How To Navigate Early Eating Disorder Recovery

Recently, a lot of people have been in touch to ask for my advice about early eating disorder recovery. It’s a topic I’m painfully familiar with.

Throughout my late teens and early 20’s, I battled bulimia, anorexia and orthorexia (as you can imagine, I was a barrel of laughs).

This deadly trio robbed me of every joyous experience a young person should have.

Instead of celebrating birthdays, I counted cake calories. Rather than study, I skipped school to binge and purge. I chose food over friends, a decision I suffer for now. As I scroll through Facebook, I see a lot of my old schoolmates have stayed in touch. They’re each other’s bridesmaids, godmothers and confidantes. I often wonder what it’d be like to swap places.

I lost countless years to my eating disorder — pivotal years that I’ll never get back.

While I appreciate the journey has, in many ways, made me more compassionate, patient and kind, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. There are far easier ways to foster these qualities, like buying a kitten or starting yoga.

“A lifetime spent trying to suppress your natural weight, is not truly living.” — Jennifer Rollin

Now, I’m not a doctor (and the following tips shouldn’t be used in place of medical advice), but I know a thing or two about the fear, tears and anxiety that accompany early recovery.

Before I begin, it’s important to remember the process is different for everyone — what helped me might not work for you.

My recovery was messy and involved loads of trial and error. I tried every trick in the book to curb my sinister food thoughts. Hot baths? Why not. Journalling? Go for it. Duct taping myself to a chair after eating? Great idea!

(Okay, I made the last one up, but you get the point).

Really, the first step is changing your perspective — I know, easier said than done.

Much of the following advice aims to help you cultivate a different and more positive way of seeing things. One that doesn’t revolve around food, fat or fear.

Tips for early eating disorder recovery

Educate yourself on feminism, fatphobia and body politics

The diet industry thrives off failure — if their pre-packaged meals, potions and pills worked, they’d be out of business. They pray on our insecurities, promise us a better life, and profit when it all goes wrong.

The predominantly male-owned media perpetuates the idea that thin is beautiful. In fact, it’s not just beautiful — it’s a guaranteed ticket to happiness, success and love. We’re told change doesn’t come from self-reflection and personal development (who has time for that?), it comes from losing ten pounds.

Feminists and body-positive activists spend their lives challenging these ideas. The first thing I did in recovery, when I was trying to nurture a shred of self-love for myself, was to buy all their literature.

I devoured books which exposed the patriarchal nature of dieting. I binged on podcasts about body politics. I inhaled every article, blog and forum I could find that challenged this toxic messaging.

Here are a few resources I especially loved:

In recovery, we’re trying to redefine ourselves as complex human beings, with a wealth of emotions, rather than a sterile number. Which kind of makes using scales counterproductive.

Everyone, eating disorder or not, gives too much power to these tiny machines. But what can they really tell us? Do they display how kind we are, measure our generosity or calculate our capacity for love?

No, no and no. Scales only make us feel bad. If we gain a few pounds, we feel lousy and lazy. If we lose weight, we’re suddenly frightened of putting it back on.

We never look at the number and think: “Wow, that’s great, I’m done now. I guess I can stop weighing myself”. We’re always chasing another elusive goal weight.

Six months into my recovery, I still guarded my thin clothes with ferocity. One part of me feared a relapse, the other secretly harboured a desire to squeeze into my skinny jeans and tight dresses again.

But as long as these reminders hung in my cupboard, taunting me daily, I couldn’t properly commit to healing. They made me see weight-gain as a temporary inconvenience instead of a necessary and positive process.

I should have binned my thin clothes sooner because the freedom I got from doing so was overwhelming. I replaced them with new, beautiful garments that actually fit and better represented the person I was growing (quite literally) to be.

Create a list of distraction techniques

When the urge to purge hits, it overtakes everything else. It’s like having an out of body experience — you lose control of your limbs. Before you know it, you’ve run to the bathroom and stuck two fingers down your throat.

Similarly, the desire to eat before a binge becomes unbearable, like your thoughts won’t stop unless you eat three pints of ice cream and two loaves of bread (eating disorders literally make no sense).

With anorexia, anything I ate triggered an anxiety attack. At this time, I wasn’t purging so I would deal with these emotions by slashing my arms, legs and stomach. Who keeps saying eating disorders are glamorous?

So, how do we stop from acting on our eating disorder behaviours in the heat of the moment? We employ distraction techniques.

These techniques create space between our thoughts and actions — a place to breathe and consider the consequences of what we’re about to do.

Some people take baths, go for walks or punch pillows. I meditated, practised yoga or visited family. Just play around with it and find out what works for you. Remember, it’s just a tool to cool down — you don’t need to do anything strenuous.

Join recovery groups locally or online

I didn’t have a therapist during early recovery, so I relied on eating disorder support groups.

I found my local ABA meeting (Anorexics and Bulimics Anonymous — yes it really exists) and spent a few hours a week listening to other people’s stories, receiving advice from group leaders and socialising.

Online groups also provided a much-needed avenue of support and gave me an outlet to vent any time I wanted (I wrote a lot of angry 3 am posts).

Both are free, and you don’t have to go on a six-month waiting list before receiving help. Meow.

Now, this one’s very personal to me and I’m not saying you must practise yoga to recover. In fact, I think people put too much emphasis on yoga’s healing abilities (teachers aren’t doctors and asanas aren’t pills).

