Hope for Eating Disorder Recovery
Hello. I would like to introduce myself. I am the only person in the world who cannot recover from an eating disorder. No matter how hard I try or how desperately I want to let go of my eating disorder, I am doomed to fail. I will never get better.
That was nearly twenty years ago. It turns out that I wasn’t so special after all, not the worst case scenario, and not the hopeless one. I am thrilled to say that I was not the lone ranger and that it did get better, in fact, much better. Many of us battling the illness believe that we are the sickest and that we will never recover. At one point in my eating disorder therapy group, every single person in the room thought that they were the one who wouldn’t make it. But, today, they are proof that recovery is possible. I am, too. Countless others—who were also the sickest of the sick, according to them—have arrived at this point of freedom as well.
These are individuals with all types of eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and the most common, yet least known, Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder, OSFED. Those who have healed—all genders, cultures, and sexual orientations—are ones who developed the illness as teenagers, at younger ages, or much later in life. Some struggled for a few years and others for over fifty. Those who battled an eating disorder for a longer period of time sometimes heard from experts that a successful recovery was less likely because the disease was not ‘caught’ early. I heard this, too. I had strong tendencies toward eating disordered behaviors beginning at the young age of four but failed to reach out for help for almost twenty years. Needless to say, nothing was caught early except for my unhealthy attitudes toward food and my body; but I did get better.
Eating disorders are real, life-threatening illnesses that require professional help to heal. No one chooses to have an eating disorder; 50 to 80 percent of eating disorder risk is due to genetic effects. But people do choose to get better. Making recovery choices means hard work, patience, and, unfortunately, pain.
Tackling the difficult, gut-wrenching parts of the recovery process is key to getting better. Ultimately, we must let go and take on the food. Yes, we have to do whatever it takes to stop restricting, bingeing, and purging. This means that we have actually to feel our feelings. Gulp. We can no longer use food as a way to cope with underlying anxiety or depression. To move through this, we need help from dietitians, doctors, and therapists. If we lapse into old behaviors, which we might for a while, we are honest about it.
Another part of getting better means that we have to be willing to look our worst nightmare in the face. Even though we might not like what we ‘think’ we see in the mirror, we have to be willing to maintain our natural size, the weight that our body wants to be, to be healthy. Importantly, just as eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes, so too does recovery. In the beginning, there is nothing fun or exciting about challenging negative body image. It can be excruciatingly painful. When I finally let go of the number on the scale, my therapist congratulated me, saying that I was doing great. But I felt bad. Really bad. In my therapy group, we called this phase the “doing good, feeling bad” part of recovery. It is progress; it means things are getting better.
Slowly, over time, recovery actions begin to feel good. Eating even becomes intuitive and enjoyable. Accepting our body’s natural size and shape feels powerful and strong. (Yes, this is possible.) Moments not consumed by food and weight string into hours and days. But recovery means even more than all of this.
Along the recovery road, I learned how to use my genetic traits in the service of life rather than my eating disorder. Harnessing the positive out of perfectionism, as an example, I am motivated and driven, today, to pursue my dreams and passions. When taken to the light, my obsessive-compulsiveness becomes conscientious, which helps in my work as a writer. My inherited ability to delay gratification, which used to fuel my anorexia, now feeds my life. When my first book, Life Without Ed, received well over fifty rejection letters from publishers, let’s just say that I had a lot of patience.
We recover from our eating disorders, and we recover our lives. It does indeed get better—fully better— and not just for everyone else.
You (or your loved one) can heal, too.
Never give up.
About Senior Fellow Jenni Schaefer
Jenni Schaefer graduated summa cum laude from Texas A&M University with a degree in biochemistry, and she knows firsthand the devastating consequences of an eating disorder. Since recovering from her own eating disorder, she has carried her message of self-acceptance and triumph over adversity to the public.
Jenni is the author of several books, including Life Without Ed: How One Woman Declared Independence from Her Eating Disorder and How You Can Too, and she has contributed to anthologies like the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. A sought-after speaker on addiction and food disorders, relationships, depression, and career, Jenni has appeared on Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, the TODAY show and Entertainment Tonight, as well as in print coverage from Cosmopolitan and The New York Times. She is also a blogger for The Huffington Post, and her work has appeared in Publisher’s Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, Glamour, Shape, The Washington Times, Woman’s World, Seventeen, and more.