The road to recovery

By Sarah Young,
updated on Dec 27, 2021

The road to recovery

It’s easy to beat ourselves up over relapses when it comes to eating disorders, but it’s all a unique journey. Here we share essential tips to help you through the rough patches of recovery

Recovering from an eating disorder is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. When we start our journeys into the hellfire that recovery can often feel like, we begin by envisioning this journey to be linear – onwards and upwards! We imagine things getting gradually better day by day, in a way that is exhausting, yet straightforward. However, recovery usually doesn’t go as planned.

If we were to plot the path of recovery on a graph, it would probably look more like a looping, squiggly mess than a simple diagonal line. Recovery is filled with pitfalls, lapses, three steps forwards, two steps back, and sometimes even full-blown relapses. But this doesn’t mean we’ve failed. Every step back teaches us new things, even when it doesn’t feel like it at the time.

Every time we trip, we learn to look out for what caught our feet the next time we’re there. Each time we stumble, we can be ready to grab on to something and steady ourselves if we cross that same path again. Recovery will never be simple, or easy, or we would have done it sooner.

It’s easy to become impatient with yourself when recovery feels like it’s taking too much time. You berate yourself every time you find yourself falling back into unhealthy behaviours. But recovery cannot be rushed, and the times we fall backwards make us ever stronger for when we reach forwards again.

Like with all journeys, it’s not just the destination that is important; it’s also what you learn and discover along the way that makes for a robust and stable remission, and this includes the mistakes and pitfalls just as much as the steps that take you forwards.

You’re going to be OK. You’re going to make it through

So what do you do when you find you have stumbled into a relapse?

  • Remember that eating disorders make empty promises to persuade us that it’s worth listening to them. But ask yourself: what did your eating disorder give you? How did you benefit from it? For some, you felt in control, but were you just being controlled? Sometimes we use eating disorders as a distraction; a way to numb out other painful things. But is replacing one painful thing with another painful thing really worth it? Did your eating disorder give you stable, healthy relationships? Did it find you a fulfilling job? Did it buy you a nice home? Did it contribute towards your education? Did it make you feel better about yourself? Did it bring you happiness? I imagine the answer is no. Eating disorders help us feel in control, but they don’t give us anything real.

  • Think about your reasons for recovering. Write them down and stick them on your wall. Is it worth abandoning those goals for this demon of a disorder? Your reasons to recover might include the things mentioned earlier. They might also include things like decreased anxiety, meals out with loved ones, being present in your day-to-day life, having children, engaging fully in your passions, having fun at social events, enjoying food, improved sleep, dedicating your energy towards enjoying life, and regaining your identity.

  • Use your support network. Friends, family, partners, doctors, therapists, helplines, online support forums, social media communities – they can all be sources of support that are often crucial to remaining strong in your journey. You may feel ashamed, or like you’ve failed when asking for help, but that isn’t the case – we all slip up. It’s part of the journey. Don’t suffer in silence; seek support from the people that you trust.

  • Eliminate negative influences. Get rid of those triggering magazines that encourage disordered behaviours, and openly criticise other people’s bodies. Unfollow social media accounts that make you feel bad about yourself, or that you’re doing recovery wrong. Follow people who don’t set rules for what health looks like – because it’s different for everyone. Cut toxic people out of your life. Assert your boundaries with your loved ones who comment on your body/food choices/lifestyle/exercise habits, or who won’t stop talking about the diet they’re on. Surround yourself with people and influences that push you towards true health and happiness.

  • If you find yourself missing meals, create a schedule or set alarms to ensure you eat regularly and consistently. If you find yourself making excuses not to eat, then you may want to think about putting yourself on a bit of a meal plan until you’re able to go back to eating intuitively.

  • Know your warning signs! This could be giving yourself excuses not to eat, cutting out certain foods, avoiding situations involving food, increasing your exercise, weighing yourself more regularly, increased thoughts around food/weight/exercise, body checking, becoming more withdrawn, or feeling guilty for resting or eating. If you know your own warning signs, you’ll be able to notice these red flags and address them a lot quicker before it snowballs into something more ingrained. It may also be a good idea to tell your partner, friends, and family what your red flags are, so that if you’re unable to see them in yourself when they occur, they can watch out for them and support you in getting back on track.

  • Keep busy and use distraction techniques. When you are sitting with anxiety, guilt, or relapse temptations, distract yourself with something you can get absorbed in. The more you’re thinking about something else, the less energy your brain will put towards those negative thoughts. You could watch a movie, read a book, write, get out a jigsaw puzzle or a crossword, pick up the knitting needles, game on an Xbox/PC/phone, call someone, meet up with a friend, play an instrument, paint, collage, or take photos – basically anything that you can engage yourself in.

Write these tips down. Find other tips online. Ask people in a similar position what helped them. Make a ‘reasons to recover’ poster or screensaver. Remind yourself that you’re going to be OK. You’re going to make it through. You can, and you will, beat your eating disorder.

Keep reminding yourself that recovery isn’t linear, and that every setback is an opportunity to learn and take bigger steps forwards. Some of my most important lessons were learnt during the slip ups that I made during my recovery. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and don’t let the tide sweep you off course. Keep wading upstream, and take the knowledge for next time.

Need to speak to a professional? Visit counselling-directory.org.uk

By Sarah Young

Sarah talks about body image, body positivity and eating disorder recovery on her Instagram.

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