Trigger warning: This article speaks in detail about living with an eating disorder, as do many of its outbound links.
As many people who’ve experienced an eating disorder will tell you, recovery is a lifelong process. There’s no miracle cure or lightbulb moment – it’s a journey that teaches you something new every day. For me, a big step has been learning to live with and appreciate my period. Don’t get me wrong, it’ll never be something I count down to but I’ve come to see my periods as a blessing in disguise. Finding a way to embrace a monthly change that I once hated so much has been eye-opening, helping me to better understand two essential lessons needed for recovery: the value of self-care and the importance of listening to my body.
I have always found managing my period a bit miserable, but juggling it with recovery can be very taxing. The side effects that I experience when menstruating trigger deep-seated fears developed over 10 years of living with anorexia that can threaten to destabilise all the work I put into getting better.
To begin with, there’s the bloating. Often it can feel like my body has changed overnight, leaving me feeling totally out of control. As many will know, control is a big factor in the development of an eating disorder and it takes a lot of effort not to slip back into old patterns in an effort to “regain” it.
Finding a way to embrace a monthly change that I once hated so much has been eye-opening.
With my bloating comes low body image. Although I have worked hard to dissociate feeling good with how I look, the truth is that those long-held beliefs are hard to shake. I struggle with obsessive body checking at the best of times, but particularly when I’m feeling uncomfortable in my own skin, so around my period these feelings can become hugely heightened.
As well as bloating, I also experience cravings when I’m on my period. The desire to consume extra sugar and carbs is tricky to deal with when I’ve spent half my life restricting what I eat. And on top of that comes cramps and fatigue. Unable to move from the sofa some days, I notice old feelings of guilt creeping in, telling me I am wrong for “over” eating and “under” exercising.
So, what changed? How have I managed to change my perspective on my periods and learn to embrace them, even when they still present a number of challenges?
Sadly, I don’t have one specific answer. As I said – this is a marathon, not a sprint, and everyone’s process will be different.
Even as I’ve progressed in my recovery, the challenges of my eating disorder have not disappeared. If anything, they’re louder and more aggressive than ever as anorexia knows I’m trying to disobey it, going to extreme lengths to keep me under its spell.
The major difference now, however, is treatment has provided me with the logic to rationalise those thoughts. I have acquired knowledge over the past 18 months no one can take away from me, and I have to continuously work on quieting the urges my eating disorder taught me.
It’s taken a while to reach this stage, and it requires daily commitment and perseverance.
It’s taken a while to reach this stage, and it requires daily commitment and perseverance. For me, it started small: I invested in some extra comfortable and extra baggy tracksuits. Now, during my period, I become 10% human, 90% sweatpants and I prioritise comfort over everything. Occasionally I will also choose to cover mirrors in my house. One day I may not have to do this but, for now, I try to steer clear until my anxiety passes and I feel strong enough to face my reflection again.
It’ll likely always feel alien having my body crying out for chocolate and ice cream and actually feeding them in response. But I try to remember that cravings are natural and experienced by most other people – they aren’t the end of the world.
Increased sugar intake also doesn’t mean neglecting my meal plan and depriving my body of nourishment at other times. As brutal as powering through my food guilt can be, it’s vital I continue to eat three full meals per day. If anything, it’s even more necessary to eat regularly to maintain energy, stay hydrated, and keep my insides functioning. My period creates disruption and eating disorders thrive in chaos, so it’s helpful to have a routine. Rather than panicking about these strange feelings and the potential unplanned dip in my recovery, I try to focus on what I can control, keeping at the forefront of my mind the lessons professionals have taught me about nourishment.
Recovery has taught me just how intelligent and skilful my body is, and regular periods are now a reminder of my healing.
Finally, I have learned to love and respect the power of resting. I now know to listen to my body and offer what it truly needs, not what my eating disorder tells me it needs.
Ultimately, periods suck for a lot of us, especially when they force me to confront thoughts and behaviours I’ve spent years avoiding. But recovery has taught me just how intelligent and skilful my body is, and regular periods are now a reminder of my healing. They remind me of how I’ve been able to build my body up from the ground and piece back together the rubble created by my eating disorder. While I’m not fully healed, I'm stronger and wiser than ever. Do I always manage to defy my eating disorder and have a peaceful period? Absolutely not. Sometimes, I just struggle, and that’s OK. I don’t beat myself up over that any longer. I realise balancing a period with recovery from an eating disorder is a major task, so it’s inevitable I’ll find things hard every now and again. The important thing is that I don’t allow myself to stay stuck, and I keep at the forefront of my mind the achievements I’ve made and why recovery matters. Just two years ago I was at risk of organ failure, and now I’m having monthly periods in a body actually strong enough to regulate them. It’s pretty magical when you think about it.
If you or someone you love have been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this piece, contact Beat via phone on 0808 801 6770 in England, 0808 801 0432 in Scotland, 0808 801 0433 in Wales, and 0808 801 0434 in Northern Ireland. Or try their one-to-one web chat.