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Recovering from an eating disorder can be an overwhelming task. How do you change your whole life routine, go against everything your head is screaming, or get rid of the rules dictating every aspect of your life?
The nature of recovery means it is a slow process, often taking many years. Those who have moved through the stages of recovery often describe it as developing in cycles. One thing I have always found helpful is the imagery of coming up through a spiral as if you are coming out of a whirlpool.
Our healing happens in layers, so we often come across the same challenges on new levels.
We may feel as if we’re returning to the same place, but we are actually a moving upward in the spiral towards freedom.
Whether you are just beginning or are years into your recovery, small victories continue to be incredibly important. The successes you gather build up to form the basis for your new life.
Early recovery often felt like a lose/lose situation because I was constantly fighting hard to challenge myself, but continually feeling far from being better or normal. I found it helpful to remind myself the middle ground was just a stage in a process and would not last forever.
By focusing on small obstacles we can succeed in the challenges created by the ‘all or nothing’ mindset commonly associated with anorexia.
These can be through eating a different flavour of a safe food, having an honest conversation with a friend, or trying a lick of your child’s ice cream.
In order to successfully choose and succeed in these steps, there are different techniques you can follow. Here are a few:
1. Be realistic
Balance is a hugely important aspect. When I would take multiple challenging steps at the same time, they often backfired on me. My mistake in those situations was getting too ambitious and deciding to complete a huge challenge without making sure I wasn’t taking on too much.
If you are planning on tackling a more difficult meal in the evening, you can make sure you have an appropriately balanced and nutritious breakfast and lunch. It means you are less likely to compensate and allows for more sustainable progress.
However well you prepare, there will still be moments of defeat. The nature of eating disorders means something you might be able to just manage one day could lead to you purging and wanting to give up the next. This is a part of the process. In those situations, without excusing the mistake, we can use being kind to ourselves and getting gently back onto our feet as our small victory.
2. Be compassionate
Recovery is most likely one of the hardest things you will have to do–treat it as such. Take it seriously and give yourself time and space to take your steps, whether they are small or otherwise.
The self-critical inner voice, often so strong in those with eating disorders, will probably try to minimise your progress. This voice pushes statements dictating where you should be at in your recovery, how you should be able to handle something, or what you should be doing. There are no “shoulds” in recovery. We are all as unique as the things we find difficult.
I have found the best way to counteract this voice is to practice completely accepting the things I find difficult. They might be easier for the person next to me, or they may have been easier for me a year ago, but the reality is they are hard right now.
When I affirm myself (sometimes out loud, even though I might feel silly) with statements such as ‘this is really hard for me at this moment and, that is okay’, it creates a shift in my internal monologue.
While our thoughts do change our behaviour, the opposite can also be true. Repeatedly choosing behaviours we know to be right, even when they might feel wrong, can actually cause our thoughts to change.
In giving ourselves permission to feel the depth of the struggle, we can properly experience the celebration from overcoming.
3. Be communicative
Although being real about issues that make you feel vulnerable is hard, we still need to be honest with ourselves and those around us, to achieve these small victories. These people need to know your goals and your limits.
There was a time in my anorexia recovery when I would feel pressure to prove myself to those around me to reduce their worrying. I would see a friend for the weekend and force myself to appear fixed. This would lead me to panic, compensation, and slipping backwards in the days and weeks following.
Ultimately my efforts to make others think “all is well” were unconvincing anyway. Friends have said seeing me push myself beyond where I was able to cope was incredibly difficult. They knew what the consequences would be for me, but didn’t know how to approach it with me in a way my mind wouldn’t misinterpret.
The only way to give those around you the tools to help you in your small victories is to communicate. Tell them face-to-face, write a letter, send an email, or leave a voicemail; whatever way is easiest for you. Share your vision for the next weeks and months.
Using these tools, we can push forward.
Recovery is often portrayed as being grand and dramatic, but in reality, the daily steps and small victories create sustainable healthy progress. These steps are not to be overlooked–there is a joy to be found in recognising the little ways we grow each day and choosing to celebrate them.
Anna is a UK-based medical student who loves Jesus, strong tea, clear cold sunny weather, tiny humans (especially under 5s), football and singing harmonies at every opportunity. She has been recovering from anorexia, depression, anxiety and self-injury since 2011 and is passionate about the freedom that recovery can bring.
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