share my passion and I wonder if they feel the same way.

A few months ago I went to see Jenni Shaefer speak here in San Diego. She was promoting her new book, "Goodbye Ed, Hello Me". It's her second book and while I haven't got around to reading either of them (yes, it's on my long list of books to read!), I do look forward to it. I recently came across a review of the book and it got me thinking about recovery from eating disorders. Jenni talks about fully recovering and that it is possible. When I heard her speak I remember wondering if she ever slips. Ever? I know, I should read the book before I assume anything, but I have a hard time understanding how people that have struggled with disordered eating and/or exercise can 100% recover from it. I'm not just talking about people that have full blown eating disorders, I'm talking about the average woman who perhaps has outgrown these behaviors either on her own or with therapy.

Mental disorders are so difficult to paint as black and white. If someone has diabetes, a simple blood test tells them how they are doing. With high blood pressure, another simple test will give you measurable numbers. But any mental disorder is many times difficult to diagnose and treat. I, myself have Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Luckily I have been able to manage it without medication, but I never know when it will unexpectedly creep up on me. Sort of like a very unwelcome house guest. I believe the same is true with eating disorders.

I'll share with you a personal example. (big deep breath)

I have been thinking lately about cleaning up my diet. And when I say "clean up" I mean basically just cut out the junk. My background is fitness and I know what I should be eating to feel better, sleep better and all that good stuff. But I continue to covet tater tots galore. And I consume enough sugar to make Willy Wonka blush. I listen to my body and she's telling me I need to at least cut back some on the sugar. So, here I am, eleven weeks postpartum, not thinking strait and carrying an extra 12 or so extra pounds. Perfectly normal at this stage, especially since I am breast feeding. However, with the holidays coming, along with it comes phone book size Victoria's Secret catalogs, and a bazillion magazines at the checkout stand screaming at me about how to lose weight this time of year. Then I hear about a 30 day sugar detox. Absolutely no sugar for 30 days. Or anything that acts like sugar (i.e. carbs) Now, I know better. I even know the physiology about why carbs are good for our bodies. But..........that little voice whispers, "It's only 30 days. You'll feel better AND (wait for it...) you'll lose weight".

At first this all sounds appealing, feel better (ha!) because of no sugar and I'll lose those pesky few pounds so I can fit into my regular clothes again. I mean, how long can I get away with wearing my maternity clothes? Then the voice in my other ear freaks out! "Wait!! No!! Don't do it! You know you can't stop at 10 pounds! 10 becomes 15, then the scale comes back out every day, then old jeans come back out to play...."

It's still a battle. And sometimes it makes me sad. Like the kid with the broken leg that can't play with the other kids in the sprinklers. But, I am grateful I can recognize that something as simple as a 30 day no sugar fiesta is like swimming in shark infested waters. At least for me. And I'm sure for a lot of other people too.

So, I don't know if we can ever be fully recovered. But I would love to know your thoughts.

Photo courtesy of ashley_rose via Please visit the link to read more about the story and inspiration of to write love on her arms.


Julie Parker said...

Andrea - this is such a great post and I can really relate. I think recovery means different things to different people - and that should be absolutely ok. I have known people who have barely 'managed' or kept an eating disorder 'at bay' and for them, the fact they are alive and still functioning at least on a basic level, is to them recovered. For others of course this is not enough and they want to be much more mentally and physically strong before they feel they can use the word 'recovered.' There is a continuum I think and each person who has suffered with an eating disorder or disordered eating will feel comfortable at varying different spots of that continuum.

I so relate to your comments about cutting back on sugar/carbs. I recently went to see a naturopath because I have been experiencing quite bad heartburn. I didn't want to take a pill for it and the recommendation given to me was to entirely cut out coffee, diet soft drinks, sugar, carbs and most dairy. Because I thought it 'good for my health' I tried to do it and lasted a day and a half. I felt terrible about myself when I gave up and it took me over a week to realise that what was being recommended to me was really just not 'doable' for someone who has in previous years engaged in extreme dieting. It's almost like my brian 'snapped' in a way and now I've just cut back on the coffee, diet soft drinks and am being careful about acidic things like orange juice and mints as that seems to set the heartburn off. I do feel better for it and I hope this will continue to be the case, as I don't think my brain can cope with the whole NO NO NO to large groups of food. The deprivation just does not sit well with me.

In saying that though, it is really hard when people say you need to do such things for your health. It's all such a balancing act and I will admit to teetering sometimes and not always getting it right.

Thanks for such a great post. You have a way of making me open up somewhat!

Michelle said...

First of all Andrea, thanks for the link to my review of Goodbye Ed, Hello Me. I hope you get a chance to read both of her books in the near future.

I do know how you feel. When it comes to loving and accepting my body, I have come a long way, even though I now weigh more than I have through most of my adult life (outside of pregnancy). I do take good care of my body, but it seems like to have the body that comes closer to what I thought I should have (since I never actually had the body I thought I really wanted), I have to count every calorie, and work out heavily every single day.

