There's something amazing about an eating disorder. It's something that differs from other addictions. And it's something so complicated that it makes recovery incredibly difficult and leaves it desperately in a gray area:
You can't stop eating to get over an eating disorder.
Having gone through 12-Step programs for other addictions, I am well-versed in abstinence. I know that in order to stay sober, I need to not put any alcohol or drugs into my system. However, recovery from my eating disorder is much less obvious.
When recovering from an eating disorder you still have to eat, and a lot of times, that's the problem. How do I encourage myself to eat when I'm so afraid of the consequences?
As I've committed myself to a healthy and conscious lifestyle, I am constantly hyperaware of my motives in everything I do. It's quite draining, to be perfectly honest. The amount of accountability I expect of myself is fatiguing and I sometimes find days when I just want to give up.
That's why eating disorder recovery has been a journey for me. And it continues to unravel the more I work on myself.
My eating disorder journey
I never thought I had a really bad eating disorder. I heard stories and had friends whose need to control their food intake was much more severe. I thought because I wasn't starving myself and didn't obsessively count calories or exercise addictively that I was managing my health well. Granted, compared to how I used to live in my drug addiction, I was tremendously improved.
But as I have been in a relationship with someone who eats very differently than I do, I am facing off with a lot of the beliefs that have perpetuated a bout of severe eating disorders in the past. And I have realized that I am not "over" my eating disorder, and I don't know if I ever will be. I can find reprieve and solutions, but unlike alcohol, where I know if I don't drink I'll be okay, I can't stop eating.
My current eating plan is based off of health and nutrition standards, and those standards are higher than most. I've been a vegan for over six years, regularly intermittent fast, and try to eat naturally.
Now, these habits aren't bad at all. A strong level of devotion to healthy eating is, well, healthy. But the difference, I have found, is the intention. Am I not allowing myself to eat that extra piece of chocolate out of a desire to be healthy or because I would hate myself if I got fat?
I'm not perfect, and like I said, I don't think I'm "over" my eating disorder. I think I've just learned how to live with it without starving myself out of punishment and shame. I know that there's a better way than acting out in an eating disorder, and every day I get the opportunity to live as healthily as possible—mind, body, and spirit.
I've had to learn how to cope with my feelings and thoughts that make me want to starve myself, and have written this article to provide you with some of my tips on how I do my best to stay alert and healthy through eating disorder recovery.
(Please note: these are not to replace the advice and care of a professional, these are personal tips on how I've learned to cope. This advice is catered to after "getting over" the eating disorder, meaning the initial difficulty of asking for help and eating regularly is over. Please seek proper medical advice when trying to overcome an eating disorder.)
1. Motivation is key
I'm not talking about motivation in terms of ambition and determination, but rather, intent.
What is my motivation in this decision I am about to make?
I have found this to be a very useful exercise in life. By checking my motives, I can fully assess the situation (if I'm being truly honest) and decide from a place of truthfulness if what I'm about to do is in my highest good.
In regards to my eating disorder recovery, I find that if I assess my reasons for eating a food outside of my normal meals and then decide what to do from love, I usually don't feel guilt afterwards. If I make sure that I am eating because I'm actually hungry and not bored or trying to cover up feelings, it won't trigger shame.
I find being able to prevent the triggers makes it much easier to love myself and not want to act out in past eating disorder behaviors. However, I've also learned that sometimes I'm not always so aware, which is when I need to learn to forgive myself.
2. Let go of shame
Shame is one of the worst things in this life. It perpetuates so many disorders and addictions. In my lifetime, I've felt so much shame over my worth, thinking I wasn't good enough, as well as feeling shame about decisions I've made.
Shame is interesting because when I feel shame, I will often act out in harmful behaviors, which then causes me to feel ashamed. The cycle perpetuates itself.
