If you are recovering from an eating disorder, then you have likely heard that recovery is a process. This can be a helpful reminder on the days when recovery seems just too far out of reach.
But when I hear the word “process,” I think of something that includes a series of distinct steps that you must take before you can achieve the end result. Unfortunately, eating disorder recovery is anything but orderly. Even though there are some steps common to all recovering individuals — for instance, making peace with food, addressing underlying anxieties, and (in some cases) stabilizing weight — recovery, by and large, is an individual journey.
So when we tell an eating disorder sufferer that “recovery is a process,” what are we actually telling them?
Let’s first backtrack to the word “process” and consider a familiar one: the grieving process. In 1969, American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross proposed five stages of loss and grief. She theorized that people dealing with the death of a loved one, or even facing their own impending death, pass through a somewhat predictable series of emotional responses:
- Denial and Isolation: A grieving person may minimize or deny the reality of the situation. This is a temporary response that serves as a defense against the initial shock and overwhelming emotions.
- Anger: Once the denial wears off, the grieving person may channel their intense emotions through anger. They may direct their anger at friends and family, at strangers, at the doctors who could not cure their loved one, at the person who has died, and so on.
- Bargaining: In the face of utter helplessness and vulnerability, a griever grasps for control. They might plead with the doctors to do anything and everything to help, or they might make a deal with God that they’ll become a churchgoer if God will spare their loved one. “If onlys” may follow: If only I’d realized he were sick. If only I hadn’t argued with him that day.
- Depression: When the anger subsides and the bargaining inevitably fails, the griever is left to deal with profound sadness. They feel the full weight of the loss. It may as feel as though life has lost its meaning.
- Acceptance: If a grieving person can navigate the earlier stages, they eventually regain a sense of peace. This peace is not the same thing as happiness, nor is it necessarily the end of their depression. Rather, it is a coming to terms with the loss. The griever is able to look calmly toward the future and know that they must move forward.
Mind you, this list is not absolute: some people may not experience all five responses, and others may experience more than these five. In addition, not everyone will move through the process in this precise order — some may skip steps or repeat stages. Each person’s response to grief is unique.
Losing more than just the eating disorder
So how does this apply to an eating disorder? What would we be grieving? After all, no one has died. Quite the opposite — we’re supposed to be getting healthier. We’re trying to live.
In fact, there is a lot to grieve in recovery. A few weeks after I began treatment, I told my therapist that even though I wanted to recover, I didn’t want to let go of my eating disorder. I didn’t want to give up the underweight body that I had worked so hard to attain, and I didn’t want to relinquish the coping mechanism that had served me for more than a decade.
My therapist assured me it was natural to feel this sense of loss. Even though recovery would give me a healthier body and a fuller life, there was a lot that I had to let go of in the process. I was giving up a way of life that, despite its destructiveness and misery, had offered me a semblance of relief during difficult times.
So, in order to let go of my eating disorder, I needed to grieve it properly. To help myself do this, I wrote down my five stages of mourning my eating disorder:
- Denial: I minimized the severity of my illness and insisted that I wasn’t that sick or that out-of-control. I denied that my eating disorder interfered with my life, even on the days when I was too weak to stand.
- Anger: As the reality of my illness set in, so did the rage. I was angry at my parents for not doing enough to help me as a teenager. I was angry at my treatment team for making me gain weight and “imposing” recovery on me. And I was angry at myself for “letting” all of this happen, and for “causing” my eating disorder.
- Bargaining: Despite being in treatment, I continued to try to lose weight. I wanted just a little more time in my skinny body. I told myself that if only I could hit XXX pounds, then I’d feel okay to work on recovery.
- Depression: Slowly, I realized that my eating disorder was wreaking havoc. I felt guilty about the effect it had on my loved ones. I regretted the years, the energy, and the opportunities lost to this illness. I felt ashamed of myself. And I felt despair in response to having to surrender something that had become a central part of me.
- Acceptance: After a (long, long) while, I began to accept that I would never be fulfilled by my eating disorder. No amount of weight loss can bring me the joy that I experience with my husband or the sense of accomplishment I receive from my writing. Even though recovery is difficult and there are days that I long for my eating disorder, I have accepted that it is time for me to recover.
These, of course, are the stages as I experienced them. Another person’s experience may be different, especially with regard to how each stage unfolds. Like someone moving through the conventional grief process, I didn’t move through this process in a neat, step-by-step fashion. Some stages — such as depression — lasted a long time. I waffled between anger and bargaining, and even went back to denial before I started to gain some ground.
But looking at the “recovery process” in terms of the stages of grief helped me concretize my goals so that they seemed more manageable. Most importantly, though, this tactic helped to normalize the loss I was feeling. Understanding why it felt like a loss and allowing myself to mourn my eating disorder was key to working toward acceptance. I’m not there yet, but now I have a much clearer idea of what will take me there.
About Joanna Kay
Joanna Kay is a writer in New York City and is recovering from an eating disorder. She is the author of The Middle Ground, a blog that deals with issues that impact people midway through the recovery process. You can follow Joanna on Facebook and Twitter, and additionally you can check out her blog The Middle Ground. Follow her HMC posts on Twitter with #AfterAnorexia