Truth be told I don't remember the exact day it happened to me anymore. I say my eating disorder started in 2004 but I know that the disordered thoughts and some of the behaviors probably started long before then. This mystery of when plagued me for years until, one day, I realized something: it doesn't matter when it started. It doesn't even matter why it started. When it comes to ED the past is irrelevant.
Sure, the past can pin point why it started but while that can be important, it really only helps to answer my next question: why do you let him stay? Because, after all, the problem with ED isn't that he started, the problem with ED is that he stayed. Yes, ED is a disease but in the end whether or not you chose to acknowledge and treat him is up to you.
So why then are our response to ED so varied? I believe that this is because “having an eating disorder” isn't a stationary occurrence. Having an eating disorder is a journey and on this journey there are many stages that we travel through and, perhaps even come back to, as we grow and life changes around us. Below I have listed what I call “The Five Stages of an Eating Disorder”.
As we read I would like you to keep in mind that these stages aren't a set of stairs that you ascend, leaving one stage behind for another. I would like you to keep in mind that their definitions aren't a black and white and that each “stage” doesn't have neatly and clearly denoted boundaries. These stages are fluid and, to each of us, they will have a different definition and meaning. So, with that in mind, as we read, I would like to challenge you all to begin thinking of what stage you are in.
The Five Stages of an Eating Disorder:
1. Stage one: Denial - This is when others perceive that we have a problem but that we have, as of yet, not admitted to ourselves that anything is amiss. We may feel that 'we have it all under control' and that therefore there is no need for panic. This stage can often be one of the longest and hardest to over come because ED wants you to think you're in control because as long as you're in control there is “nothing wrong”. The moment we realize that we've lost the control is the moment that ED truly starts losing his grasp.
2. Stage two: Don't want – In this stage we realize that we have an eating disorder but we, as of yet, have no desire to part with our ever faithful companion. He helps us deal with the world and even though we may have started to discover the misery of ED we are not yet ready to part with him. While this stage is important I believe that the next stage is even more so because what good is it to know that you are bleeding if you don't want to staunch the wound? The jump between this stage two and stage three can be the hardest but it is also the most important one to make in order for recovery to begin
3. Stage three: Want but don't – There's no doubt about it, we have realized that we have been lied to. That ED is not all that he promised he was and we desire to be out from below his tyranny but we are unsure of how to do it. After so many years of relying on ED to cope, we are unsure of how to survive without him. Those of us who swung from on extreme to the other may even have lost our ability to know what “normal” eating looks or even feels like anymore. The idea of having to relearn how to eat can be stressful and humiliating.
4. Stage four: Forward progress – This stage is also called “being in recovery”. In this stage we come to grips with a term called Forward Progress. That is to say taking steps in the right direction and working towards a goal instead of expecting to get there all at once in one giant leap. Accepting that none of us fell into ED that way and none of us are going to get out of ED that way. This can be a difficult pill to swallow but in may ways it is the most important stage we can reach in order to maintain recovery
5. Stage five: "Recovered" – Stage five is the ever elusive destination beyond 'being in recovery'. I have called myself “recovered” once or twice in my life but have always found this state to be temporary. I am sure for some it exists but I personally, looking back, do not consider myself to have reached this state because, truth be told, when the voice of ED still haunts me, how am I to say I am 'recovered'?
I put “recovered” in parenthesis not because it is mythical or unobtainable but because to each of us it will mean something different. To me “recovered” would mean not only defeating the unhealthy behaviors associated with my eating - which I have in a large part done - but also defeating the harmful thoughts and my other non eating related ED behaviors such as not wearing shorts or skirts, not swimming or exercising in public and not feeling free to eat whatever I want without guilt. To me being “recovered” is the complete absence all the control ED ever had over me. So to me, by my definition, I am not recovered and that is okay because, despite everything you may have heard to date, being recovered isn't the ultimate goal.
The ultimate goal is being in and staying in forward motion. So, while I do not consider myself recovered I am proud to say that for years now, on a day to day basis, that I have not acted on my disordered eating related behaviors even though the thoughts and my non eating related ED behaviors still plague me. And while that is not where I want to be, that is something to be proud of because, once again, being in recovery isn't a destination, it's a journey.
And because it is a journey and not a destination, being in recovery isn't “being recovered” it's maintaining stage 4: forward progress and being okay with it. It's realizing that as long as you are still in headed in the right direction, that that in and of itself is a victory. It's allowing these next few simple truths to be true:
Three truths to maintain recovery:
1. Thoughts are not failures. As many of us in recovery know, defeating the behaviors is only half of the battle. No behavior exists on it's own. We had a reason for doing what we did and often, even when the behavior is gone, the lie we told ourselves, the reason we did it still remains at least for a time. In recovery it is important to remind yourself that the thought and the behavior likely didn't happen over night and that, therefore, it will also take time to defeat them. Once you have defeated it, it is important to remember that we need to give ourselves a positive reinforcement to put in it's place to keep it from coming back.
2. Set backs are normal. As much as we hate when they happen, it is important to remember that set backs are normal and that everyone has them. The first step is to, realizing that they will be inevitable, make an action plan to follow through on for when they happen. Then, as soon as you recognize you are having one, put this action plan into place to help maximize your support and minimize your slippage. Lastly and most importantly, forgive yourself. Remember that any progress is forward progress and that recovery is often two steps forward and one step back. Whenever you find yourself hating the ebb and flow of it, remember that whether it's the steps of a dance, the flow of the tide or caterpillar becoming a butterfly, that it is the nature of change that makes things fascinating and beautiful.
3. Accept where you are and where you have been. That is not to say that you should simply accept this and leave it be for, as we said above, change is beautiful. However there is also beauty to be found in the peace of acceptance. For example, winter often means hazardous travel and bitter cold but it also means branches encased in ice glittering in the noonday sun, building snow men and time spent indoors with the ones you love most. You can choose to long for the warmth of summer or for a moment, you can choose to enjoy the things winter has to offer. The same is true of recovery. Remember that no matter how unbeautiful you may feel some days that where you are is where you need to be. It is no more or less beautiful than where you are going or where you have been; it is merely a different kind of beautiful. Every season of our life teaches us something that another could not. Above all else, be proud of how far you have come and be confident in how far you can go.
Assignment: With that in mind set aside some time to figure out what stage you are in. Then, decide on both a short term and long term goal you wish to obtain.
For example: I am in Want but Don't (stage 3) and would like to get to stage 4, Forward Progress (long term goal). To help me reach this I will write down all the lies ED tells me and why they are wrong so that when I struggle I can look back and see that ED is a liar (short term goal)