There is no wrong time to begin recovery from an eating disorder but embarking on that journey during a global pandemic was not ideal. My appointments with a physician’s assistant had to occur in person, but therapist and dietician sessions were held remotely. Thankfully these video visits didn’t hamper recovery and I felt an instant connection with both practitioners. I was fortunate, also, to be treated as an outpatient and not to require residential treatment. During the pandemic, the need for mental health services in general increased substantially, which also complicated how people could access care.
Recovering from an eating disorder at a time when the world had shut down was complicated by the fact that I couldn’t interact with family and friends in person. As well, shortly after starting treatment, I retired from a job as a special education paraprofessional and this change further isolated me from colleagues and friends.
Being vulnerable and honest helps to open lines of communication
Isolation made some things easier, such as not worrying too much about how I looked as I restored weight, but in terms of living the way I did before the pandemic, daily life was a challenge. My husband was my rock, helping me feel safe enough to even consider treatment, and I’m forever grateful for that. My adult children, who live out of state, were supportive too. I feel that we are closer now than we were before. Lines of authentic communication have opened, mostly because I’m being vulnerable and honest about my struggles.
The several friends I chose to tell were supportive, but support on the phone or in an email or text is different from being face-to-face. Some well-meaning comments were not as helpful as they were no doubt intended. I recognize how fraught with uncertainty people must have been, wanting to offer encouragement but not wanting to say the wrong thing.
What do you say? The first reaction from others was surprise. Because I had never gotten skeletal, which is an erroneous image often associated with eating disorders, people assumed that I was naturally thin or that I was a health nut. They had no idea how much rigidity and anxiety went into my every waking moment. They assumed that I had a lot of willpower, which they envied. I’d thought that as well until I learned, that in my case, that level of willpower had a name: anorexia nervosa.
There was denial from some friends because nobody wants their friend to be struggling with anything. One friend suggested that I had been given a false diagnosis so that the clinic could make money off me. I gently told her that no, that wasn’t the case because I had been living with myself for decades and knew this was real. Nobody was tricking me into anything. I was finally facing the truth and in many ways acknowledging the truth was a relief—a relief to finally be honest with myself and others.
Confrontation has never been my strong suit. I grew up being a people-pleaser and always aimed to please everyone besides myself. To please myself was considered selfish and wrong. I also had 12 years of Catholic school education, so the virtue of selflessness was reinforced daily. As a child, I was so concerned about being “good,” that I began to count even thinking about committing a sin (which usually consisted of disobeying my parents) as an actual sin. One time I’d even tallied up all these thoughts and told the priest in the confessional that I’d disobeyed my parents 243 times that month. Fortunately, he kindly set me straight and told me I didn’t need to be quite that specific. Despite his advice, I still felt a tremendous amount of anxiety if I even thought about disagreeing with someone or expressing anything but compliance.
I still sometimes struggle with worries about having offended someone if I speak my truth. Learning to trust myself has been a gradual process. The difference, since I’ve been recovering from anorexia, is that I’m able to trust myself more. The eating disorder (or “Edie,” as I’ve named her) is no longer in charge; her voice is no longer louder than my own. I used to give away my power not only to Edie but to every person I encountered. I haven’t lost relationships because I’ve found my voice, but the balance of power within those relationships has shifted; it is now more balanced. I’ve also gained new relationships with people in the eating disorder community. Connecting with others who have walked in these shoes is invaluable. Even though these new relationships are online rather than in person at this point, they’re real and precious. We all need support.
As my self-respect grows, I’ve sensed that the respect others have for me is growing as well. People can tell when you’re being authentic and whether they understand or not, they appreciate the courage it takes to be vulnerable. If people don’t, I’ve learned that it’s okay to distance myself from such people and do what’s best for me.
Over the course of an eating disorder which lasted for decades, Edie did her best to discourage authenticity with others because she wanted me all to herself. She’d persuade me not to trust others, that they wouldn’t like me as I was. One friend was judgmental of people in larger bodies. She was angry when the maid of honor for her wedding, the only attendant she had, gained weight shortly before the wedding. The maid of honor was deeply hurt and witnessing this experience made a painful, lasting impression on me. After that, when going to see this friend, I’d fret over whether I looked thin enough for her. As a result, I slowly built an impenetrable wall around me to keep me safe. There was an infinite supply of bricks to build the wall as tall and thick as needed. Unbeknownst to me, the wall enforced Edie and kept others out.
Eating disorders are tricky and complicated. Their origin is a mystery—is it nature, nurture, or both? Research has shown there’s a strong genetic link, but why do some people in a family develop an eating disorder and others don’t? What is the factor that flips the switch? As I continue to recover, I’ve tried to develop compassion for Edie instead of only bitterness. After all, feeling bitter about the time stolen from me accomplishes nothing and keeps me stuck. Perhaps Edie was protecting me in situations I could not handle. She helped dull my emotions by implementing behaviors that kept unpleasant feelings hidden under layers of mistrust and suspicion.
I’ve noticed, as I recover, that I feel things more deeply. This is because I no longer engage in the eating disorder behaviors that distracted me from my life. This freedom has enabled me to find my voice and to speak my truth more often. I’m not 100 per cent comfortable with this new side of me, but I’m working on it. Those around me might also have some discomfort, and I am trying to accept this with patience and understanding. I’m not on this journey alone and I need to remember that.
My criteria for relationships have changed, in that I’m learning to have more compassion for others in addition to myself. That’s not to say that I would keep a toxic friend in my life in the name of compassion. It’s okay to let some relationships go, especially if they are unhealthy. It’s not easy to do, but I know now that I deserve to be treated with kindness and respect. Edie pops up now and then, especially during stressful times, and tries to lure me back to her trap, but now I’m strong enough to say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ I also have the tools I need to ride the wave until the stressful moment is gone. One important lesson I’ve learned is that those stressful moments do pass and that I’ll feel better after the wave crests and fades. I just need to remember to breathe, and all will be well.
Relationships make life more interesting and fulfilling, even when challenges arise that create difficulties and roadblocks. Recovering from an eating disorder has opened my eyes in ways I never expected. I value the connections I have with the people in my life more, now I have the courage to be myself. I thought I knew what mattered before; the difference is that now I believe it.