Eating Disorder Recovery: It's Okay To FEEL.

[POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: I have tried to cover all topics in this post as mindfully as possible but if you are particularly sensitive to discussions about eating disorders and think you may be triggered by any of the following content then please don't read it!! Look at my room tour instead.] I'm bombarded on a daily basis with questions about recovery. Lots of them are from people who don't suffer with an eating disorder but maybe know somebody who does and want to educate themselves a bit more in order to try and offer support. The majority, however, are from people who are either contemplating giving recovery a go or have begun recovering and are looking for some reassurance to continue. I've been a bit hesitant to discuss recovery in depth on my blog because despite having extensive treatment for anorexia nervosa for the last 4 years I'd only consider my recovery to have started in October 2014. Prior to this I was discharged in late 2012 with a big "RECOVERED" label stuck to my forehead and sent on my way to deal with life by myself.

At the time I thought I was fine and that everything had been fixed by a year of therapy sessions but I was still tormented by my eating disorder on a daily basis, despite managing to maintain a BMI that kept me out of the danger zone. I don't remember much about that time of my life. I don't remember what I ate. I don't remember much of my final year of college. I don't remember how I felt physically or emotionally. I just remember thinking that if this was being recovered then it really sucked because I was still miserable and every day was still so hard. And that led to my inevitable relapse. By the time it was due for me to move to Leeds for university I was quite ill, had been seeing my old therapist again for a few months and didn't really know what was going to happen to me. Changing cities also meant changing treatment teams and I was referred to a specialist eating disorder clinic in Leeds that offer community support. This is essentially inpatient-like intensive treatment but in the comfort of your own home rather than a hospital setting. This meant that I could still attend university, which was my number one priority, but also try real recovery for the first time. I really wanted to be able to remember the process this time, no matter how hard it was, and I promised myself that I wouldn't blindly go through the motions in order to get discharged again. I had started to enjoy my new life in Leeds and I wanted to be able to sustain this lifestyle for as long as possible. I wanted to properly engage with treatment so that I'd be equipped with the knowledge and skills to properly look after myself when I'd inevitably be discharged and so I kept (and have continued to keep) visual journals of emotions and physical changes that I've felt over the last 10 months. I was reading back over some of them a few days ago and I realised that there are a lot of experiences that I had at the beginning of recovery that were scary and confusing but completely normal. I just wanted to share a few of them (I'd be here forever if I was going to address them all) in case you, or someone you know, is experiencing any of them and to let you know that it's going to be okay.


It's okay to feel HUNGRY.
I thought I'd start with the scariest one - that it's okay to feel hungry. Calorie restriction can make you develop something which is sometimes known as a 'signal jammer'. This means that your brain finds it hard to receive or interpret important signals such as hunger correctly. Ignoring or failing to respond to these signals only strengthens the blockage. However, when you begin recovery you will likely be eating more than you are used to and probably on a more regular basis too. After a while (it's different for everybody) your body gets used to this and it can start beginning to tell you when you need to eat again, whether this is through a loud tummy rumble or through a dip in blood sugars leading to headaches, shaky hands or a feeling of dizziness. These are signs that your body is trying to repair itself and that it needs you to eat food in order to help it along a bit. Respond to these signals when you can. It will be difficult at first, I'm not going to pretend that it isn't, but you should try to eat when you're hungry. It's important to try and remember that you aren't greedy for eating. You're just beginning to take responsibility for your own health, fighting back against every core belief you've developed thanks to your eating disorder, and subsequently your body is preparing to fix the damage that long term restriction or irregularity has caused. You might have missed out on hundreds of thousands of calories and so it's completely normal to feel hungry all the time in recovery, even after eating a snack or a meal. I remember convincing myself that I'd broken my metabolism, that I'd never know when I was full ever again, that now I'd started eating I'd never be able to get rid of the all consuming hunger that I felt constantly and that I'd just keep eating and eating until eventually I exploded (honestly, I genuinely thought I would become so full that I'd just 'pop'). Even though it sounds completely ridiculously to me now when I look back on it, embracing a new diet plan IS scary. Your eating disorder makes your thoughts run wild with all the "negative" things that eating is giving you but it's false information and in reality eating will only serve to protect and nourish your mind and body!! I found it particularly helpful to have a list of all the positive things recovery would give me pinned to my mirror so that every time I looked at myself and felt upset there would be something positive and rational to remind me that I was doing the right thing by trying to recover. A lot of people focused on the "your body is a car - it needs fuel to run" analogy for trying to get me to eat again but finding foods that I enjoyed eating and made me excited (I'm lookin' at you, hummus) helped me a whole lot more than obsessively trying to find out whether the food I was eating was the "right kind of fuel" for my body. Food doesn't have to be scary, I promise!

