3 Things I Wish I’d Been Told During My Recovery

Drawing Watercolor girl with feathers used on Recovery Warriors Website

This is my first post at Recovery Warriors, so I want to start by waving a big “hello!” and introducing myself. I am a social worker and psychotherapist, and I was inspired to go back to school and become an eating disorder therapist because of how my life completely changed thanks to recovery. I never thought I’d stop counting calories, let alone feel truly free to eat whatever my body wants and needs, and stop when I’ve had enough!

The sense of freedom from the shackles of my disorder has been worth every minute of the fight, and in my work, I get to keep fighting every day alongside courageous women who are taking their lives back. In my posts here at Recovery Warriors, I’ll share both from the perspective of an eating disorder survivor and as a clinician. If you have questions for me or topics you’d like to see covered, I’m all ears. And thank you to Jess and Miriam for letting me be a part of the team here and giving me the opportunity to share words of hope, encouragement, and inspiration with some kickass warriors.

In this post, I want to talk about a few things that I wish someone had told me during my recovery. When I first reached out for help, I had support from my family, a few friends, and a therapist for a while, but there were very limited resources where I lived. Even the doctors there didn’t knew enough about eating disorders to tell my parents I needed to go into treatment. Thankfully, I eventually made it to the other side, but I strongly recommend accepting as much help as you really need — and resources are expanding all the time. (I would have been all over the the Rise Up + Recover app if there had been smartphones back then!)

As imperfect humans, we often have to learn through our own experience rather than someone else’s words of caution, so who knows if being told any of these things would have actually changed my journey. (I’m reminded here of a line from the ridiculously talented Sean McConnell’s “Somewhere Beautiful”: Is there any way to learn from what you’ve been told, or do you really have to hold the experience? ‘Cause you could heed me now and come out clean — trust me, I could spare you the consequence.) Nonetheless, here’s what I wish I had been told during my recovery:

1. Restricting will almost always lead to a binge.
Both from personal experience and with most of my clients who have any history of restricting, in almost all cases, it leads to a binge. Typically, it’s binging with food, but even if it’s not food, there’s often bingeing with sex, shopping, alcohol — you name it. Living in deprivation is not sustainable. It’s difficult and painful, and might make you feel superhuman for a little while, but it can’t and won’t last.

After I initially stopped restricting, I became so averse to feeling deprived that I would never let myself feel even the slightest bit hungry. I had traumatized my body and it wasn’t going to take it anymore! The restrict/binge cycle (AKA yo-yo dieting) is one of the main reasons why the large majority of diets fail. The information about what to do/not do to be “successful” with the diet may be clear, but the psychological and physiological effects of deprivation will demand to be heard.

2. You need to work with a treatment team who really “gets” eating disorders.

There are a lot of great therapists and dietitians out there, but only a small portion of those have the background to effectively work with eating disorders. I’m certainly not saying there’s only one “right” way to treat ED, but I cringe thinking of some of the horror stories I’ve heard from clients about things their therapist or nutritionist recommended they do. Even some 12-step groups can send harmful messages about the need to stay away from certain foods entirely. (If you’re looking for a good 12 step group, try EDA.)

I barely remember the dietitian I saw a handful of times, and if she knew what she was doing, I would have continued working with her well into the weight maintenance phase of my recovery. Just because I had restored weight didn’t mean I was “okay” and didn’t need a dietitian anymore. It can be confusing to families and professionals who don’t really understand that it’s impossible to tell if someone has a serious eating disorder just by looking at them — especially if their body used to look “unhealthy” and now appears “normal.”

This applies to treatment programs, too. Things get hairy when you’re dealing with, for example, co-occurring substance abuse and need treatment for both that and ED. Some programs advertise that they treat both, when really they might have a dietitian clients meet with once a week and that’s about it.

3. The culture’s messages about beauty and size aren’t changing anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean your personal standards can’t.

I should clarify that the culture’s messages will be slow to change rather than not changing, as the body positive and Health at Every Size movements are helping us inch forward by advocating and offering new messages and voices to listen to. Still, mainstream media and marketing continue to bombard us with a daily onslaught about everything that’s wrong with our bodies. For a long time, I believed I could never be satisfied with my body until it was much closer to Hollywood’s standard of the “ideal woman’s body.”

