There’s not a playbook out there when it comes to recovering from an eating disorder.
Unlike the thousands of programs and protocols in our culture for losing weight, shedding body fat and getting “fitter,” there is no one-size-fits-all approach here and treatment options are farther and fewer between.
If you’re one of the 1 in 5 women who has battled an eating disorder first hand, and you’re looking for a way out, here is a play-by-play blueprint for getting unstuck (from your rut).
The bottom line? It all comes down to the power of a choice.
No you didn’t CHOOSE to have an eating disorder—at least most people don’t—but before you knew it, the habits to eat a tub of ice cream in your bedroom closet; finish an entire recipe of brownies; eat dry lettuce; chew gum and ice instead of food; exercise at 2 a.m. before your 5 a.m. flight; inhale two In-N-Out burgers, two fries and a milkshake in your car; shake your foot to burn more calories any time you sit; or wad up uneaten food into a napkin—or throw it on the floor…these habits happened.
And as if your “healthy” self had been hijacked, the eating disorder took on a life of its own.
You did not choose to have an eating disorder.
A beautiful and unnerving thing about recovery though is that, once you’re aware ED exists, you also become aware that you have CHOICES to make when it comes to “the voice” you choose to follow.
While ED’s voice is extremely annoying, often abusive and domineering…there is SOMETHING about “it” that keeps you coming back for MORE.
Before we dive any further into “what” or “how” to recover from an eating disorder, you must first acknowledge this simple fact: You have a choice.
As awful as that may sound (it is SO much easier to feel POWERLESS), once you are made aware of the struggle, you must also be informed that you have a choice.
Just like you’re informed you have a choice (and right) at your Doctor’s office—to see your HIPPA medical records. And just like you’re informed you have a choice (and right) to remain silent if you’re arrested (hopefully not you). And just like you’re informed that you have a choice to spend your Beauty Rewards points at Sephora at the time of purchase (or save them for later).
You, reading this, have a CHOICE as to what you want your life (and the real struggle) to look like.
Ok. With that squared away, let’s jump in to the play-by-play that I found after nearly 15 years of being stuck in a rut (Note: my way MAY not be your way—again, no one-size-fits-all approach here, but it’s my hope it at least inspires you that you can find a way out too. I know it).
10 Tips to Recovery from an Eating Disorder (Not Food Related)
1. Acknowledge “It”
Have you ever taken a self defense class? I’ve taken a handful in my day, and if there’s one lesson that’s stood out more than any other it is this: “Look your attacker—or the threat—in the eyes.” It’s intimidating. Stand-offish. Assertive. Looking a threat directly into the windows of their soul is an affirmative way of saying, “I see you. I know what you’re up to. And I am not taking that.” The same thing goes for the eating disorder—the “it” you keep trying to shove under the rug. Step one: Stop calling it “it” or a habit or “just something you do.” Stop pushing it under a rug and trying to gloss it over. Stop turning the other cheek or saying, “Tomorrow” or “One day” maybe things will be better. In many of my writings and post, I often refer to “it” as ED, or the “slave driver”—I give it a name and identity. “It” is vague, and a term to refer to a fly—not something that dominates much of your thought space, your time, your heart and your mind. Stop calling it “it” and start facing it as what it is—whatever name you give it…When and if we don’t acknowledge it, it’s like trying to stuff all your toys in your closet, and say your room is clean. It’s not. It’s there. You know it. You feel it. So start facing “it”—and looking “it” in the eye.
2. Embrace with Change
Before you get gung-ho for meal plans, and therapy appointments, and weigh ins, and going through the motions of recovery, you first must come to a want and willingness to change. Recovery is about change. Yes, change is scary, but it’s the only way to get on with your life (away from ED). When you go through the motions of therapy, and appointments, and meal plans, it’s easy to get disconnected with the bottom line: Your right to Thrive. Change for YOU (a new way of doing life—not just checking off to-dos)—not because you have to, or because it’s what you “should do” or it’s because what others are telling you to do. If you really want something new, then you must be open to change—and embrace it.