It's okay to feel A LOSS OF IDENTITY.
A lot of people ask me if I struggled with loss of identity and I really, really did. I didn't care about anything other than food and losing weight and I didn't get happiness from any activity that I used to enjoy any more. I found it difficult to even sit down and read a book because my brain wouldn't allow me to focus on something that wasn't encouraging my disorder. Prior to starting recovery, every waking moment was spent looking at food online, watching cooking documentaries, planning when I'd next eat and what it would be. Even when I was asleep I dreamed about food. Equally, I had nightmares about food. I was always worried that the more I ate the more preoccupied I would become with food. But when I started to eat more regularly and started following my meal plan properly I found that my obsessive food thoughts began to lessen. This is because you're exiting starvation mode and your brain has the capacity to think about other things! Having the chance to regain your interests during recovery is a bit daunting because you're essentially taking away more control from your illness by focusing on things that YOU want to do, but it can be exciting as you start to rediscover things that you love. Getting back into art, reading, blogging and socialising with friends was a slow process but I wouldn't be without any of those things now! I find it difficult to believe that I thought I didn't need any hobbies or anybody to talk to because I was so isolated and lonely looking back. Sometimes I still feel a bit lost and it's taken me a while to realise that's okay too. Not everybody has their shit together 100% of the time - I'm willing to bet that nobody really does - and when you're still (re)figuring yourself out it is going to be more difficult than it is for the average person (which is difficult anyway, especially when you're in the awkward I'm Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman phase). Embrace the things that you love because they will make you feel a whole lot more like yourself again and it's a really lovely feeling! Life is fun if you let it be.


It's okay to feel BLOATED.
What I've learnt about bloating over the last 10 months is as follows:
• I get bloated from eating
• I get bloated from not eating
To cut a long story short, it's not uncommon for me to look 8 months pregnant a lot of the time (see horrific pictures for reference - both taken within 2 days of each other!!) and that's completely normal in recovery. Mild bloating is common for everyone but for some reason it's always a lot worse when you're in recovery. I'm not sure on the actual science behind it (so don't quote me) but from what I understand it's due to your stomach stretching as you reintroduce food and general problems that you will probably experience with your digestive system until it regains normal functioning again. The most important thing to remember is that bloating is not fat. It can be extremely uncomfortable and has often been the initial trigger for an onset of bad thoughts and negative body image for me but it always goes away eventually. I find that the best way to deal with bloating is to lie down or curl up somewhere comfortable with a hot water bottle, a mug of peppermint tea (the Pukka Three Mint tea is my current tea of choice - the peppermint helps combat bloating and the other two mints make it taste yummy) and something to distract myself from how shitty I feel, eg. a book, a film, watching a whole series of something on Netflix and then sleeping it off. I very rarely wake up and still have bad bloating. It's also really, really important to keep eating. I know firsthand that the last thing you want when you're bloated is night snack but the more you eat, the quicker your digestive system will get used to food again and the quicker you'll be free from excessive bloating! If it does persist for more than a few days at a time I'd recommend either talking to your team if you're in treatment or visiting the doctor just in case there's a blockage or other underlying issue.

It's okay to feel SCARED ABOUT WEIGHT GAIN.
A lot of people ask me "how do you cope with the weight gain?" and I always find it really hard to answer. When I was contemplating recovery, a lot of people who were recovering at the time or were already recovered said to me "weight gain isn't as bad when you actually start eating" and I was like PFFFT, I don't believe that at all. But it's true. Weight gain is part of recovery, you cannot 100% recover whilst maintaining an unhealthy BMI. I may sound hypocritical as I am choosing to maintain a BMI that is not yet considered healthy but I'm hoping that in the future I'll be able to fully push forwards and banish as many ED behaviours as much as I can. I've spoken before about how I don't think anorexic thoughts ever fully disappear with recovery but instead your coping mechanisms become better and helpful, rather than destructive, and you learn to live with it in a way that's not detrimental to your life. I was blind weighed A LOT to begin with so I didn't have to see my weight going up and that helped a lot, as did throwing away all of my child size clothing and wearing clothing that I felt comfortable in. You will notice your body changing and limiting mirror time and stopping body checking really helped me deal with that. Weight distribution is a real thing and eventually things will balance themselves out, even if you feel like the weight you gain is all going to one place (mine was my thighs, ahh). Engaging with treatment and talking about your worries to your team or someone you trust about weight can help put you at ease to begin with but as you gain weight your mind is able to think more rationally and you will find that gaining weight isn't the end of the world like it probably used to be. When you find yourself dwelling on a number or a size, distractions are key! I know you've probably heard it a million times before but remember that numbers mean nothing and they do not define you. You're gonna look fab and feel fab when you weight restore!

