In recent years, science has established that eating disorders are biologically based mental illnesses. We know that DNA determines who’s likely to develop an eating disorder and who’s not. And we know that eating disorders function as distress signals—symptoms—of much deeper and more complex syndromes of personality, stress and behavior. Recovering from an eating disorder won’t transplant our personality or rid our lives of anxiety. It won’t cure all that ails us, and it certainly won’t make us, or our lives, perfect and problem-free. But recovery will make us stronger, more resilient and more resourceful as we face life’s inevitable ups and downs.
Looking back at one’s now-distant eating disorder is like reflecting on a once-small child. Full recovery turns ED into a slice of history and, perhaps, a window into your past, but it’s no longer a malevolent force with the immediate power to destroy you. Some of the letters I’ve collected in my new book Restoring Our Bodies, Reclaiming Our Lives come from individuals who recovered long ago and only now can identify connections that eluded them when they were ill. Many find particular solace in the fact that even personality traits that once fueled their illness, such as perfectionism and persistence, can be trained in health to serve truly fulfilling goals.
Consider these words of wisdom from Angela Schaffner, a 33-year-old psychologist who struggled with anorexia and bulimia in college:
One of the greatest parts of recovery is that I can now pour my energy into worthwhile pursuits such as loving and raising my son, enjoying my relationship with my husband, providing therapy, offering hope to clients, growing in relationships with extended family and friends and allowing myself to be more fully known by other people. For years I felt so passive and fearful, never good enough. Now I’m still fearful sometimes, but I seek to connect with other people rather than distancing and isolating myself from them. I see the ways that I shine and have begun to treat myself more like I treat my son, with patience and compassion.
Or this, from Jenni Schaefer, who struggled with anorexia and bulimia for some 20 years before becoming a singer/songwriter speaker, and the author of two best-selling books, Life Without Ed and Goodbye Ed, Hello Me:
I no longer walk on eggshells around food. I do not fear relapsing. I’ve even been through several stressful events in my life—a broken wedding engagement, a family member’s battle with cancer, losing my friend to anorexia—and never, not once, considered turning back to eating-disordered behaviors.
I can honestly say that I love my new, healthy body. (Yes, I said love!) Thanks to my battle against my own eating disorder, when I hear the societal message that tells us we need to be thinner, I know the truth and respond accordingly. I focus on health and am grateful for what my body does for me rather than for what it looks like.
A day in my life looks much different today than it did years ago. Each morning, I spend quiet time in prayer, meditation and reflection—realizing that a healthy spirituality plays a vital role in my overall health. At night, I give my body plenty of rest. I take time to have fun every day and no longer believe that enjoying myself is a waste of time. I continually uncover lost passions and discover new ones. I finally took my guitar out from the back of my closet, and after ten years am taking lessons. I bought a mountain bike and am learning a new activity with new friends. I treasure my relationships with friends, family members and the men I go out with on dates from time to time (even the bad dates).
I experience joy, peace and love. No longer stuffing and starving feelings with food, I also experience a wide array of other emotions. I sometimes feel sad or angry, which, strangely, signifies huge progress in my life.
Health insurance companies tell us that we’re recovered when we eat a specific number of calories per day and when we weigh a certain number on the scale. But being recovered is about much more than any number. It’s about seeking balance, having a voice and letting go of perfection. It’s about letting go of the fear of judgment from others. It’s about functioning in society and living life to its fullest.
In their varied ways, these letters prove that with time, patience, and compassion, full recovery is within reach for everyone. Ultimately, they also echo the wisdom of the artist Corita Kent, whose advice was,
Love the moment. Flowers grow out of dark moments. Therefore, each moment is vital. It affects the whole. Life is a succession of such moments and to live each is to succeed.
Illustration by Corita Kent courtesy of corita.org.