3. Get to Know Who You Are
“Who am I?”—it’s a question every single 12-year-old asks during her brace-face, frizzy hair days…and the struggle is real from those days forward. This question is also wrapped up in one more greater question: What on earth am I here for?, or in other words: What is my purpose? No, you DON’T have to have it “all together,” but chances are your eating disorder has kept you from understanding who you are and kept you from greater purpose—what you are here on this earth to do. The answers to these questions probably won’t come over night—especially if ED has been your “identity” and “purpose” for quite some time (He has a sneaky way of high-jacking your identity and purpose to make you think that you are DEFINED by your struggle, and that your daily mission is to binge, purge, restrict, and/or exercise…repeat).
In this step, you begin scratching a surface to uncovering your identity and purpose. Personality tests and strengths tests certainly can help you with understanding more about who you are; as can friends and family who know you well. In addition, thinking about the things you love to do, passions or dreams you had as a kid (or today), the things that come naturally to you, the things that make you feel alive, the things that you lose track of time when you do them—can all point you towards your purpose. For this step, I’ve included a worksheet to do a little more digging and chewing into understanding who you are and your greater purpose. Then…When you finish that…
4. Get to Know Who You Are (in Recovery).
Deep deep down inside of you, there is a still, small voice, who knows truth—your true healthy self. It may be hard to hear—since ED’s voice has been strong for far too long. But deep inside your inner soul and being, there is a flame that burns for the truth—true health, true freedom, true self-care. Connecting with truth is a secret weapon for battling lies, insults, and warfare bound to come your way in recovery. Before moving any further, take a time out, get calm, still and quiet, close your eyes, and ask yourself: What is my truth? Or, in my case, I would ask myself: Who is healthy, thriving me? Make a list of who thriving, healthy, living-out-her-truth YOU is.
For instance: “Healthy Lauryn speaks her mind with grace and poise. Healthy Lauryn does not bend over backwards to people please others. Thriving Lauryn fuels herself regularly throughout the day.” Healthy Lauryn is a daughter of the King.” Any time an obstacle or conflict arose, my truths—my healthy version of me—began to become my battle cry and my counter attack. Another activity for ya: Create some vision—who is thriving healthy you? The girl you want to be? The recovered, healthy, ED-free, care-free girl you want to embody? What does she think like? Look like? Act like? Dress like? Talk like? Dream like? Eat like? What does she do with her time? Her thoughts? Her worries? Create a list, or reflection on who thriving healthy you is. Write it down and get a clear picture of your inner super girl—the girl you are becoming.
5. Embody Her.
Now…the fun stuff: Embody her. Plain and simple, now with a clearer picture of WHO you are and WHO you are becoming, now you get to BE HER. Even if you don’t feel like you are her yet, you are going to pretend you are her. Begin to think like she thinks, act like she acts, dream like she dreams. So as we think, therefore we become. And in moments when your own truth seems skewed, ask yourself this: What would healthy thriving me do? Do that.
6. Dream Big.
“All our dreams can come true if you have the courage to pursue them.” Ok, so it may be a cheesy Walt Disney quote, but this step is all about gaining vision around what you want for your new thriving life, so you can begin pursuing (and living out) your big dreams (no more ED high-jacking them). For YEARS, I pursued “recovery” and “getting better”—but with very little vision or clarity around what life could look like (without ED in my life), recovery seemed like a daunting black hole. Time and time again, I’d go into treatment and right back out, only to run back to my old ways because I HAD NO IDEA who I was or what life was or what recovery meant in the day in and day out logistics of life.
For this step, if you can dream it, then it is POSSIBLE. Sooooooooo, we are gonna dream some big dreams. Now, take a time-out to complete the Thrive Passion Blueprint worksheet. You may need to take a day or two to brew it over and really find the time to be quiet and still—take the time you need. This step is crucial before we move forward with anything else because if you have NO IDEA where you are going…then you aren’t going to get very far.
7. Leave the Conceptual World Behind
Identity and Purpose Worksheet completed? Check. Healthy thriving you envisioned? Check. Passion Blueprint—big dreamin’—complete? Check. Alright, now we’re talking. Ready to start gaining some traction with practical action steps to begin moving closer to your dreams. First things first, it’s time to leave the “conceptual world” behind—all you’ve known within the context of ED’s rules, regulations, jabs (at you).