It's okay to feel CONFUSED.
I think my most common emotion during the last 10 months has been confusion. I've been confused by my meal plan. I've been confused by changes in my emotions. I've been confused about external and internal changes to my body. I've even been confused about my confusion. Learning to trust yourself, to trust your body and to trust that family, friends and therapists are there to help you and not "make you fat" like I initially though is a long and difficult process but a wholly essential part of recovery. I genuinely believe that if it hadn't been for the continued support of my family, my friends and the kind words of strangers online that I wouldn't have got as far as I have done this year. Being open and honest with people about your struggles can really help to clarify things you're unsure of and open the channels of honest communication to avoid misunderstandings when it comes to your feelings and your health. Professionals are there to advise you about your health and offer guidance with your emotions but it's your family and friends who really understand you (sometimes better than you understand yourself, in my experience) and will be there to help you on a daily basis. Opening up to people can be difficult, especially regarding personal issues, but asking for help is okay when you need it and nothing to be ashamed of.

It's okay to feel like you're LETTING GO OF YOUR EATING DISORDER.
Writing this part is actually making me feel really emotional because I think this is the stage I'm finally beginning to accept. I've spent a long time not fully wanting to let go, to move on, to put everything I've learnt about me and my illness into practice because I've been scared. In some ways I think it relates back to a loss of identity. I've been constantly asking myself "who am I without my eating disorder?" because when you've lived with something for so long that it feels like it's become a part of who you are it can be hard to shake it off completely. I don't believe that I'll ever truly be "ED free", especially whilst I'm still underweight, but I think I'm on my way to living a life that can be as free from negative behaviours as possible. I think that some things like random bouts of anxiety around certain foods or social situations, bad body image days and days where I don't feel like eating at all will always be a part of my life but I'm learning to not act upon the feelings and do what I know is right and beneficial for me and not giving into my illness. I'm happier now than I've ever been and I'm able to do things that I never thought I'd be able to. I'm at university doing a course that I love and seemingly doing well at it. I'm able to go out for meals with my friends with minimal planning and no tears. I can get up in the morning and know that I need to eat breakfast and be totally okay with it. This is the start of the life that I know I want and I want to encourage as many people as I possibly can to try to let go. Don't let your illness keep dragging you back in! Have the courage to make the step to recover and embrace the highs and push through the lows for they are what will help you to learn and to heal, both mentally and physically. Recovery is hard but so, so worth it.

I would love to hear your experiences of recovery, both good and bad, as I know it's different for everybody and it's nice not to feel alone! Also if you have any tips for anything I've talked about above or any problems you've encountered yourself that I haven't addressed then feel free to have a chat in the comments and share your experiences! Hope you're all well :)

Love, Hails.

9 comments

  1. Hayley this post is perfect. Thank you so much for sharing these things & on such a personal level.

    You're awesome girl :) alicegibbs.blogspot.co.uk x

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    1. Thank you, Alice! Hope you're well :) xx

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  2. This post is so honest and a great insight to what it is like. I am fully recovered although now dealing with other health issues which I don't think my eating disorder helped. I used to feel sick if a friend asked me to go out for dinner and knew the calories in everything but not anymore. I feel free and can enjoy food again. You're doing so well.
    Emma Xx

    www.emmaslookingglass.com

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    1. I'm so glad that you're recovered now, congratulations!! I'm sorry to hear about your other health issues though, whether my eating disorder has further contributed to my poor health in ways that I'm not currently aware of is something I always worry about myself, and I hope that you're keeping strong! Thank you for the personal comment <3 xx

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  3. I have NO idea what its like going through something like this, but you're such a beautiful person and I hope you continue doing the good you're doing because you deserve ALL the happiness in the world!!!!

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    1. Hannah you're lovely, thank you! :)

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  4. This was upsetting to read but also heart warming to hear you're doing better. Congratulations on lasting first year and doing so well. Good luck with your recovery, I have every faith you'll beat this evil illness soon. Sending virtual hugs and hummus! Anna xxx

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    1. Thank you so much for this lovely comment Anna!! :) *happily receives the hug and hummus* xxx

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  5. A person can experience mixed emotions while they are recovering from an eating disorder. It's true that it's okay to feel. I would help if you divert your attention on taking care of your body than allowing an eating disorder to control your life. I encourage people to continue their recovery for they will reach the end results which is a more beautiful & happier life.

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