Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Recovered? What's That?

Recovered? What’s That? Amy Grabowski, MA, LCPC

In the eating disorder support group I often say that I have recovered from the spectrum of eating disorders. I am often asked “Aren’t these lifelong illnesses? Is it possible to recover? Will I ever stop worrying about food, eating and weight?”
When I first started to acknowledge that I had an eating disorder, I read everything I found on the subject. I often came across the opinion that eating disorders were lifelong illnesses that could only be controlled and not cured. I went to a 12-step support group which preached to me that I was ill and would have this illness for the rest of the my life. The best one could hope for was lifelong abstinence. This made me feel hopeless. I thought “Well, why even bother trying, if I am going to have this forever.”
Having completely recovered from my eating disorders, I can now say that it is possible to recover fully IF (and its a big “if”) the underlying issues that caused the eating disorder are addressed and resolved.
Now that’s the rub! Some people get to the point where their food is under “control” and decide that they are recovered, even though they have to “control” it every day. They may or may not be aware of some vague feeling of not being completely at ease with themselves: inner emptiness, lack of sense of identity (who am I?), unresolved anger, etc., which they cover up with their new “control” over food. If one considers this to be recovered, then yes, eating disorders are lifelong illnesses.
If, on the other hand, you take a good hard look at what those inner feelings are all about, endure the scariness, pain and anguish of resolving these feelings, then you do not have to use food to cover up these issues. Food then becomes, well, food, something you eat to fuel your body. You can enjoy food and eating, but are not wracked with guilt and self-hatred afterwards. You can eat when you are hungry, eat what you are hungry for, and stop when you are no longer hungry. If one considers this to be recovered, then I do not believe eating disorders to be lifelong.
“But what about relapsing? Don’t I have to be constantly on the lookout for relapsing? What if something “bad” happens to me?” 
I often compare having an eating disorder to having a broken leg. If I broke my leg I would have a cast put on it until it healed. At that point  the cast would be taken off. The bone would be healed, but it would not be as strong as it was before. The bone would be at risk for being broken  again. If the weather was bad, the bone may ache but I certainly would not put another cast on it! I would probably just be gentle with it, and take care of it.
I consider myself totally recovered from my eating disorder: I do not have to think about my food/eating/ weight in order to maintain the weight I am at. If I find myself thinking about these things, then I consider it a “red flag of warning”. I stop and think about what needs am I not taking care of. 
These food thoughts are a “friendly” reminder that I am not tending to business. But because I have learned healthy new ways to cope with life’s  ups and downs, I take care of myself on a regular basis and so food thoughts are rare.
Just like my analogy of the broken leg, there are times when the “weather is bad” in my life, and I have to be “gentle” with myself. I keep a lookout  for what I need and find ways to take care of my needs. But I don’t put the “cast” back on and say I have an eating disorder!
Have I ever been tempted to revert back to old behaviors? Yes, I have had food thoughts but have not wanted to act on them. Even when something terrible happened to me, it was not a struggle to maintain my recovery. Why?
Because the underlying issues have been resolved. Inside I no longer feel like the same person I was before I had the eating disorders.
I will leave it up to you as to whether you consider this a lifelong illness or not. Because ultimately it is up to you as to how far you are willing to take your own recovery. That will then give you your answer.
In the next newsletter I will discuss some underlying issues that need to be addressed for recovery.
Amy Grabowski, MA, LCPC