Food for Thought is a column that explores various aspects of disordered eating and recovery. Advocate and writer Brittany Ladin chronicles her own experiences while critiquing our cultural narratives around eating disorders.

Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.

I’m no stranger to disordered eating recovery.

I’ve been pursuing it for the past eight years. I’ve gone to therapy, kept food logs, and worked with a variety of medical professionals to get my health on track. I’ve also been lucky enough to have a loving family who has supported me emotionally and financially. I’ve been privileged.

And yet, I always felt that something was missing from my recovery journey. I was given tools, words of encouragement, and resources to pursue recovery… but was left without empathy. It wasn’t until recently that I realized how essential peer support is in the recovery process.

The loneliness of disordered eating

For those who’ve never experienced disordered eating…it’s like this: You are living with an invisible, mental illness. Nobody around you understands how or why you get triggered. An action that’s simple to the people around you — eating when you’re hungry, stopping when you’re full — often becomes the most terrifying task to you. People tell you to “just eat” without realizing that this is not about food. It’s about underlying emotions of shame, fear, depression, anxiety, and guilt.

Having an eating disorder (ED) is lonely. It’s no secret that food brings people together. So much of our socializing revolves around food and drink. Food is a way to represent culture, community, and family. And when food becomes a stressor rather than something to enjoy, an important link is broken between you and the people around you. It’s. Really. Hard.

I didn’t have many friends in high school or college who were pursuing recovery. When I think back on my journey, I remember feelings of isolation, confusion, and shame. I remember feeling extremely alone and misunderstood — being angry with myself, unable to comprehend why I couldn’t “just eat.”

Craving community

Years later, I started thinking about communities among people with EDs. And eventually, I became fascinated with the pro-anorexia (pro-ana) Tumblr community.

For one of my college thesis papers, I spent time interviewing women who managed these pro-ana pages. These are social channels where individuals share “tips” on how to be “successful” in their eating disorders. They’re mostly made up of images of skeletal-looking figures titled, “body goals,” and “meal plans” designed to encourage people to eat as little as possible.

On the surface, these pro-ana spaces are disheartening, and even cruel. Once I dug deeper though, I felt a profound sense of understanding and empathy.

One interviewee said they hoped they would be able to recover in the future. All were aware that they were living with a dangerous illness. So, why did they stay? Perhaps because this was the only community that actually understood them.

The women described their online communities with words such as, “encouraging,” “supportive,” and “kind.” When being faced with an onslaught of harsh critique from concerned loved ones and medical professionals, it felt really nice for them to have someone on the other end of a personal message saying, “I get it.”

My paper argued that if we are able to incorporate the aspects of these harmful online communities that make those suffering feel empathized with and loved, and apply them to recovery spaces, we may be able to have better success in encouraging recovery. That is what I’m trying to do now with my support group for queer individuals living with disordered eating.

Support groups as healing mechanisms

Most of us are aware that support groups exist, but we don’t often think of why they are so essential. I can only speak for my experiences, but I feel that support groups should be a standard step in the recovery process of any mental illness — especially eating disorders.

Due to our narrow cultural understanding of EDs — including what they are, who gets them, and what they look like — many people who live with disordered eating experience judgment and shame. Being in a healing space with the sole purpose of supporting through empathy and shared experience can help alleviate some of these feelings of isolation, and remind the participants that they aren’t alone in their fears or habits.

Support groups are not a replacement for therapy — but they should be an accessible, normalized tool in your recovery toolbox. And the best part? There are plenty to choose from! You can find ones that intersect with other aspects of your identity, including gender identity, sexuality, race, age, and more.

Sometimes, the first group you attend may not be the right fit for you. Keep looking for a space where you feel comfortable, seen, and heard. And if you don’t feel like sharing too much the first time, don’t pressure yourself. You can develop an openness slowly, or if just being in the space is enough for you, then pursue that aspect of this healing experience. This is your journey — own what feels right to you.

Brittany is a San Francisco-based writer and editor. She’s passionate about disordered eating awareness and recovery, which she leads a support group on. In her spare time, she obsesses over her cat and being queer. She currently works as Healthline’s social editor. You can find her thriving on Instagram and failing on Twitter (seriously, she has like 20 followers).