We are usually afraid to do this. It’s hard to believe that things that “make sense” (like the belief that eating fat makes us fat; or that carbs cause weight gain; or that we are losers in life; or that nobody likes us; or that our body is not good enough) are wrong…or that our comforts (like binging ‘just this once,’ or exercising ‘just 30 more minutes’ or skipping out on justt a snack) are destroying us daily—but they are.
But when we make up our minds to try something (and believe something) different (playing our former concepts, or ‘truths,’ on pause mode), it’s fantastic. So I recommend you step it up a little bit. Come to terms that the beliefs you’ve had (about yourself, food, body and fitness) may very well be a skewed version of the truth. Because they haven’t gotten you very far to date. Here, all I want you to do right now is identify the messages, rules, or lies, you’ve been believing in your eating disorder. (Disclaimer: Right now, you may not see these as ‘lies’—they may still be truths). Whatever beliefs you have about food, your body, yourself, your worth, fitness—write them down. Make one column for “The Messages ED tells me about me,” and another one labeled, “My Food (Fitness, Body) Rules.” Write down every message that comes to mind. For instance:
The Messages ED tells me about me:
- You’re ugly, fat and stupid.
- You’re a loser.
- Nobody likes you.
- You’re sucking at life.
- Your thighs are fat and jiggly.
My Food (Fitness, Body) Rules.
- No eating after 8 p.m.
- Carbs are for fatties.
- No oil whatsoever.
- I need to be a size 2.
Note: I ALSO call these messages your “Inner Mean Girl.” It’s important to realize that this Inner Mean Girl is not you—not your voice, and if you want to stop that Inner Mean Girl from talking so much, (or at least catch her in her ways) get to know what she sounds like. See step 6 for more on this.
8. Get Educated
One of my all-time favorites…Unearthing the “light bulb” moments that turn ED’s lies on their heads. Here we are digging deep: Understanding the lies you’ve been believing (identified in Tip 5) and learning new truths about your body, health, food, fitness, and mindset. Knowledge is power—and although you’ve probably become a knowledge “junkie” in some form or fashion…that knowledge may be skewed. There’s a common misconception within eating disorder world, that those who have eating disorders are “obsessed with health” or “know lots about food (and fitness)”—after all, your day may revolve around these things (Google searching ‘Intermittent Fasting,’ calculating calories in your head, posting Instagram selfies in the gym or on the yoga mat).
For years, I thought I knew everything there was to know about health and nutrition (after all, I was obsessed with it). I could tell you the number of calories in 5 almonds, 2 plums, a cup of Yoplait vs. Fage yogurt, or deli turkey on whole wheat bread. I believed “healthy eating” meant lean meats, lots of fruits and veggies, no added fat, whole wheat bread and pasta, fat-free dairy and sugar-free treats. In my mind, fitness meant kicking myself (in the booty) and blasting calories on a StairMaster. Enter: recovery—real recovery—and part of my own recovery involved getting educated around new truths about food, my body, fitness, and myself, and my world was rocked. Understanding the why’s behind why my body “needed to eat healthy fats,” for instance.
Nutritionists could tell me to eat fats until they were blue in the face, but just telling me to “eat fats” never helped me understand why self-care with avocado, ghee, or coconut oil in my daily diet was important (brain health, digestion, metabolic function). Learning many of the why’s behind health, nutrition and, even deeper, my ‘why’s’ behind my struggle (the ROOT reasons why ED evolved in the first place) became POWERFUL weapons in propelling forward in recovery. Today, I incorporate this step in my practice with clients, educating them more on the truths about health, their bodies and food; debunking myths and quieting the noise on Google; and uncovering greater insights into the deeper reasons why the struggle persists. Knowledge is power. If you want to uncover some knowledge weapons, here are a few recommended resources I’d recommend to read or listen to (with an open mind—what we put into our mind influences our thoughts and habits).
