Recovering from an eating disorder is difficult and, at times, overwhelming. Eating disorders are serious and can be fatal, but they are also treatable. Full recovery is possible. The behaviours and thoughts that have you trapped have been learned and they can be unlearned. There is far more to you than your eating habits, your weight, and your body shape.
Admit and acknowledge
Yes, this is a painful one. Quite often, someone suffering from an eating disorder is not fully aware of their ongoing battle, either because it has been going on for so long they don’t see it anymore, or they’ve internalised the fight. Sometimes other people have commented or made suggestions about it, but these words were rejected. Struggles with a mental component can be tricky, they know how to hide behind extremely rational thoughts. They know how to combat other people’s opinions with solid logic.
Admitting the situation is the first step in recovery. This doesn’t mean you have to tell everyone or anyone, this step can be entirely internal if you want it to be. Perhaps there’s only one person you feel ready to tell: a parent, a friend, a partner, or a sibling. Maybe you’re more comfortable speaking to a stranger using a hotline number or attending a counselling session. Maybe you’d rather speak to your doctor.
It’s hard, but try not to beat yourself up during this stage. Try to avoid a self-criticism session. This is much easier said than done, but criticism at this stage is only going to make things more challenging. This goes for others in your life as well, no family and no relationship, and no society is perfect. At this point, it doesn’t matter why you find yourself in this fight, what matters is that you are aware you are in it.
Open yourself up to the idea of receiving help and recovering
This is a scary one for sure. A common pitfall at the end of the admission stage is believing that you can handle this struggle all on your own. In most cases, willpower and self-help cannot compete with professional help.
The idea of putting yourself out there and fighting against your struggles openly can be terrifying. It can feel embarrassing to admit you need help. This stage is important because often, eating disorders are deeply connected to many aspects of your being. There are things that set you off and things that brought this fight to your doorstep. Often it’s hard to recognise these patterns and connections entirely on your own.
Understanding why this struggle has come into your life is a key component in recovery and many people have difficulty doing it on their own. It’s hard to avoid triggers when going about everyday life alone; food is a part of every culture and existence, and if you’re taking on recovery alone, it’s going to be tough to remove or avoid all of the things that set you off.
This is not to say you immediately seek out help, but this step is more about becoming comfortable with the idea of receiving help. More about opening your mind up to the idea that there are people in the world who have studied your struggle and who have worked for many years with people battling with eating disorders. They can be valuable resources in your recovery.
Prepare yourself for help
This stage often occurs when someone feels ready to change, but are uncertain of how they can or should do it. If you have personal barriers to change, this is the time they’re going to surface. As you think about accepting help, negative emotions and memories can surface.
Many people discover during this stage that they have a habit of putting the needs of other people above their own. Some feel that seeking help and shifting the focus from caring for others to caring for themselves is completely foreign to them. This can also bring up issues with feeling worthy of other people’s energy and time. All of this is normal.
Start the conversation
For many, this is the most challenging part of recovery. There are countless people you can turn to. Support groups, doctors, therapists, local hospitals or schools, and eating disorder centres and clinics are all viable options. If you have no idea where to begin, you can call a helpline. Many helplines also have a text chat option available if you prefer.
When the conversation begins you’re likely going to undergo a medical evaluation. This is important because it will reveal if any urgent health problems need to be addressed immediately.
After the examination, you’ll likely go through the process of assembling a team. Any of the people mentioned above can help with this. Because eating disorders involve a combination of emotional, mental, medical, and nutritional aspects often more than one person will be involved.
With your team assembled, you’re going to develop a long-term recovery plan. Treatment plans vary from person to person, but it may include outpatient rehab programmes like adventure therapy, family therapy, nutritional counselling, and medical monitoring, but residential treatments are also available. Depending on your particular situation, it is possible you will be recommended outpatient rehabilitation or residential treatments.
In the broadest sense, inpatient or residential treatments are those which involve being admitted to a hospital or facility, either overnight or during the day. They tend to involve more intensive rehabilitation programs. These treatments tend to have higher success rates but are more expensive and disruptive in your everyday life. They provide 24-hour access to support and help and are especially good at removing the distractions of everyday life, allowing you to focus entirely on your wellbeing.
Outpatient treatment is a rehabilitation plan in which you are not formally admitted to a hospital or facility. It may require you to have appointments at a hospital for tests or consultations. Likely you will need to “check-in” with members of your treatment team at a facility throughout the process, but you will be able to continue attending school or work during your treatment.
On average, outpatient treatment plans require 10–12 hours of your week for these check-ins, appointments, and consultations. Outpatient treatment strategies tend to be more affordable and allow you to maintain more of your regular routine than inpatient programmes.
This is the stage where, often with help or guidance, a person begins to implement the strategy mentioned above. Trusting the treatment team is a crucial part of this step and this might take some time for you. That’s okay. Everyone’s strategy is going to be slightly different based on their particular needs, but likely this will involve removing triggers from your environment. For almost everyone, this stage isn’t going to look like a nice and tidy straight line. There are going to be days where you feel yourself moving forward and days when you feel yourself moving back. This is normal and completely okay.
Typically, maintenance begins when you’ve successfully followed your strategy for six months or longer. Part of this stage can involve revisiting your triggers, identified above, and avoided until now, to ensure your new coping mechanisms are effective.
For many, this stage is where people begin to feel progress, where they begin to feel like they’re living a regular life, where they’re finding new interests and hobbies outside the battle that has been all-encompassing for so long.
Recovering from an eating disorder is completely possible, but that doesn’t mean it is easy. The previous five steps outline the basic elements of recovery, but for each person, the experience is going to be different. Once you’ve reached out and developed a plan of action you’ll have a much clearer idea of what recovery will look like and mean to you.
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the managing director of Psychreg.