The first time I remember actively trying to change my body, I was in middle school and had just finished a big Easter dinner. Having deciding I needed to "work off the meal," I donned my Limited Too t-shirt with the crown on it and went for a run around the block. Although I did not classify myself as having a "true" eating disorder until many years later, this is my first distinct memory of truly believing my body had to look a certain way.
I'm certainly not the only one. Over 80 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being overweight. Eating disorders affect over 30 million Americans every year, and have the highest mortality rate out of any mental illness. They do not discriminate against age, race, gender, ethnicity, or anything else that differentiates us. Even still, they are widely under-recognized and under-treated by the medical community. It’s estimated that only 1 in 10 people who suffer from eating disorders seek treatment. Eating disorders are all-consuming, debilitating, infuriating — and still much too common.
I have suffered with an eating disorder for over six years, and only in the last year did I begin to realize what a toll it was taking on my life and happiness. It’s only once I began to truly recover that I realized all the things the process has taught me (albeit under the most unfortunate circumstances). Here are seven life lessons that I learned (and am still learning) from my battle with anorexia.
1. The best things really do take time.
I first started engaging in eating disorder behaviors in the first couple years of high school. I am only now starting to truly recover at age 22. For me, it feels like I’ve been on this journey for far longer. At times, it has reduced me to nothing but a shadow of my true self. It has made me feel small; it has shrunk me down both physically and mentally.
As I’ve embraced the recovery process, I’ve seen parts of my life come back that I forgot existed. I am slowly gaining pieces of life back. As with most worthwhile endeavors in this life, I can tell the road is long but the reward is worth it.
2. Sometimes healthcare professionals don't know best.
I have a great deal of respect for those in the healthcare profession. But the truth is, when it comes to eating disorders, they don’t always know best. Eating disorders are very specific and complex. Even today, they are far from fully understood. It is imperative during recovery to seek professional help through the recovery process with therapists, dietitians, doctors, psychiatrists, and whomever else your journey may require. However, it is important that you find professionals who understand, or hopefully specialize in, eating disorders.
Although you may not agree with everything they have to say, you have to find someone with whom you are comfortable speaking openly about your eating disorder with. This is essential to the recovery process. I say this because I legitimately once had a doctor tell me, “well, you sure don’t look anorexic!” This was the epitome of unhelpful.
Bottom line: find professionals you like. Find professionals you trust. Listen to their advice, be open and be willing to make changes. But at the end of the day, your recovery needs to feel right to you. Trust yourself (as long as you are indeed honoring your recovery and not your eating disorder).
3. You need to give yourself permission.
This is perhaps the biggest lesson I have learned throughout my eating disorder, and one that I’m still learning every day. No one is going to give you permission to recover. No one is going to give you permission to eat the pizza. No one is going to give you permission to buy three pints of ice cream when it’s on sale (which I did this week, by the way). No one is going to give you permission to take a break from exercising. No one is going to give you permission to eat two dinners. And even if they do, you won’t listen.
You need to grant yourself that permission. You need to find it within yourself to give yourself permission to do everything recovery entails. You can spend a lot of time looking for permission in other places — or you can save yourself some time and grant it to yourself.
4. You have to make it happen every day.
Recovery is not something that "happens" to you. You do not get to recovery by mere happenstance. Recovery is a decision, and one that you have to make every single day. In my case, it took months and months of a sort of “quasi-recovery” before I could finally commit myself fully to eating disorder recovery.
The decision was liberating. I sat in my bed, crying — because I was done, and because I was just beginning. Since that day, things haven’t gotten magically easier. I make the decision to recover every day, just as I did on that first day. It’s hard, but it’s also incredibly powerful. It’s not enough to simply decide; recovery, as I'm learning, takes hard work and determination.
5. You cannot please everyone.
I am a people-pleaser. It is both my greatest blessing and my fatal flaw. My whole life, I have always strived to make everyone in my life happy. Not just the people closest to me — my family, my boyfriend, my best friends — but everyone. Sometimes, this can work to my advantage. It enables me to be a good friend, a hard worker, and a pleasant person to be around.
But when it comes to body shape and size, aiming to please others simply is not healthy. In a world where thinness is idolized and thigh gaps are sought after, you simply cannot live to please everyone else. And you have to accept that. Striving to please everyone will only result in disappointment, frustration, and ultimately, failure.
6. You need to be your own top priority.
Putting others first has always been my approach to life. For all of you out there who are also the caretakers, the “mom” of your friend group, the ones who strive to make sure everyone is taken care of before you think about yourself: I see you and I am with you. But as I began the recovery process, I learned that I needed to make myself my number-one priority.
Recovery is a long process, and it is not something that can be done passively. It is something that you must take an active role in to be successful, and something that you need to work at all day, every day. In order to do this, you need to put yourself first. You need to put your meal plan first, you need to put your own mental health first, and you need to make sure that all your needs are being met in order to stay true to your process. Although putting yourself first might feel all kinds of wrong, it is imperative to your recovery.
7. You have to trust the process.
The process of recovering from an eating disorder is long, exhausting, frustrating, empowering, liberating, and a million other things all wrapped into one. There will be days you feel like you are doing great, and there will be days that you feel so down, you can’t imagine ever getting better. Recovering takes trusting yourself and trusting your body to do what’s right, and that’s terrifying for anyone who has ever suffered from an eating disorder. You need to trust your body and you need to trust that the process is going to help get you to that place you really want to be.
That's what I trust, anyway.
Images: Dmitry Travnikov / 500px/500Px Plus/Getty Images; Giphy