Feeling stuck with eating disorder recovery? Read this.

Feeling stuck with eating disorder recovery

Eating disorder recovery is a notoriously changeable journey. One of the most common words you hear being used to describe recovery is “ambivalence”. That is, part of your brain wants to change, but part of it is scared of change and desperate to keep things as they are.  In my work as an eating disorders dietitian, I often see people’s motivation to recover can change dramatically from week to week, or even day to day.

Importantly, the fact that people’s motivation to recover can change from week to week does NOT mean that they can’t recover from the eating disorder!

Can you only recover if you have no bad days?

Obviously not! (I don’t think anyone would ever have recovered from an eating disorder if one bad day/week/month, etc was enough to stop the process!). I’ve been privileged to have been able to work with many people over the years who have fully recovered from their eating disorders. Were they ever ambivalent about recovery? Yep. Did they have good days, but also some really bad days? You bet. So how did they recover? Basically, because they persevered with recovery for long enough.

You know the phrase – “it’s a marathon, not a sprint”? It isn’t that there were no bad days for those people. It was that they pushed through the bad days, and tried to stick to their meal plans (or food goals in general) despite the eating disorder trying to convince them to give up on the whole thing. (Golden tip! If you stick to your food goals on the bad days, you dramatically increase the likelihood of good days returning soon.). By staying in touch with their treatment team, and trying to more or less stick with agreed-upon food goals, those people experienced set-backs in recovery… but not full relapses with their eating disorder.

The BRILLIANT eating disorder recovery diagram that shows you why you should hang in there. (Spoiler alert: it’s not that brilliant)

Years ago, I was chatting about this topic to a colleague at the hospital I worked in at the time. She flipped over her ward round list and sketched out a couple of diagrams. I still think these are the single best visual for recovery you’ll ever come across (thanks, Mel!). I have attempted to recreate them for you below…

Highly Technical Diagram 1: Expectations for eating disorder recovery.

Expected graph of eating disorder recovery
Expected linear graph of eating disorder recovery

Highly Technical Diagram 2: Actual path of eating disorder recovery.

Actual path of eating disorder recovery
Actual path of eating disorder recovery

If you “zoom in” and look closely at Diagram 2, you can see that the recovery process seems to constantly loop back between improvements, set-backs, and straight-out downturns. It would probably feel to this person like they were constantly moving one step forward, then one step back, and never getting anywhere. But actually, they ARE getting somewhere. If you “zoom out” and look more generally at Diagram 2, you can see that the longer people keep working at it, the closer they move towards recovery. That’s even WITH all the set-backs that are happening.

Am I stuck, or am I just riding out the “recovery loops”?

Now, the diagram above is great (and requires a pleasingly low level of artistic prowess to put together), but what does that scribble actually feel like for a real person? A really draining emotional roller coaster, that’s what. Some weeks they’ll feel like they’re powering along with recovery. Other weeks, they suddenly have no motivation, and might slip back into old behaviours. Maybe they sometimes feel like they coasting along, then suddenly they feel like it’s impossible to recover. This is where understanding the diagram of the recovery path above is so helpful. When a bad day/week hits, there’s a good chance that it’s just one of the loops in the diagram above. That means we’d expect it to pass if you hang in there with recovery and just do the best you can with your treatment goals at that time. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not still moving towards recovery when you step back and look at your “big picture” over time.

So hang in there!

Other Bloom Nutrition & Wellness articles you might be interested in: What is “mental hunger” in eating disorder recovery?

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