5 things people should know about eating disorder recovery
Updated: May 8
By Melani De Sousa, Founder, Wellness & Intuitive Eating Coach at The Wellness Workshop.
Eating disorder recovery - I’d like to think that in the past decade our understanding and awareness of Eating disorders has grown just a little, or at least beyond the cliché idea that an eating disorder can be identifiable from just a person’s physical appearance. This is perhaps one of the most frustrating things about suffering from an eating disorder, or trying to recover from an eating disorder; the fact that others around you or certain eating disorder treatment medical professionals will use your weight or size as measure of success or failure in the eating disorder recovery process. They could not be more wrong…and coming from someone who’s suffered from an eating disorder (Bulimia and Binge Eating Disorder) for almost 15 years, I’m here to tell you why, and what other things I think people should know about the journey of eating disorder recovery.
1. RECOVERING FROM AN EATING DISORDER IS ABOUT SO MUCH MORE THAN FOOD
Similar to that of an addiction, often the underlying cause or reasons for having an eating disorder extend far beyond the substance itself (in this case food). Food, weight and appearance are just small pieces of the puzzle in the eating disorder picture. Once you make the conscious decision to recognise you have a problem and seek treatment to begin eating disorder recovery, a pandora’s box of emotions, memories and trauma is released and you are usually forced to really face the things that contributed to you developing the eating disorder in the first place. It sometimes can feel like you are re-living painful moments of your past over and over again to truly understand why you used food or food restriction as a coping mechanism in the first place. Only once you do this can you see that the problem is not just the food, or lack of food, but the need to control or suppress emotions and feelings you don’t want to face.
2. YOUR SUCCESS OR FAILURE IN THE EATING DISORDER RECOVERY PROCESS CAN OFTEN BE MIS-MEASURED BY YOUR WEIGHT OR APPEARANCE
The most common misconception about eating disorders in my opinion, is that how well, or how poorly someone is doing can be identified by how they look. THIS IS NOT TRUE. An eating disorder is a mental illness characterised by several physical and psychological criteria that explore a person’s attitudes, behaviours and beliefs about themselves and the world around them. You can look perfectly “normal” to the average person, yet internally be grappling daily with thousands of thoughts and obsessions about food, the way you look, your eating habits…etc. At certain times during the eating disorder I looked ‘fine’ but suffered immensely, and yet at other times I looked ‘thin’ to those around me but was improving and making positive changes in my eating disorder treatment. In fact, comments about my weight and appearance often unsettled me and sometimes even derailed efforts to continue with the eating disorder recovery process.
3. RECOVERING FROM AN EATING DISORDER IS NOT DEPENDENT ON HOW ‘GOOD OF A STUDENT YOU ARE’ IN THE TREATMENT PROCESS
At so many points in the eating disorder recovery process I felt shattered and confused as to why, despite all my efforts following the advice of eating disorder treatment specialists, committing to every online program, reading every eating disorder recovery book, was I still knee-deep in the throes of an eating disorder. It seemed unfair that no matter how much effort I put into recovery or how good of an ‘eating disorder recovery student’ I was, I wasn’t making the progress I wanted to make. As a perfectionist, (like so many other eating disorder sufferers are) I believed that the more I knew, the quicker I would recover. I was wrong. Although a degree of commitment and knowledge is required to get over an eating disorder, I realised that often improvement came with less focus on external information, and more focus on internal messages... Meaning I had to listen to my body and my feelings more and get better at recognising and giving myself what I needed, whether on an emotional, physical or psychological level.
4. DETACHING FROM THE EATING DISORDER IS VITAL IF YOU WANT TO RECOVER FROM IT
For so many years I believed my personality was made up of the things that actually belonged to the eating disorder. I thought I was a moody person. I thought I was highly strung. I thought I was selfish. I thought I had to have things done a certain way in order for them to go well. I had spent almost 15 years putting time, effort and energy into the eating disorder that during recovery I realised I had no idea who I was. And yet if I wanted to recover, I had to make sure I filled the gaps in my personality myself that the eating disorder had filled for so long. At that point, my eating disorder treatment psychologist challenged me to separate the sound of my voice, from that of the eating disorder, and no longer refer to the eating disorder as ‘mine’ but rather something that had been living with me. Now when I felt the eating disorder (Ed I called it) was trying to control my actions, I heard the thoughts in a different tone of voice to mine, thus enabling me to separate and detach myself from it. I also changed the language I used saying things like “Ed wants me binge eat today” rather than “I want to binge eat today”. It seemed a little crazy at the time but seeing the eating disorder as a completely separate being, made it far easier to deal with and made eating disorder recovery a bit easier on me.
5. EATING DISORDER RECOVERY IS DIFFERENT FOR EVERY PERSON
Unfortunately there is no one size fits all when recovering from an eating disorder. Some individuals find cognitive behavioural therapy effective, others prefer nutritional management or medication, and some of us require experimentation with a combination of eating disorder treatments over a length of time to find what works for us. Regardless of the method, it’s important to not give up on finding a treatment that’s right for you and fits with your unique lifestyle, personality and circumstances. In my experience, I reached out to therapists both overseas and locally, and found I responded better to practitioners who were direct, honest and avoided overly sympathetic gestures like constant head nodding and drawn out “mmm’s”. I gravitated towards Intuitive Eating and the Non-Diet Approach, and after several years of trial and error I can finally say I’m getting better at identifying what works and doesn’t work for me.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melani De Sousa is driven by her passion to stop the glorification of weight obsession and disordered eating in today’s health and fitness industries. She is an accredited Wellness Coach and founder of The Wellness Workshop. She is also an Intuitive Eating Coach, helping sufferers of Eating Disorders move on with their life through recovery. Melani is also a Personal Trainer, and was awarded the 2019 Australian PT of The Year 2019 by Fitness Australia, the nation's peak industry body.