A student came to interview me about my job and research interests the other day. She asked me to be her interviewee because she knew I was a disordered eating researcher and she herself was in recovery.
When she asked me why I got into disordered eating research, I went to the safe answer and told her about a former student athlete who came to my office in tears because she was being pressured by her coach to lose weight from her virtually fat-free body. This student’s experience motivated me to begin studying disordered eating in athletes. I branched out into general college and adult populations from there.
All of that was certainly true. But it’s not the only reason. The more we talked and the more my student interviewer discussed her struggles with her recovery, the more I understood I needed to come clean. I told her I had suffered from an eating disorder for 23 years. I told her about my denial of my problems for the majority of that 23-year period. About my justifications that I couldn’t suffer from an eating disorder—I was the researcher, not the subject, not the victim. That I had been lying to myself.
Then she asked me the hardest question for any ED patient to answer: Are you recovered?
Are you ever?
I’ve had this conversation with several professionals and ED sufferers. Everyone seems to agree that you can be “in recovery,” but are you ever really recovered? That’s a tough question to answer; and that’s what I told her.
Do I restrict calories anymore? Not very often.
Do I think about it? Yes. Every time I experience something that feels like a whopping error in judgment or a big mistake on my part sets off the “you screwed up and must punish yourself” alarm. My M.O. for the past 23 years when that alarm goes off has been to restrict calories and/or increase my exercise.
Do I restrict food groups? As of late, yes. When the stress piles on, my digestive system is much less tolerant of the foods I used to restrict when I was at the height of my eating disorder. So foods I had been able to work back into my diet (like cheese) are back out. It’s either I restrict those foods or I bloat and have stomach cramps. Then the voice in my head wonders: Is this a real thing (e.g., is this food really a problem for you) or is this my eating disorder in disguise? It’s hard to tell sometimes.
Do I exercise excessively? Sometimes. Not like I used to. Gone are the days of 20-something mile runs. The heel that I broke twice in a year can’t handle them anymore. Do I work out a lot? Compared to most people, yes. Do my workouts increase in frequency or duration as the stress piles on? Yes. I call it a coping mechanism rather than eating disordered mentality. But then that’s what an eating disorder is, isn’t it? A coping mechanism gone awry?
My student interviewer and I chatted about how eating disorders are perceived by the general public. Like many other mental health issues, people often believe you should be able to stop. Just like that. Flip a switch and turn off your eating disorder or depression or whatever it is you struggle with. She confessed that her parents still didn’t understand that this wasn’t a choice she had made. That being mired in the depths of her eating disorder wasn’t something she really wanted to do. They didn’t understand why she couldn’t stop.
A colleague of mine, Becky Henry, wrote a fabulous book called Just Tell Her to Stop—a tongue-in-cheek title alluding to the fact that many friends, family, and significant others really don’t understand that eating disorders are a coping mechanism. Like those who choose smoking or alcohol as a way to cope with their stressors, eating disorder sufferers have a difficult time quitting. When your eating disorder has been your primary coping mechanism for 10 or 20 years, you can’t simply stop. How will you cope with the stress of ‘quitting’ your eating disorder if the eating disorder has been the way you cope?
As I tell my students, when you’re trying to replace a not-so-healthy habit with a healthier one, you have to have a plan B. If alcohol or smoking or eating disordered thinking is your coping mechanism of choice, you’d better replace that with something else before you try to give it up. Otherwise, the first time a stressor arises after you’ve ‘quit’ you’re likely going to go back to what you know.
I have certainly been my own example of this the past two weeks. As the stress of being back in school full time and major household repairs keep piling on, the ED voice in my head has increased its whispers. And yes, I took my own advice and came up with a Plan B and C and D! ED is nothing if not a persistent little bugger, despite my attempts to cope in other, more healthy, ways.
This is why I wonder if you can ever truly be recovered from an eating disorder. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Has anyone ever been able to say, “Yes, I had an eating disorder and I am fully recovered”? Or is it more of, “I had an eating disorder and I am in recovery and always will be”? What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.