When I was 21, I left eating disorder treatment for the second time. For months I had been shielded from the world – our exposure to the media was limited, we weren’t allowed to talk about weight, or calories, or share diet tips. Our food was prepared for us, and portioned out exactly. We were surrounded by other people who were going through the same thing, and were monitored 24/7 by trained professionals. It wasn’t easy, by any stretch of the imagination, but we were supported every step of the way.
My time in treatment was up. For the first time in a long time I was alone, and in a place that couldn’t be more different than the treatment centre: the airport. There were magazines that boasted foolproof ways to ditch those extra pounds. The TVs stationed throughout the airport played weight-loss commercials and workout shows. The food court had a million options in unfamiliar portions, and I had to choose what I wanted to eat – alone.
Staying in recovery in “the real world” is a challenge like no other. While you’re trying to get your exercise under control, the world is telling you that you have “no excuse” for sitting on the couch. While you’re struggling to stick to your meal plan, the girl at the next table is loudly discussing her latest juice cleanse. You log into Facebook to distract yourself from the noise in your head, and a friend has posted an article titled “The 5 Foods Guaranteed To Make You Fat”.
With all this noise floating around, how do you stay in recovery?
1. Don’t let a lapse become a relapse. You’re going to have hard days, and you’re going to slip. Your job is to stop beating yourself up for not being perfect in recovery, and get back on the horse. Eat the next meal regardless of whether you skipped the last one or you ate more than you’d planned to.
Once you’re safely back on track, figure out what made you slip. It’s easy to default to “I felt fat”, but can you look at what else is going on? Maybe you haven’t been sleeping well, or your hormones are acting up. Maybe someone said something hurtful, and you fell back into using food to cope.
Journal it out, talk about it with a friend, and make a plan for how you can avoid a lapse next time. Maybe you need to turn off Netflix and get to bed at a better time. Maybe you need to stand up for yourself when you’re hurt, instead of letting the wound fester.
2. Build a support system. Fighting an eating disorder on your own can be a really lonely thing. It’s also really easy to ignore the warning signs that you’re slipping without someone else there who knows what’s going on. Pick professionals you trust to be on your team – a therapist, a nutritionist, an MD, whoever you find helpful.
If this isn’t an option for you, look for a support group. Many cities offer free or low-cost support groups you can join. If there are none in your area, look for an online support group – just make sure it’s run by a reputable organization. Unmoderated or informal groups can easily become triggering. If it isn’t challenging you in a good way, or isn’t supportive of recovery, move on.
Friends and family can also be a great support system. Just keep in mind that your loved ones may not have ever dealt with an eating disorder before, and may not know how to support you. This is a great opportunity to practice asking for what you need. Do you need them to try and help you solve your problems, or do you just need someone to listen when you’re struggling? Do you need someone to cheer you on through meals, or would do you rather they keep it to a “normal” experience? Let them know what you need, and you’ll set your mind at ease, as well as theirs.
Remember – not everyone can be there for you all the time. Everyone has a different capacity to help, and everyone has difficult things to deal with in their own lives. A “not now” doesn’t mean they don’t love you – it means they’re taking care of themselves, which will mean they are better equipped to support you when the time is right.
3. Keep challenging yourself. Looking back on my recovery process, many of my relapses happened when I stopped taking risks. “Cool. I ate that scary food once, now I NEVER HAVE TO EAT IT AGAIN.” I hate to break it to you, but life doesn’t work like that. There will always be birthday cakes. There will always be candy on Halloween. There will always be Christmas cookies, and Easter eggs, and Thanksgiving dinner. If you avoid the foods that are scary for you 364 days a year, they’re going to be REALLY scary on that one day you have to confront them. If, however, you incorporate them into your life regularly, eventually the anxiety will wear off, and you can focus on the experience, rather than the fear.
And when those “5 Foods Guaranteed To Make You Fat” articles pop up? Don’t read them. There isn’t a food on this earth that can make you “fat” overnight. If you DO inadvertently click the link, however, challenge it. Go out and eat that food as soon as possible, and prove to your brain that there is nothing to fear.
Recovery isn’t easy, but the more you fight, the stronger you get. One day, you’ll wake up and realize that the foods that once struck fear in your heart are now a regular part of your life. The noise in your head will get quieter, and life will become exciting, not a chore. Don’t give up. Recovery is possible, and you’re worth it.