Wednesday, November 7, 2012

You Can Pull It Off--But It Won't Be Pain Free

What Nobody Tells You About Eating Disorder Recovery

Ever have a bad wound that you covered protectively with a large Band-Aid? Then you decide to just pull it off and ouch it hurts! There's that darn adhesive that clings tenaciously to your skin and mini hairs. And there's the sensation of being exposed; the injury is fresh and even small bangs or temperature changes impact it—it’s just so sensitive—and the sensation of clothes brushing against it feels awful. And don’t you hate the way the wound can look?
Well, in many ways, this analogy applies to removing your eating disorder behaviors.

Perhaps with the Band-Aid, you've come to expect that there's some discomfort, and you know at some point the bandage no longer works and has to be forcibly removed. Peeling off this layer may leave your injury exposed, but over time it allows you to heal. But your eating disorder? Did anyone warn you that it might not feel so good to remove it, to move in a healthy direction?

It's time to come clean. Yes, pulling away the protective layer of eating disorder behaviors doesn't necessarily feel so great. In fact, it can feel like crap. In part, because you start to feel—emotions, positive and negative—as well as physical sensations. 

And feeling things you'd rather not experience is no picnic. If you've been restricting and now begin nourishing your body, you'll start to be more present. You'll notice your hunger again, and that increased hunger may be rather scary. You may feel that you have no ability to manage this hunger, that it will simply spiral out of control, getting stronger and stronger. And starting to eat again after a restrictive mode can cause physical discomfort, as food takes longer to move through your digestive tract compared to when you were eating normally.

But it gets better. Really it does.

You may be surprised to find yourself feeling sad, or even more depressed than you’d been when actively engaging in eating disorder behaviors. No surprise. It’ll take some work with a good therapist to learn to sit with those feelings, and to discover that they too shall pass.

But it gets better. Really it does.

Why bother recovering, then, if it’s a painful process? How do you get yourself to do something that may feel so bad—at least at the start?

It may help to remember that it also feels terrible on many levels to maintain the unhealthy place you’re at, and that the risks are quite high. Need a reminder?

The physical ones include risk of sudden death, regardless of where your weight is at. You can be bulimic and have a shift in your electrolyte balance causing sudden heart problems and death. (I kid you not). If you’re the restricting type, it may be a longer, slower move toward permanent damage, with a decrease in your immune function, making you more susceptible to infections, a slowed heart rate, low body temperature and decreased kidney function, to name a few. It may take a great deal of effort to move through your day, although you likely have forgotten just how much better you can feel—since this is what you’ve come to view as normal.

The cognitive changes include the challenges of processing information and difficulty working, studying, and parenting. Your thinking becomes distorted with food restriction and you’re more likely to start ruminating with obsessive thoughts.

Need I describe the mood changes? Ask any loved one and they’ll describe the irritability, self-loathing and isolation that result from your tortured relationship with food. Depression and anxiety may have preexisted, but they worsen. And of course hopelessness overcomes you.

Is it really better to stay where you're at, patched with your Band-Aid, out of fear of feeling, or fear of failing at recovery?; to live life as an out of body experience?; to not fully enjoy the company of loved ones and close friends?; to not be there for your beloved pet?

Eating enough, and moving from binging is neither painless nor easy. But improving your quality of life, and realizing that there’s more to you than your eating disorder is something worth doing. And if you need help pulling off the Band-Aid, reach out for a hand. If things have gone too far, it just might be time to allow others to start lifting up the corners.

This post is dedicated to an old patient of mine who recently resurfaced and asked for help. At her first visit, she pulled out a quote she had typed up and attached to her recovery binder—a statement I made to her several years back when she was struggling. “I’m still not giving up on you”, it said. And I’ll say the same to you. It’s not yet too late to turn things around, unless you refuse to reach out and ask for help.

Let me know how it goes.


  1. My T uses this analogy with me a lot. In fact, she's huge on analogies and I told her the other day, "please, no analogies today. I don't want to hear any."

    I've read this post a few times know hoping that I'd have something good to say, but I don't. It's a great post that I can relate to, so it's not that. I think my bandaid is still sticking to me pretty tightly, I'm not sure. I don't know.

    1. Thanks for your honest words! Funny, I've never heard anyone else use this analogy--it's just one that came to me because it rings so true.

  2. Thanks, Lori, for acknowledging that taking off the band-aid HURTS! I think many who do not understand the intricacies of recovery think that it is all positive, all easy. Unfortunately, it's the is the most challenging and painful journey I have ever taken. Although I do believe that nothing great ever came from anything easy.
    The ups and downs are really hard. As they say, "recovery is not a straight line"...I do wish it was! In the meantime, I will try to navigate the turns with the support of my team bc I believe you when you say it gets better. Your patient you referenced is very lucky to have you and your words to anchor her when she feels like she is floating away.

  3. Ripping off the band aid has been difficult but I'm finally realizing that its the only way to heal the wounds. I spent years clinging to anorexia because I didn't think I could handle life without out. Restricting, counting calories, over exercising and obsessing about my weight brought me a false sense of comfort. They helped me during difficult times in my life where I had no where to turn and no idea how to cope. Now I don't need those things. Now I turn to family, friends, my treatment team and even myself. Band aids helped me at one point in my life, but I know now that I can survive without them. Thanks a lot for this post. It truly made me realize how far I've come.

    1. It's clear just from the comments you have left on this blog that you've come a long way!
      Congrats on having the courage to push through.

  4. Recovery hurts, especially when you have been hovering around "almost healthy" physically (though emotional is often a different story). You feel like a part of you is being torn away- people respect you for your control and your dedication to exercise- and you like that when you compare yourself too others, you are one of the thinnest. When you have trouble accepting yourself, there's always you're commitment to "health" to pat yourself on the back about. You fear like crazy that when you let go of control of food, exercise, etc. you will lose respect from other and yourself, you will feel guilty all the time, you will be fat and lazy. I was in psuedorecovery for a while-always hovering 3 or so pounds below the pre-ed weight (healthy at the time -I've since grown and learned its not still healthy for my growing body) so I'd be sure I was "healthy"- through carefully watching what I ate, and exercising 5 days a week (healthy habit physically for many, but it had become an obsession since I was overwhelmed with guilt if I didn't go).
    Finally my parents got sick of me lying to them about my weight and being obsessed with eating "perfectly"-and we sought out treatment. Its only been a month and I still have a long road despite having reached a healthy weight, but believe me, RECOVERY IS WORTH IT. I thought I had recovered before, but when I realized I shouldn't be ashamed to be hungry, I shouldn't let Ed tell me I'm worthless if I miss a day of exercise, when I realized healthy actually means eating when I'm hungry, I realized I had just expanded my anorexia, I hadn't started healing emotionally. But I think the most important thing I have learned is that recovery isn't really about losing a security blanket of ed, its about gaining life. Sure, tearing off the bandaid of ed hurts, but you get to fill the hole it leaves with the joy of recovery milestones. I had given up hope of ever enjoying life again free from weight anxiety, but as I am starting to understand that my hunger will settle as I'm nourished, that I deserve to eat and enjoy it when I'm hungry, as I learn to identify what that hunger feels like, as I hit 3 weeks of not weighing myself (after daily weighing before) -and discover that that actually can bring freedom rather than feeling out of control , I realize being truly healthy will always always beat being "healthy"-despite what society says. And I also realize that in the end, my emotional and spiritual wellbeing is actually far more important to me than my physical well being. That others would rather deal with a well-nourished, confident, happy, freefromanxiety version of me than a "perfect" eater-(since they cannot coexist-don't fall for that myth). Hope:)