Let me introduce myself: I’m Sandra. I am 27 years old, and I am currently in recovery from anorexia nervosa. This blog post won’t be about my struggles with anorexia, because I don’t believe that sharing the details of my illness helps anyone, but I’ll give a brief recap to provide some background.
I was 16 years old when I was diagnosed with anorexia and after my anorexia diagnosis I spent 10 weeks in an inpatient eating disorder treatment facility. That experience was over a decade ago now, but eating disorder recovery didn’t truly start for me until several years ago.
What does that mean exactly? I was living a life where, to those around me, I was “recovered” and I was “over it.” In my own mind though, I was still plagued by my eating disorder. One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned is that eating disorder recovery isn’t and will never be a linear process. Leaving inpatient treatment, or partial hospitalization eating disorder treatment didn’t mean I was “better.” Neither did leaving intensive outpatient treatment or even leaving regular therapy. I got a little better with each phase, but I don’t think I really “bought in” to the idea of “being recovered.” There was a huge part of me that held on to my eating disorder like a life jacket. My eating disorder was always there when I needed it and I could tuck it away, nice and neat under my seat, when I didn’t have use for it. But, I could never throw it away.
These days, I’ve dedicated my career to working with children and adolescents just like myself, who are in the middle of their fierce fight with their eating disorders. But I’ve found myself working less with the children and teens themselves and more with their parents and their families. I guess you can say that this post is meant as much for those struggling with their eating disorders as it is for their loved ones. To help their loved ones understand that getting “better” doesn’t look the way they have envisioned it. I don’t fault families for thinking that a hospital stay or a residential treatment stay will be all it takes for their child – that they can drop their child off and they’ll pick up the child they had before the eating disorder invaded. I wish this idea was true, and I wish I had a way to make that a reality.
One question that I am asked most often when I disclose my own personal struggle with anorexia is “If you could go back in time, what would you do differently so that this never would have happened to you?” There are so many ways I could answer this question. And I’m sure if you are someone who is currently struggling with an eating disorder or eating disorder recovery, you’ve either been asked this question or thought about it yourself. On the one hand, my eating disorder put me through hell. I won’t and I can’t deny that. I wouldn’t wish an eating disorder on my worst enemy. Of course I wish that anorexia had never entered my life. But, on some level, I think it was almost inevitable. I grew up an incredibly anxious and depressed child. When I hit adolescence, that anxiety and depression was the perfect breeding ground for anorexia. So, if I had to go back in time to change things, I might have to go back to before I was born, which is kind of weird to consider. As I have gotten older, I’ve adopted a mindset that things happen for a reason. Cheesy, I know, and a very overstated phrase. I used to roll my eyes at people who believed in it. But I look at my life now, and I truly believe I wouldn’t be here, in the profession I am in, writing this blog post, if it wasn’t for what I went through in my teenage and young adult years. Although anorexia taught me a lot of really awful things, learning to let go of my anorexia made me a stronger, more resilient person. Recovery has and is still the hardest thing in my life to maintain and every day I shock myself with how strong I can be when I need to be. The journey taught me how to be more authentically myself – something I’m still learning every day. More than anything, the journey gave me a voice and a passion that I never thought I could have.
Okay, families and loved ones, I’m talking to you now. What can you learn from my journey? What can you take away from this?
First, I want you to know that eating disorders are not caused by families, parents or caregivers. Can family stress and turmoil create the perfect storm for an eating disorder? Sure. Do genetics play a role? Most definitely. But all in all, eating disorders have a mind of their own. No one goes into an eating disorder thinking that they want one. It starts off so innocently. Maybe it was just a New Year’s resolution to eat less fast food or to hit the gym more. Maybe social media became a bit too toxic and led to some closer examination of one’s body. It’s hard to say. There is no single cause for an eating disorder. And there’s no use in asking someone, “Why are you doing this?” Because the individual isn’t doing anything. The eating disorder is doing it to them.
Second, remember that everyone recovers differently and at their own pace. There’s no timeline for recovery. There’s no right or wrong about recovery and there is no “failing” at recovery.
Lastly, relapses happen. They do. Accept it now. Like I said earlier, there’s no “why did you relapse?” Don’t ask that. It doesn’t help anyone. Remember that the eating disorder is sneaky. It can hide out and act like it’s gone, then at the opportune time it’ll rear its ugly head. How do you, as caregivers, deal with this? Support your person. Tell them that relapses are nothing to feel ashamed of and that you are there to help them get back on their feet.
My hope is that this is one of multiple posts I share with you – as a Reasons alum and a professional in the field of eating disorder treatment. I look forward to sharing more with you about who I am, what I do, and hopefully how I can help anyone in the eating disorder community.