This fall marks the nine-year anniversary of my recovery from an eating disorder. Nine whole years. Although I consider myself recovered from the disorder, it's still something I think about regularly. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, here is what I'd say to you:
1. You are not your disorder.
In graduate school, this is one of the first things I learned about working with special education students. It's a useful reminder for those of us who struggle with food. You have a disorder, but it does not define you. Saying to yourself I have anorexia is better than saying I am anorexic. Don't give your disorder that much power!
2. You will get through this.
An eating disorder is not something you have to struggle with your entire life. Some days, it can feel as if you'll never make it to the other side. I certainly felt this way. However, with lots of counseling, yoga, self-awareness, and redefining my beliefs, I did just that. From start to finish, it took me almost four years. For some, it takes much less time, for some, much more. Be patient with your healing process.
3. But once you struggle with an eating disorder, it's unlikely it will leave you forever.
When talking to a chemical abuse counselor for a paper I was writing in graduate school, she explained that eating disorders are the hardest addictions as you have to eat to survive. You don't have to drink, do drugs, shop, or gamble to survive. But you do have to eat. Several times a day. This means that even if you overcome your disorder, controlling thoughts about food may linger in the back of your mind. That's OK.
I have a healthy relationship with food these days, but occasionally I will overanalyze my food choices, eat too much uncontrollably, or obsess about exercising. It is a normal part of who I am, and I have accepted that.
4. Forgive yourself often.
Forgiveness, in my opinion, is one of the most important skills when working to overcome an eating disorder. If you can't learn to forgive yourself over and over again, you will be trapped reliving your choices and beating yourself up for them. Ate too much for breakfast? Forgive yourself. Didn't eat enough today? Forgive yourself. Made an unhealthy choice? Forgive yourself. And then move on.
5. Live in the moment.
When you live in the moment, not obsessing about a past choice, how much you weigh, what you look like to others, how much you exercised that day, or what you're going to eat later, you forget about your disorder. You focus on the people and conversations, the sights and sounds, around you. When you do eat, you focus on the taste, the texture, and the feeling of being full.
6. Find a support system.
Don't keep your disorder a secret. As hard as it may be, tell your family and friends about your struggle and what you need from them. They may try to offer advice that isn't helpful (in my case, "go eat a hamburger"), but knowing they care about your well-being may be the edge you need.
During my struggle, I had a severe fear of dining out or being in situations with unlimited food options (such as during the holidays), but knowing that my family and close friends knew this made me feel supported during those stressful times.
￼7. You are not alone.
Millions of men and women in the U.S. struggle with an eating disorder. And millions of people overcome then. You will get there, too.