The short answer: however long it bloody well takes.
For a more complete answer, please keep reading.
There is a video doing the rounds at the moment in which a baby bear is trying desperately to climb up a snow drift to join Mama/Papa Bear. This video sums up not only the journey of recovery but also the length of time it will take.
The first time I watched this video, what struck me most was not the cub’s perseverance, but my impatience. I wondered how long it would take the little furball to make it to the top. Eventually, it did. And so it is with recovery. EVENTUALLY, WE WILL.
In my case, it has taken about nine years since I first decided to rid myself of the thorn in my side to actually say with confidence that I am on my way to recovery, from the eating disorder at least. My journey has been like the bear cub’s.
This post came to mind when I read a comment from a woman on social media who said that it took her 10 years to recover. My instinctive reaction, ‘wow, that’s a long time’. Then I realised that my own recovery has been a long time in the making too.
In professional recovery settings, there is a theory that it takes on average seven years to recover from an eating disorder. I remember when I first heard this, I was determined to prove the naysayers and pessimists wrong. I didn’t feel I had seven years to sit around trying to solve the jigsaw puzzle of recovery. And then I started my own recovery.
WHAT IS MEANT BY ‘Recovery From An Eating Disorder’?
I guess recovery for some looks like weight restoration but I think this is probably the bird’s eye view of recovery rather than the lived-in, experiential view of what recovery is.
For me, I see recovery as the point at which food and my relationship with food no longer imposes limits on the way I live my life.
I therefore see recovery as a Three Phase process.
Phase 1 (Physical/Nutritional recovery): you allow your weight to settle at the point at which your body is happiest. This might mean allowing yourself to consume huge amounts of food at times because your body or mind or both demand it of you. Or it might mean little and often. Or any other formula in between. YOU MUST FIND WHAT WORKS FOR YOU.
For me, this process took about 3 or 4 months and meant gaining around 40% of my current body weight. It was an extremely uncomfortable process because it was rapid but I knew that I couldn’t live in the halfway house of recovery. I also knew that if I forced my weight to stay at a certain number, if I decided what the right weight was for my body, then I would forever be at risk of relapse.
Some may take years to become weight restored, some months. And for some, weight restoration is not a part of the process because they are not underweight. For the latter group, I would say that Phase 1 is about allowing yourself to satisfy both your hunger and cravings in order to restore the nutritional balance of your body. It is possible to be malnourished without being underweight.
Nutritional/Physical restoration also means allowing yourself variety in eating and not climbing on the rollercoaster of bingeing, restricting, overcompensating, overexercising, self-flagellation, purging, laxative abuse, chewing or spitting or any other disordered behaviour in relation to food.
Phase 2 (mental recovery): this part will in my opinion take much longer than Phase 1. This involves mental recovery. This means no longer beating yourself up about eating, no longer feeling that eating is a crime. This phase involves doing away with the self-loathing which can come with eating and re-feeding. It means accepting your body and not denying yourself food because of your shape or size.
I know that for some people, depression is triggered by the eating disorder. That can mean that as your body recovers, your mind will also begin to recover. However, for others, the depression is separate to the eating disorder which means that your job will be to continue recovering mentally from the eating disorder in spite of the depression. I think it is possible to recover even whilst struggling with depression. I am having to do that myself.
Phase 3 (Recovering your life): this means taking back what was lost. For those whose lives and whose very existence has been devastated by an eating disorder, recovery may mean learning how to function again within society.
It may mean:
- Learning how to get back into work or education
- Learning how to interact socially with others
- Learning how to eat out and how to be comfortable with that
- Learning how to eat in the company of others
- Learning how to have intimate and sexual relationships with others
- Learning how to manage your finances
- Learning how to be independent
- Learning how to function and how to deal with the rigmarole and difficulties of life without resorting to eating disordered behaviours.
- Learning how to deal with regret and the pain of what was lost
When it is laid out like this, it is not hard to see why recovery can feel like a kind of REBIRTH. It involves so many elements of learning and growth which are forced upon you irrespective of age. Whether you recover at 15, 25, 35, 45, 55, 65 or 75 (if you get to live that long with an ED), you will still have to walk the same path.
The truth is that the longer you wait to recover, the harder it might become. The longer you wait, the less appetite you may have for recovery. It often feels easier to cling to the familiar even if that life is one of misery. Finally, the longer you wait to recover, the more chance there is that it will kill you physically, mentally or through a combination of both which oftentimes looks like suicide.
I know I have completed Phase 1. The other phases are ahead of me. The best I can do at the moment, is to continue walking towards the point at which food or thoughts of food, body image will no longer be like thick chains around my ankles.
Thank you for reading.
Please share if you think this article could potentially help someone. Eating disorders are firstly disorders of the mind. One’s body may look perfectly healthy but the mind may look like the aftermath of a storm.