What Full Recovery From An Eating Disorder Really Looks Like

I recently read an article suggesting that only those who were never that sick to begin with could actually recover from an eating disorder. I’m not gonna lie: it upset me. In one line, the author had negated all the hard work I’d done to recover. I sat with it for a while, and the more I thought about it, the more I remembered a time when I believed the same thing:

If only they knew how much pain I was in, they’d never ask me to recover! If only they felt the fear, the self-loathing, the anxiety that I felt, if only they knew how unworthy I was of food, no one would ever expect me to even TRY to eat normally. I felt that way for a LONG time. And when I didn’t feel that way anymore, I knew I was fully recovered.

“Full recovery” has been a hot-button issue this Eating Disorder Awareness Week. The idea of never being triggered ever again, and loving oneself and one’s body unconditionally seems like a pipe dream for anyone who has felt the weight of an eating disorder. And you know what? They may be right – but that’s not what full recovery looks like.

Myth: Full Recovery Means I’ll Never Feel Fear Around Food Again

Reality: The patterns you’ve established around food have likely been with you for most of your life, and quite possibly have roots even deeper than that. Even in full recovery, I get hit with a blast of “I shouldn’t eat that”, or “maybe I shouldn’t have another serving of that” from time to time. In fact, just the other day I had a moment of slight anxiety when I cut my cucumber differently than usual.

Recovery doesn’t mean you’re immune to those feelings, it just means that they don’t effect you as strongly as they once did. By constantly challenging the shaming voice, honoring your true hunger, and mixing up your routines, you’re establishing new pathways in your brain – ones that tell you that it’s safe to make a different choice than you would have made in the past. Triggers exist, and it will take some time to learn ways of coping with the triggers that don’t involve food. Keep doing the work, and you may be surprised to learn how different your relationship with food can become.

Myth: In Recovery, I’ll Love My Body And Never Want To Change Anything About It

Reality: We live in a world that makes it really hard to feel good about our bodies. Most of us will never have what we deem to be “the perfect body”, and that’s okay. We may not always see our bodies accurately, either. I’m still affected by body dysmorphia, and as far as I can tell, my brain sees my body about 20 lbs heavier than it is. I can honestly say, though, (and it still shocks me to say it) that I love my body. I don’t always like everything about how it looks, and there are parts I wish looked different, but I’m not about to do anything drastic to change it. I will still feed it everything it needs to function and thrive. I will move it in ways that I enjoy, and stop when I’m tired.

A big piece of recovery involves realizing that, more often than not, our body image issues are actually founded in something else. Society tells us that all of our problems can be solved by changing our bodies, and that it’s impossible to be happy until we do. We take out the anger, pain, fear, disgust we feel towards our inner selves on our outer selves, because our bodies are the main things we’re taught how to “fix”. By learning to heal our inner selves, it’s much easier to find peace with the outer.


Myth: When I’m Fully Recovered, Life Will Be Perfect

Reality: Life is tough. It will always be tough. The act of recovering, though, builds strength you never imagined possible. You will gain physical strength as your body learns to use food again. Correcting nutrient deficiencies, repairing your digestion, and balancing your hormones will help your brain heal, as well. My formerly crippling anxiety is rarely stronger than a caffeine buzz these days, and the depression that consumed me doesn’t run my life anymore. I’ve learned to be choosy about who I allow in my life, and stand up for myself in relationships. The traumas in my past that used to knock me down for the count still hurt, but talking through them again and again have taught me not to be afraid in my own head.

You’ll fall down, but you’ll have learned how to get up again, because recovering is an endless practice of getting back on the horse. Eventually you’ll stop falling, and learn how to catch yourself as you begin to slip.

So no, I’ll never be someone who breezes through life without a care in the world. I may never look in a mirror and see myself exactly as I am. I’ll probably always have to keep checking in with myself to make sure I’m on the right track. I’ll always have to make choices about what I eat, how I sleep, if I drink, and the activities I participate in to make sure my mental health is top priority. But you know what? None of this is a burden.

Life in full recovery is the most free I’ve ever felt – even including the pre-ED years. For the first time in my life, I know happiness, I can love myself, and I have felt peace. Not all the time, mind you, but that’s not what life’s about.

Don’t worry if you’re not there yet. Full recovery takes time. It takes work, it takes feeling all kinds of uncomfortable, and facing down your fears. It isn’t going to come quickly, and it isn’t going to be easy, but I can promise you this: recovery is worth it.