Then, over the years, I started reading and writing for blogs like Adios Barbie, began to really listen to the voices that were a part of this counter-culture, and became a proud member of it myself. My subscriptions to “women’s health and fitness” magazines (all basically Cosmo with a few more pictures of models in sneakers “do/don’t eat” lists) tapered off, and I found that, with time, the messages actually made me angry rather than shameful or envious. It’s a good kind of anger — one that motivates me to be an agent of change for the current and future generations. I now vote with my dollar by refusing to purchase these magazines.

I still occasionally see a celebrity’s body and think, “Damn, she looks really good” — but these days, it’s more like admiring Pink on the aerial silks rather than cursing myself for not having Gwyneth Paltrow’s stomach. I may not think my body is “perfect,” but I love the fact that I don’t need it to be perfect anymore. Being connected, vital, and living my values are way bigger priorities. Now that’s what freedom tastes like.

What do you consider to be the most important in recovery? Are there things that you wish someone had talked with you about sooner in your process?  What are ways that you can help educate and inspire others who need information or might be struggling with ED or body image issues?

source image: weheartit
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  1. says: Tait

    Hi Valerie,
    Thank you so much for this post. Everything you said really hit home for me and I’m thankful to have stumbled upon this app. I’ve struggled with an eating disorder for 10 years and has gotten worse and worse after moving to Los Angeles and trying to keep up with the standards here. My ED resembles binging and restricting mostly. I’ve recently been trying to listen to my body’s hunger signals and it’s been working great. But I have found, like you said, that if I restrict certain foods, like carbs or sugars, I last about a week then I’ll end up just binging after. I would like to allow myself these things in small portions but I’ve just also been diagnosed with SIBO, and the diet is very intense and strict, allow absolutely no sugar, carbs, and many other types of foods I would normally view as healthy. My question is, how can I get heal my stomach, while dealing with this eating disorder, as this diet can take up to a year? Most of the time I am in pain, and have read that SIBO can lead to a numerous amout of other serious health problems. Do you recommend any types of treatment or doctors in the Los Angeles area? Thank you so much for your help.

  2. says: Valerie Martin

    Hi Tait,
    Thanks so much for your comment, and I’m glad my post resonated with you.
    No kidding — LA is TOUGH. It sounds like you’ve made good progress with trying to be more in tune with your body — and I really don’t know anything about SIBO (one of my dietitian colleagues didn’t either, but I may ask another), though I do know that restrictive diets can complicate things in ED recovery. If it were me, I would want the support of an ED dietitian (and maybe therapist, too) *especially* during this time where your range of foods may need to be more limited… because it’s going to be that much more difficult to not feel deprived or restricted and then want to rebel. There are lots of good ED dietitians in the LA area.

    I would also focus on really acknowledging things in your life that you’re grateful for, and make sure that you really nurture yourself emotionally and spiritually so that you can limit that overall feeling of scarcity/deprivation that may come along with having limited food range right now.

    Hope that helps!

  3. says: Savanna

    Thank you for the post, these are many things that I never think about. I’ve been struggling for a little over 5 years now and was just asked to take a medical leave my our dean of students at my college. I feel like I’ve done everything, and now I have to do THE thing, inpatient care. I’ve been putting it off and putting it off, knowing I MIGHT have to eventually. I feel torn–finish college? Or take care of this and graduate with another class. I’ve struggled with BN and AN since my early days of high school, and I don’t remember the last time I was truly happy eating a meal. Thoughts? Thank you again, your story is so powerful.

  4. says: Valerie Martin

    Hi Savanna,

    It’s a tough choice and certainly only one that you can make. Since you’re already having to take a medical leave, is there a better time than now to do treatment? When you look back 5 years from now, does graduating with your class seem really important? I’m happy to chat with you more if you have questions about treatment since I work in residential. Feel free to shoot me an email – valerie at wakingupinwonder dot com.

    You are WORTH recovery and being able to ENJOY eating again.


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