Yoga and meditation are helpful additions to a recovery programme because they encourage the mind and body to slow down.

They promote relaxation, compassion and self-awareness, all three of which act as a salve to the negativity generated by eating disorders.

When I first started yoga, I was a mess — my body felt alien and mind out of control. I sometimes wondered whether I was human at all.

Through a yoga and meditation practice, I eventually overcame a large chunk of the negative chatter in my head.

I started to see my body as strong instead of fat and toned rather than masculine. My mind became something I could learn to manage — I realised I didn’t have to let it spin out of control.

Prioritise meals and snacks

Regardless of whether I was happy or sad, busy or lazy, full of self-hatred or utterly feeling myself, I always made sure to eat three meals a day plus two snacks minimum.

Now, some people prefer to take a more intuitive approach to eating (eating when hungry), but this didn’t work for me. I always found an excuse to ignore my rumbling stomach.

When we’re hungry, what happens? Surprise, surprise — we binge. It’s not our faults, it’s a primal reaction. So, to avoid binging and purging, I had always to make sure I was satiated.

When I wasn’t eating at all, my brain and body went haywire. I lost my periods, my hair fell out by the handful, and I couldn’t focus on anything other than food. To regain some semblance of normality, and to bring myself back to the world of the living, I had to eat.

I know eating is anxiety-producing, and three meals a day, plus some, feels like a lot of food, but it’s necessary. If we don’t eat, we die. They’re your options.

Don’t exclude food groups

It’s all too easy for people in early recovery to fall into the diet trap, which propels them back to their eating disorder. They say they’re healing while simultaneously eliminating certain foods. It’s an oxymoron — it doesn’t make sense.

This is why I’m dubious of vegans in recovery.

We cannot ignore the enormous percentage of people in recovery who are vegan. Sure, it might be “for the animals”. But it’s more likely to be because veganism is a socially acceptable way to restrict food groups.

It still labels foods as “good” and “bad”, “should eat” and “can’t have”. It’s this exact thinking that we’re trying to dismantle in early eating disorder recovery.

Veganism and diets that exclude certain good groups might be healthier for a “normal” eater. But they’re not for someone who’s severely underweight or struggling with disordered eating.

It becomes an excuse to avoid consuming and often morphs into a dangerous preoccupation with health and wellness.

I encourage everyone in recovery to explore all food groups, including fatty burgers and mayo dipped chips. We must learn to eat what we crave without fear.

“Saying you’ve recovered from an eating disorder and now eat “clean” and stay away from “processed” foods, is like saying you are sober from alcoholism yet maintain a “healthy” relationship to alcohol by sticking to wine and beer.” — Jennifer Rollin

Surrender to weight gain

Most of us expect weight gain in recovery — we know it’s healthy and necessary. However, this knowledge doesn’t make the process any easier.

I piled on the pounds quickly. Looking back, with my new mindset, I can see it’s no biggie. However, at the time it was supremely challenging.

Some days, it felt like I was about to burst out of my skin, with my bloated belly, swollen ankles and my burgeoning boobs. It was like a second, terrible puberty.

Nevertheless, I persisted. No meals and snacks went uneaten.

I decided early on to surrender to weight gain because the only alternative was certain relapse (then death). To feel comfortable with it, I employed many of the tactics above.

I also had to shift my perspective and give fat a positive makeover. We’re constantly told that gaining weight is evil, disgusting,shameful. It’s obviously a brazen lie. I preferred to see my new fat as fearless, fun and ferocious. Every lump, bump and curve I grew was a testament to how hard I fought.

This one’s simple, in theory, unless you’re someone with an eating disorder. Then it becomes much harder.

Myriad studies are discussing the link between eating disorders, alcohol and drugs. In fact, substance abuse by people with eating disorders occurs at a rate five times greater than what is found in the general population.

Why is this? Well, I can only speak from personal experience. I drank to cope with depression, anxiety and poor body image. After a bottle, or three, of wine, I could slip into obscurity and relinquish all responsibility. If I kept myself permanently numb with booze, I didn’t have to face the shit show that was my life.

But this tactic didn’t work for very long (if it ever did).

Alcohol lowered my inhibitions, so I binged and purged more than ever. It also acted as gasoline to my mental health disturbances, exacerbating them to the point of extremity.

My recovery depended heavily on sobriety — I had to be in full charge of my faculties to make important decisions about my health.

Surround yourself with loved ones

I couldn’t have recovered without the love and support of my family. Especially my granddad, who gave me a place to stay when I moved from London.

As we navigate early eating disorder recovery, it’s easy to feel alone, like nobody in the world could ever understand our pain — but it’s just not true.

Your loved ones want to help — they’ve watched your demise from the sidelines, not knowing how to intervene.

They’re just waiting for you to let them in. So do it. Give people a chance to love you.

While some people prefer to put their experience in a box and push it aside, I find closure through sharing my story.

Sure, it’s raw, and sometimes I get weepy, but it helps me to make sense of what happened. More importantly, sharing lets me help others. It spurs me on to write blogs like this which, hopefully, make a small difference to someone out there.

I believe secrets fuel eating disorders. We’ve spent a long time sneaking around; lying about what we’ve eaten, purging in foreign toilets and binging while everyone’s asleep. It’s time to be honest, with yourself and others.

Originally published at https://ashleighmayesyoga.com on September 24, 2019.

My name’s Ashleigh — yoga teacher and mental health advocate.

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