For instance, I hate the feeling of overeating in my body. And yet, when I'm not vigilant about stopping when I'm full, I get stuck with that nasty feeling inside that makes me want to binge or not eat again out of shame. I often beat myself up for "doing it yet again," constantly expecting myself to know better and do better.
Learning to forgive myself is something I'm constantly working on. I often view the past with the lens of "I should have known/done better," and need reminding that I'm doing the best I can. I find journaling or expressing these feelings help them to dissipate.
Talking out the shame with a supportive friend or loved one helps me tremendously to process and release the feeling. In the moments when I struggle to forgive myself because I'm stuck in a shame spiral, I need an outside perspective. This is where therapy can be hugely beneficial, or if you're lucky enough to have loving and supportive friends, you can turn to them.
Learning how to deal with and let go of shame can be one of the most important and healing things you ever do in your life.
3. Accept being human
One of my biggest forms of attack on myself is the expectation of perfection. I have these high standards that are not always realistic, and then I mentally beat myself up if I "fail."
I struggle with accepting my own humanity. My whole life, I thought that in order to be loved I had to work for it, to prove my worthiness. However, through years of recovery programs, therapy, and personal and spiritual development, I know that I am worthy just because I breathe.
And yet, while I know this, meaning cerebrally, I don't always embody, or feel it. I constantly have to remind myself that I am human, which inherently means, I am not perfect. Therefore, striving for perfection is a disappointing and Sisyphean task.
When I am able to accept and acknowledge that I am human, I can have more compassion for small errors and mistakes I make. Fortunately, if I am constantly checking my motives (tip #1) I usually don't make really big mistakes. And when I do, humility allows me to ask for forgiveness from others, and myself (tip #2).
Personal affirmations can help provide encouragement by looking in the mirror, seeing my human form, and speaking to the divinity within. Reminding myself that I'm human, and therefore, will make mistakes doesn't mean I'm bad.
If I accidentally overeat, I don't have to think it's because I'm a bad person and weak, but rather because it happens to all humans and I can just restart and commit to my health and happiness. Letting go of shame, often allows me to be able to accept my humanity and helps me focus on what's more important: living a healthy life.
4. Live a healthy life
I think the number one thing that helps me with my recovery is living a healthy lifestyle. When I'm exercising regularly and eating natural foods, I know that I'm doing the best I can for my body and mind.
However, if I'm eating processed foods and watching TV all day, I feel that lethargy that brings on the shame. In order to avoid the shame that triggers me to want to act out in unhealthy and harmful behaviors, I try to circumvent it altogether.
Not only is healthy eating and exercising recommended for longevity and happiness, it just makes me feel better! And that's probably the most important component.
If I feel good, I feel good.
If my body feels good because I'm taking care of it, my mind generally feels good and I don't find the need to mentally attack myself because I'm loving on myself. By just choosing loving actions for myself, such as loving my body to treat it well with the food I put in, I am declaring to myself that I am worthy and I love myself.
5. Self-love vigilance and diligence
Self-love is so important, especially because an eating disorder is caused by so much shame and self-hatred. If I loved my body, I wouldn't abuse it or punish it through starvation.
When I work on loving myself, I am more capable of pushing away those incessant thoughts that tell me I'm not good enough or skinny enough. I can reinforce the positive thoughts that start to develop and become stronger over time.
The reason I call this step self-love vigilance and diligence is because it's a daily task that needs my awareness and attention. Self-love doesn't come naturally to me, so I need to become aware of the negative thoughts that aren't full of love toward myself and diligently redirect them into love.
Some ways I practice self-love are positive affirmations, listening to good music, or self-care, such as making healthy food for myself, taking baths, or doing something fun.
Eating disorder recovery is a journey. Some days are better than others. As long as I keep up with my above tips, especially the letting go of shame, I feel more equipped to handle my life and my meals.
Brittany Noelle Roa is an interdisciplinary artist with an MFA in Physical Theatre who uses her art and creativity to heal herself and others. She loves learning about health and wellness so she can optimize her human potential to live a full and happy life.