"You're looking well" - The technical recovery from eating disorders

Eating disorders are a topic of great sensitivity, and should always be treated as such. Whether you are talking to someone experiencing an eating disorder, or someone who has 'recovered', one must always be careful with the language used. This article was submitted to us anonymously by just such a person, who brilliantly capturesthe challenges they and others experience. Please be aware that this topic may be triggering for some people, but is sensitively handled throughout. 

Recovery (def.):

1.       A return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.

2.       The action or process of regaining possession or control of something stolen or lost.

I have been technically “recovered” from my eating disorder for three years now. It’s written off - no more appointments or check-ups, no more anxious eyes watching what I eat. According to the definition of the word, I should now have regained self-confidence and normal eating habits, and be in a normal (whatever “normal” is) state of mind, right? Wrong.

“You look well” – this is the comment that many sufferers of eating disorders despise. It’s the comment that makes me dread recovering. To you, this may sound like a compliment, but in my mind, and in the mind of other “recoverees”, this is translated into what is possibly our three most feared words: “you’ve gained weight”. As if suddenly now that you have technically recovered (i.e you now do not look thin enough to now be defined by the term ‘anorexia’), it gives people the right to comment on your weight.

Last time I was home, a friend thought it would be appropriate to comment on the fact that it was nice to see me looking healthy and not as thin as I used to be. I cried. I went on a 13 mile run. And then I cried some more.

My technical recovery has been the worst thing to happen to me since I first started struggling with an eating disorder. I now suffer from all the same self-loathing habits of fasting, binging, trying to exercise excessively, anxiety attacks, and the list goes on. The difference now is that I have to deal with all these issues whilst simultaneously wrestling with the fact that I am now too fat for people to recognise that I have an unhealthy relationship with food.

It is impossible to decide what feels worse; comments on the fact that you look like you have an eating disorder, or remarks on your weight gain which assume that you are now happy with yourself. News-flash: I was happy with my weight when my friends, family and doctors weren’t. Now that society believes that I don’t look ill, I quite simply feel more crap than ever.

Not only does technical recovery create difficulties within oneself, but it creates a false belief among friends that they no longer have to be sensitive about body issues when talking to you. I am not trying to blame anyone in particular for this, but I am pointing out that next time you brag about your recent weight loss, or even complain about the tiny amount of weight you’ve gained, perhaps try to be more sensitive if there is an eating disorder recoveree in your presence.

People feel that is now safe territory to make size jokes around you that will constantly replay in my mind at least 50 times over when I have time to think. This has resulted in distraction becoming my new best friend. As long as I ensure that I don’t have the time to dwell on the fact that I am not happy with how I look, there is hope that one day I will also feel recovered, and not just look it.

 I have two pieces of advice to anyone else in this stage of achieving full recovery from an eating disorder. Firstly, find that one thing that allows you to spend some time free from the inner turmoil of the ED mind-set. My relief strategy is running. Although exercise can sometimes be a self-loathing act when I feel the dreaded guilt of eating, there is something about getting outside and removing yourself from town that makes all my problems feel at least a tiny bit less significant in the extreme beauty of the St. Andrews countryside. I urge you to find that outlet which forces you to think about anything but food and weight and appearances.

My second piece of advice is one I do not always adhere to myself, probably due to the difficulty of bringing up such a taboo topic in conversation. It is to simply talk. When you are technically ill you are forced to talk to counsellors and parents and specialists more than you ever want. But as soon as the technical recovery sets in there is no forced conversation, so you are left to find the people that you can trust with such a topic, or in my case, someone that knows you enough to make you talk when you need to.

Recovery is a long process that is comprised of both physical and mental aspects. If you are in recovery try not to do what I did and push aside the inevitability of dealing with your thoughts in order to deal with the physical aspects and please other people. That way your recovery has more chance of being both technical and true. A return to a normal state of health, mind, and strength.