- The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf
- Eat the Yolks by Liz Wolf
- It Starts with Food & Food Freedom by Melissa Hartwig
- Jesus Calling by Sarah Young
- Breaking Free by Beth Moore
- Mastering Your Inner Mean Girl by Melissa Ambrosini
- Your Are a Badass by Jen Sincere
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
- The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson
- The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
- Breaking Vegan by Jordan Younger
- Balanced Bites Podcast
- Food Psych Podcast
9. Heal Your Gut.
This one may seem like a strange step to throw right in the middle here, but it goes hand in hand with the new awareness sparking up your life. The gut is the gateway to your health and actually plays a big role in your mindset and psychological health. In fact, 90% of your serotonin (feel good brain chemicals) are produced in your gut, and the vagus nerve—the nerve responsible for digestion runs straight from the top of your stomach to your brain (hence why the “butterflies in your stomach” feeling is real). If and when your gut is not well (i.e. “leaky gut” or bacterial overgrowth or low stomach acid), then your mental health takes a hit (i.e. anxiety, stress, OCD, depression, pervasive thoughts, etc.). Gut health is crucial to mental health and well-being. Mind. Body. Soul. How to heal? Every BODY is different, so first, working with a knowledgeable nutrition or functional medicine provider in this area is crucial to understanding what your individual needs or deficiencies are. However, some general principles can apply. Here are simple steps for all around gut health you can take today are:
- Eat real foods (your body recognizes)
- Drink half your bodyweight in ounces of water each day
- Slow down
- Breathe before you eat
- Chew your food
- Start your day off with warm lemon water & end it with Ginger Tea
- Take a probiotic each day + digestive enzymes with meals (http://llax.metagenics.com)
- Avoid artificial ingredients
We’ve done a lot of heart and head work to date. Since knowledge IS power, step 9 is all about taking the new insights you’ve learned about yourself, food, fitness, your body, and other mindset trips and putting them into action— “redefining” your old beliefs and old ways of doing things into new truths that you actually live out. Here, we are turning your old habits and beliefs completely upside down. For every individual this step will look completely different, since the things you’ve struggled with are 100% individualized to you, but it is critical to redefine or redesign what life has looked like to date in the areas of your struggle. I’ll give ya an example.
For my body, redefining my “self care” meant:
- Eating real food.
- Healing my gut (did you know the gut is the gateway to health?)
- Trying a new form of fitness—and breaking up with my stair master.
- Drinking half my bodyweight in ounces of water each day.
- Addressing nutrient deficiencies and healing my body.
For my MIND, redefining my mindset meant:
- Tapping in to my “who is healthy me?” truth
- Coming up with mantras and affirmations to believe and say
- Fixing my mindset on the positive—not the negative
- Believing recovery was possible for me
- Making the choice that, no matter what, recovery and a new life was going to happen.
For my SOUL, redefining my HEART meant:
- Giving my heart to something greater than myself—and accepting Christ truly as my Savior and who He says He is—a redeemer.
- Connecting to my greater purposes and passions (things I loved to do and was created for, like writing, loving people well, ministry and helping others).
- Connecting to community—after years spent in isolation.
- Getting outside myself (volunteering, serving).
- Connecting to a therapist and mentor who helped me in the dark, dark days.
- Reconciling relationships with family and friends that had been broken in the struggle.
“Redefining” or “redesigning” your life will look 100% unique to you, but today, as an occupational therapist, I specialize in helping people do JUST THAT—in order to find life and meaning OUTSIDE ED and your old ways. This is a meaty step to go into detail here, but if you want to learn how to redefine your own life—in recovery—definitely connect with me here and we can set up a free 30-minute Spark Session to learn more how this crucial step could help you turn a big corner. And stay tuned for next week’s post, where I’ll give you some specific protocols around this “Redefine” step in recovery: Things like Self-care (Nutrition, gut healing and fitness), and a Thrive Project for redefining your mind.
Bonus 1: Take Action
“You can’t do any swimming until you get off the bank.” My dad used to tell me this all the time, and I never fully understood it until I stopped making plans, and saying “tomorrow,” maybe things will be different…and instead, started doing just one thing…and then another…and then another. Before I knew it, taking action became fun—not scary, or something that would happen “one day.” This step is all about picking out ONE THING—one intention…ONE GOAL…to focus on this week in your recovery, and put one foot in front of the other.
Bonus 2: Believe
Lastly, an unconventional #11…Simply believe—believe recovery is possible (for you). Until you believe this fundamental truth…it ain’t gonna happen. You CAN overcome.