Now I eat what I like, focusing on balance and variety, and enjoy different activities, some of which burn a lot of calories, and others that don't burn as much.

Since I have gained weight at the same time I have worked on accepting and loving my body unconditionally, I have faced an extra challenge. But when I consider how much of my life is freed up by NOT constantly obsessing over food and what my body looks like and what I could achieve if only .... well, my life is so much more meaningful now.

Yes, I still have my moments, like you do. But I do believe full recovery is possible for some. Does that mean someone who is fully recovered NEVER EVER has some of the old thoughts they had during their eating disorder or disordered eating days? Of course not. The difference is those thoughts don't have the same power. Just like "normal eating" means sometimes listening to your body, stopping eating when you've had enough, and yet other times eating more just because something tastes good or because you're having a good time, I think it is in the range of "normal" to reflect from time to time on your body and eating habits. What you do as a result of your reflection is more of an indication of how far you've come.

I'm still a work in progress, but I KNOW without a doubt that I will find the confidence to one day say I am free from disordered eating, and I hope you too can find the freedom you are looking for.

Michelle said...

P.S. I have met Jenni and talked with her about this subject. I assume you have read my interview with her?

If I hadn't spoken with her directly, I might share your doubts more (I was definitely skeptical the first time I saw her with her shirt that says "Recovered.")

But reading her books AND talking to her convinced me that full recovery IS possible!

M said...

I think it's individual; can change over time and circumstances; and may depend on personal temperament, severity of illness, length of illness, age, and time of intervention/duration of treatment, and co-morbid disorders.

I had childhood anorexia, non-purging, that persisted through my college years and remitted at the time I was married. I was able to maintain that remission (and a normal weight) through three pregnancies. At the time, though I believed I had put anorexia behind me, I also knew in the back of my mind that it was really only "on hold."

As long as I had strong deterrents (pregnancy, career achievement) that outweighed the urge to cave in to ED-driven thoughts and behaviors. That lasted seven years ... and most people would say that was solid recovery. But it still all came tumbling down, and I relapsed ... and I have essentially been in a state of compromised remission/chronic anorexia for the past 10 years.

Doctors speculated a chronic strep infection triggered the relapse ... or a pregnancy/nursing/weaning cascade ... or even the moderate exercise I was doing for health triggered the cycle of drive, anxiety, restriction, exercise, etc. But it could have been anything or nothing. I can say for sure, however, that anorexia comes more "naturally" than normative eating, thinking, etc. It seems to be my default setting.

I can see now that I had some degree of normalized body perception at higher weights, but it was really more self-talk to try to convince/assure myself I wasn't really as "fat" as I felt. But, in fact, I was. I was "fat" (whatever that means neurologically and psychologically) in my head/brain, which is where it always is, physicality aside. Restored nutrition did *not* change how I felt, perceived things, anything ... for *seven* years, I still felt uncomfortable in my body, in my mind, discomfitted with "sitting with myself." I always felt like I was walking a thin line.

Persistent anxiety, perfectionism, and general drive fueled that. Stress could fuel that. A run-of-the-mill illness could fuel that (a lapse into restriction). Insomnia could fuel the cycle.

I just externalized that inner "it," turning to drive in other areas as a substitute. But it didn't "fix" the original eating disorder. In spite of therapy, support, motivation, and some of the best treatment programs.

For me, the only way out isn't to wait for/expect that often-touted sense of "recovery" and a "wonderful life of freedom after ED" kind of idea. The answer for me, and I suspect most chronic anorexia patients, is dogged behavioral change, constant and continuing vigilance and support, and acceptance that it may, indeed, be as good as it gets ... then move on with all the other ways to fill your life enough that it crowds the ED voices to the corners as much as possible.

I think you're hormonally and emotionally vulnerable right now, and "cleaning things up" could be an oh-so-easy trigger for someone predisposed to an eating disorder and anxiety. And once you tip the balance on that scale, it's really tough to achieve equilibrium again. Take good care and be well!


Andrea said...

Thank you all for your comments. This post in some ways was difficult to publish because when I reveal the humanness of myself, also comes with it the "human mess". And for a chronic perfectionist, being transparent is scary, but is therapeutic.
But I thought there might be someone out there who struggles with the same thing, and if I can show that it's okay, we can all heal and move on together.

Julie- You're right. Recovery should mean different things to different people, as no one's ED is exactly the same.

Michelle- Your comment made me feel better! :) The old me would have jumped on the diet bandwagon and gone for it. The new me recognizes the danger and says no. Yeah for me!

M- Thanks for sharing all that you did. I resonated with all of it!

Michael said...

I agree with them Andrea, it is hard to start gearing towards eating disorder recovery. However, don't loose faith, in yourself and in God. Your body might take time to physically adjust to the changes so be patient. I will pray for you

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Outside the Lines said...

I relate to this so much, especially the part about doing a 30-day diet being similar to swimming in shark infested waters! ... I don't know how many times I have to dip my toes in again to remind myself how dangerous it is!