I’ve Been Through Recovery: Here are The 5 Phases You Can Expect

Sometimes it can be helpful to know where you’re headed. While recovery looks different for everyone, there are a few phases that you are likely to experience in your recovery journey.

Here are five common phases of recovery.

1. Realization

The first of the phases of recovery is when you realize restriction, binging, purging – whatever shape your eating disorder has taken – is not a one-time thing. You’ll get that it’s slipped from being a dalliance, or even a romance, to this heart plummeting fact: you can’t stop. And that’s a problem.

It’s usually at this point that shame sets up camp and digs in her heels. The grim reality that your problem is out of hand and beyond your power starts to drive you crazy. It disconnects you from your family, your peers and erodes any of the self-esteem you have left.

This phase for me took the longest to move through and left the most damage in its wake. For over twenty years I knew I had a problem. While I tried over and over and over to fix it, nothing seemed to work. With each attempt, I slipped further into my private world of self-hatred and loathing.

I lived under the misguided tenant that restriction would ultimately fix everything. Food and my hideous body were my issues.

I falsely believed that if I could just follow a diet more rigorously, lose a few pounds and get more self-control, everything would work out.

It wasn’t until I realized that admitting I had a problem was only the start line that I began to heal in earnest.

2. Willingness

You will know you are ready to get into the hard work of recovery when you find yourself ready and willing to do whatever it takes.

This happened to me one unsuspecting afternoon as I sat on the bathroom floor, post purge, beyond tired of fighting against my crazy food-rattled brain. I couldn’t stand another minute. I don’t know exactly why that binge was different than the rest, but I’d come to the end of my rope. Banging my fists against the cool floor tiles I declared:

Enough! I will recover.

I have no idea what that might take, but I’m going to figure it out. Can you see what happened there? In that moment I became willing.

Willingness is a crucial ingredient that allows us to go into the next, most demanding phase of healing.

3. Surrender

Surrender, the third phase of healing, starts the moment you realize you have no idea how to live without controlling food, weight and your body. You put down your sword, declare to stop fighting against yourself and start seeking to learn new ways of living.

Let me tell you, realizing I had to give up control over what I ate and trust my body, was not good news.

I’d built my life around the belief that one day I’d wake up skinny and all pain and suffering would be gone.

Letting go of control and choosing to trust were the two most life altering practices I learned.

4. Acceptance

Acceptance is the 4th of the phases. This is where you start making peace with what is. How your body looks, the kinds of foods you desire. The decisions you’ve made, the past you have lived. What has and hasn’t happened to you, the emotions you feel and struggles you have. All of it.

This phase is the most paradoxically challenging. Why should we accept something we hate so much? What’s the point in accepting what we do with food if we know it’s completely bonkers? Surely wanting our choices to be different will light the rocket under us required to make changes?

These are great questions. They are ones I had to grapple with, figure out, work through and find answers that ultimately worked for me. You will need to do the same for yourself.


I started by examining the belief I held that went something along these lines: If I accept myself exactly as I am, with my food madness, my body with all its imperfections and shortcomings, I won’t ever get the life I truly want. I’ll be destined to eat and obsess and be stuck like this forever.

With pebbles falling in my heart, I realized I was already destined to that forever. With a major dollop of counter-intuitiveness, I decided to fully accept everything about myself. Suddenly the bits I was fighting against, the very core that I was trying to eradicate (my crazy food mind) almost magically slipped away.

Do you follow what I’m talking about here?

Once I fully accepted myself exactly as I was, I stopped fighting against myself.

When I stopped fighting, peace naturally and mysteriously arose in me.

Food worries, bingeing and self-disgust packed their bags and left town.

Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to acceptance. Or at least, none I know of. It’s difficult and often painful work to make peace with everything you are and everything you are not.

While I am pointing at the often arduous tasks required to heal, I’ll add this: Acceptance is not a phase you can skip. It’s fundamental.

Want recovery? You’ll need to accept…everything.

The good news is this. With acceptance comes freedom and peace. While acceptance is tough, it is the phase where real, life-shattering goodness turns up.

5. Gratitude

And now we come to the best and final of the phases of recovery. It’s the one where the hard work pays off. We find ourselves looking back and feeling nothing but thankful for the path we have followed.

If someone had told me back in the dark days that eventually I’d be thankful for what I was living through, I’d have thought they’d lost their mind.

Or at least completely misunderstood my plight. But they would have been right.

Healing can bring deep joy, tranquilly and self-love into your life. You will see how far you have come and appreciate your depth of compassion, wisdom and serenity.

You may notice too, that some of your friends are more obsessed with food and weight and body image than you, even though they don’t have an eating disorder. Now that you’ve been through the darkest of times, you see more light than people who haven’t.

If you have yet to experience the life-changing magic of phase five, I’m holding in my heart that you will stay the distance. I want you to know the tunnel can be long, confusing and distressing. It does get better. And when it does, the better is beyond what you will believe.

Now let’s get real about the phases of recovery

Before you start to think that I have recovery one hundred percent nailed, that I have fixed myself and have arrived as some nirvana, let me get real with you.

Recovery, when I was in phase one, looked like a task to be completed and ticked off. I imagined it working the same way as recovering from a cold does; in time it would clear up and go away. It hasn’t panned out like that for me, or I suspect anyone.

It’s more like a continual deepening of the five phases of recovery. Some days I’m knee-deep in problems I’m unwilling to admit, let alone surrender or accept. Gratitude feels so far from home and I struggle to remember it even exists.

Other days, I’m naturally thankful for my body, my appetite and my vitality. My life feels like a gift. Wherever you find yourself on your individual path to recovery, remember this:

Life occurring as a gift is possible for you too.

Image: @slavewire

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  1. says: Carli

    Sometimes recovery can seem so abstract. Thanks for explaining this. Of course the type A side of me is ready to check off each stage and dust my hands off, but in reality I know that ‘s not possible. But it is so helpful to at least get a rough sketch of what the end game looks like and what it takes to get there.

  2. says: Emma Wright

    Oh, Carli, I love your comment. I so know what’s it’s like to fantasize about life fitting into some beautiful linear process. That one day we get to arrive and all will be good. So pleased you found some help in having a kind of road-map. With love…

  3. says: Casey

    Emma, thank you for writing this article. I have been in therapy for 6 months now for my eating disorder and anxiety, and today I broke down to my therapist telling her I was frustrated with myself for not having made more progress with all the tools I’m being given. She said something to me that resonated in the acceptance phase of your article and told me I might be helped by hearing from someone who has moved through the recovery process. While I know acceptance won’t be easy, it’s given me some peace to read this article and know that what I’m going through is just part of the process, and I feel like I can see the path I’m on is the right one. I just have to continue to be patient with myself as I go through it. Thank you again <3

  4. says: Krystal

    This was beautifully written and such a great explanation of the process. As much as we wish it to be, it is so not linear and clear cut. Thankfully, I am finally in a place after 13+ years where more days than not are spent in phase 5. But I still have days in phase 4 and I struggle not to beat myself up for those days. Then there are the days I can’t tell you what phase I’m in. ????
    Recovery is SO hard, but will NEVER be as hard as living(if you can call it that) with an eating disorder and seeing no way out. Thank you for this beautiful message of hope.

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