As readers of “Weightless,” I’m sure you know by now that eating disorders are not really about food and weight. They are about many underlying issues that are manifested through food and weight. We focus on what we eat and how much we weigh because that is something we can control – something we can change.
Although there are many tireless advocates working to change our society’s perception of eating disorders, some people still believe that once we start eating, stop bingeing, and stop purging, the problem is gone. We are well.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. Sometimes, this is just the beginning.
Margarita Tartakovsky is an associate editor at PsychCentral.com, an award-winning mental health website, and the voice behind Weightless, a blog that helps women deal with body image issues and disordered eating. She also writes a monthly feature for Beliefnet.com, covering topics such as patience and procrastination.
Editor: Muhammad Talha
It took six years of inpatient and outpatient treatment to get my eating disorder behaviors under control. I spent the first two months in my last treatment center wondering why I was there – I was certain I would never recover – why keep trying?
At some point during that four-month stay, things began to shift. I’m not sure I ever really believed that I could make it, but I did eventually realize that I wanted to make it.
I was terrified when I came home. Scared to death.
I had been there before- home from treatment, excited about a new start, feeling physically healthy – only to relapse every time. Sometimes the relapse began the day I got home.
It had to be different this time. I had to keep going – keep working. Below are just some of the areas that needed work in order for me to begin to feel whole.
Yes, feeling. I did not want to feel…anything. Sadness was a trigger. Anger was a trigger. Loneliness was a trigger. Even happiness was a trigger. My eating disorder kept me numb – detached from all feelings.
I was a hollow, empty shell.
Learning how to feel again was scary – no matter the feeling. I had to learn that feeling is okay – good even. In order to feel the happiness and joy I longed for, I also had to feel the anger and sadness. I had to move through these feelings – realize that they wouldn’t last forever.
Feelings come and go. I did not have to starve, binge, or purge them away. I had to feel them, journal about them, talk about them. I had to learn to feel again.
I was in an exclusive relationship with my eating disorder for many years. I lost most of my relationships and didn’t really know how to connect with people anymore. The ones that did remain were unhealthy – it’s nearly impossible to have healthy relationships when you are as unhealthy as I was.
I had to take a long, honest look at the relationships in my life and take action. Some were beyond repair. These were either formed in treatment with people who were not actively seeking recovery or were with people who needed me to be sick in order for the relationship to work.
As difficult as it was, I had to let go of these relationships.
Fortunately, I had some that had the potential to become healthy. In these, the other person was willing to make changes with me. These were close relationships that I was not willing to let go of- relationships that were worth fighting for, such as family and lifelong friends.
And then there were the many superficial ones with no real level of emotional intimacy.
In order to develop meaningful, authentic relationships, I had to begin to take risks emotionally and let others in. This has been one of the scariest – and hardest – parts of recovery, but so important in building a life worth living.
I listed this separately because it was such a major trigger for me. After I began eating, I felt anxious about everything. It had been such a long time since I was engaged in life that I didn’t know how to be engaged in life anymore.
This created an overwhelming amount of fear and I felt I needed my disorder to get through it.
But, when I turned to my eating disorder, I never got through it – I just stayed stuck.
I have had to learn to manage the anxiety through positive self-talk, self-soothing, and deep breathing. I have also learned that doing the very thing I feel anxious- scared- about helps to relieve the anxiety. It is never as bad as I think it will be.
Another feeling that needs its own paragraph. As long as I continued to starve, binge, and purge I didn’t have to worry about feeling ashamed for starving, bingeing, and purging. As I mentioned before, all of my feelings were numbed out.
I lost so many years to my eating disorder. I hurt so many people. I wasted so much money. I…could go on and on.
My eating disorder’s values and my values were not the same. As long as the ED was in charge, I continued to do things that perpetuated shame.
And shame perpetuated my eating disorder. It was a vicious cycle.
I had to let go of all of the shame related to my disorder. I had to forgive myself and take responsibility at the same time.
Compassion towards ourselves is necessary and, in my opinion, one of the greatest gifts of recovery.
After 16 years of completely ignoring my body’s hunger and fullness cues, I expected to quickly regain the ability to listen to my body. This was definitely not my reality.
I couldn’t tell anything until it was extreme – either starving or uncomfortably full. In order to deal with this, I had to put it in the hands of my nutritionist. Meals plans are essential to help our bodies and our minds re-learn what is an appropriate amount of food.
Intuitive eating is ultimately the goal, but it can take awhile to get there. This can be very frustrating and having patience with our bodies is extremely important- my body did not ask to be manipulated for all those years.
Trusting My Decisions
Recovery brings freedom. And with freedom comes choices.
I will never forget the first time my therapist said, “It’s Your Choice.” I was completely blown away by this- I walked around for days repeating it. I had lived my life trying so hard to please everyone around me that it never occurred to me that I had choices.
I think many people with eating disorders live this way. We do everything we are told until eventually it’s the eating disorder telling us what to do.
I had to begin to make my own choices- to stop and think, “What do I want…to eat, to do, to be?”
The next step was to trust those choices- to believe I am capable of making healthy decisions.
I started small. And each time I made a choice and saw that the world did not come crashing down, I allowed myself to make another. And another. And slowly I began to trust myself.
Now, whenever I start to doubt, I remember that I made the healthiest decision of all- I chose to live.
No decision I make from here on out could possibly hold as much weight.