If you’ve ever struggled with disordered eating, you may have noticed that the questions that feel most immediate aren’t always widely talked about.
Once when I was in an office job, I overheard my coworkers talking about the pizza that was available to us in in negative terms like, “I shouldn’t be eating this,” or “Oh, I’d love to have a slice of pizza — but I can’t, because I already had fries yesterday!”
It made me hesitate before deciding whether to pick up a slice myself. I wondered, “Am I not eating a slice because I really don’t want to and I’d rather have a different lunch, or is it my eating disorder talking?”
What is eating disorder recovery? This is a common question for those of us who grapple with eating disorders. We may find ourselves wondering how to define recovery, and if there is a specific line we have to cross, or a goal we must achieve in order to be “recovered.”
Many educators and advocates focus on topics like self-love, body acceptance, and the obstacles someone might face in treatment, but not what the day-to-day really looks like. It’s nice in theory, but it doesn’t necessarily help people living with eating disorders figure out how they can practice it in their own lives.
Eating disorder educator Melissa A. Fabello, PhD, knows this better than anyone. In addition to being a researcher, she’s also in recovery herself.
Where many people get tripped up, Melissa says, is that they expect life will go back to the way it was before they developed an eating disorder.
That’s an unrealistic expectation, because eating disorders usually have long-lasting and even lifelong effects — and they’re about our brain chemistry more than our individual choices.
Recovery, Melissa explains, is the difference between engaging in eating disorder behaviors versus practicing recovery — which means not actively engaging in those behaviors.
When we’re actively engaging in disordered behaviors like restricting, binging, or purging, we’re giving in to what our brain (and our eating disorder) wants. But we also have the power to push back against those compulsions. If we’re diligently challenging and reframing negative self-talk instead of restricting, we’re moving in the right direction.
“Being in recovery doesn’t mean being perfect,” Melissa says. “It doesn’t mean never thinking about food in a negative way again. It doesn’t mean loving your body every single day. It means making telling your eating disorder to shut up a daily practice and being compassionate with yourself around your feelings and experiences.”
That said, it can be difficult to tell the difference between typical and disordered behaviors
These are important questions to ask, though. Melissa says that we need to ask ourselves these questions often when we’re in recovery, and that it’s a healthy impulse to check in with ourselves to ensure we’re in a good place.
“If you’re doing something in response to negative feelings about food or your body, and if you find yourself doing this with whatever you define as regularity, then it might be time to check in with your support system about the possibility of crawling toward relapse,” she explains.
If these thoughts are still few and far between, you’re on the recovery track.
Recovery isn’t linear, though, and relapse is part of the process. If you mess up, Melissa notes, you’re not a failure.
Old habits die hard, and we all have off days. Just because you find yourself in a moment of relapse doesn’t mean you have failed forever. The important thing is to recommit to recovery.
In that way, recovery isn’t so much a destination as it is a daily choice that we make.
It’s also not abnormal to sometimes miss your eating disorder, because as Melissa says, it can define your sense of self for a long time. “Some people say that they feel like their experience with their eating disorder defined them, and that they’re not sure who they are without it.”
Your eating disorder may work as a coping mechanism that you may have turned to when you were stressed or going through a turbulent or traumatic period in your life. It makes sense, then, that when new stress or anxiety comes up during recovery, you might remember that you have a go-to way to cope.
It might seem like slipping back into the eating disorder is easier, but it’s essential to choose a different coping method — one that nourishes you rather than harms you.
To really be present for our recovery and wellbeing, though, it’s worth considering that we might need to get rid the notion of “full recovery” altogether.
After all, is there a such thing as fully healing from something? Even when we move past an experience in our lives, as Melissa points out, we’ll never completely forget how it felt or affected us.
Being in recovery from an eating disorder is all about our movement toward a healthier, happier you. That movement is constant because you’re always growing and evolving, which is exactly why eating disorder recovery is a journey instead of a destination.
“You are a work in progress,” Melissa says. “Not because you’re in eating disorder recovery, but because you’re a human being. And that process is a really beautiful thing.”
Alaina Leary is an editor, social media manager, and writer from Boston, Massachusetts. She's currently the assistant editor of Equally Wed Magazine and a social media editor for the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books.