What recovery feels like: A beginners guide

CW: discussion of eating disorder behaviours such as restriction and binging in detail, suicidal ideation, substance misuse. No specific mention of numbers

First written in July.

Why did I decide to recover? What does it mean to ‘recover’ from an eating disorder? In many ways, I am not the most qualified person to answer that since I would describe myself as fairly early on in my recovery. But I think it important that this is written about right now, as I’m experiencing it, to try and hopefully give others something that feels relatable at this stage.

To be blunt: I feel like I am losing my fucking mind but in a totally new and different way to how I was losing my fucking mind before. Part of me feels that at least I was familiar with the type of losing my mind that was happening before – this is uncharted territory. But it is still a thousand times better in every possible way. This is what I need to remember.

I decided to recover. I made that choice long before I was ready to actually do it. I’m not someone who has struggled for an especially long time, all things considered. The onset of my illness was rather rapid, as were the consequences.

Part of the reason I think I was able to identify my behaviours so quickly was that I was actually already in therapy when I developed my eating disorder. I was in therapy for a different reason – I’d started it after a close friend of mine took her own life in August 2019. I had also started it because I was very anxious, worked too much in every area of my life, and was still living with a huge amount of trauma. This felt like quite enough to be going on with.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that my therapist can’t have been all that good since I still managed to develop an eating disorder whilst seeing him. I think, rather, he was significantly out of his depth. He knew something was wrong from early on when I started discussing my behaviours with him but he did not have the right experience to help me. He wanted to but I was very resistant. Yet, he was the first to suggest that I had an eating disorder and try to persuade me to go to my GP about this. He did this for months. I’m sure it caused him a great deal of stress. I think perhaps he thought his support useless. But it wasn’t. On reflection, the constant reminder that what I was doing was not normal or healthy meant very early on I could not normalise or entirely ignore this fact.

My therapist wrote to my GP in the end as he was concerned that I was still resisting treatment. I was not happy with this but I understood. Seeing my GP and explaining what had been going on there was still a part of me that was grimly determined to continue. But it was another chip in the ice.

I told people about what was going also from quite an early stage. I wasn’t ready to stop but I couldn’t bear to suffer so much and have nobody to discuss it with. I hid it from those I lived with for longer because I was afraid of any sort of practical intervention. I told people I felt cared about me but could have no significant power or influence on me. This was quite a calculated move, a sort of concession to my disordered thoughts.

I think I have wanted to recover ever since the whole thing began. I never wanted this.

Yet, even after seeing my doctor and being signed off work I was still very much trapped in the behaviours. The kinks had begun to show. The binging had started. The compensation for the binges was somehow more hellish than if they’d never happened at all. I cried and cried and wanted so badly to be out of it.

Then one day – I kind of was. I had been trying, eating a bit more here and there, exercising a bit less. I was having a hard day, I’d binged the night before and felt terrible. Then, I read this blog that a friend had sent me a while back from a woman called Tabitha Farrar.

Tabitha and I do not see eye to eye on everything and, if I’m honest, we are definitely not on the same page politically speaking. But this blog post is one I have to credit with an absolute light bulb moment in my recovery. The blog post had this title:

You have unconditional permission to eat.

Those words have become my mantra. So simple, yet so mind-blowingly revelatory. I was in the bath, on my phone, reading those words and sudden waves of comprehension and joy and excitement and just…EVERYTHING rushed over me. I had permission. Not only that, but unconditional – like no rules, no rituals, no nothing. I could just DO IT. This simple fact blew my tiny fucking mind.

I had always imagined myself at some point in the future simply stopping my behaviours. In fact, in all those months I had sort of been counting on it. At this weight I will stop, when I reach this next goal I will stop, in a few months time I will stop. Not yet. But I will stop at some point. But then it occurred to me: I could stop NOW. I could stop now. Not when I weighed less, not in a month’s time, not in a weeks time, not even in a few days but right fucking now. I cried with joy. Shit, it was finally over. It was all finally over.

I can’t explain how that felt, the utter relief and uncontrollable excitement that the revelation that I had unconditional permission to eat brought me. I felt giddy with the freedom. I texted my partner and sent them the blog and told them from now on I was going to eat!

And I did. For the next few days I ate lots and lots of cake and all the food I wanted and, what’s more, it felt fucking incredible. I was so happy and relieved. I never want to forget how I felt. How that all felt. It was real.

I wish I could say that it lasted but of course my disordered voice couldn’t be quieted entirely in such a short amount of time. The first of the ‘freedom hangovers’ ,as I’ve started to call them, began the following week.

The voice of my ED got vicious. Sure, I needed to eat more but did I really need to eat so fucking much more? The fact that I had eaten all of that cake was disgusting, it made me disgusting. What’s more, it meant I did not deserve any further support for my eating disorder since I was surely going to put all the weight right back on anyway and nobody would believe there had ever been anything wrong in the first place. I would lose all my stability for nothing.

Then I spoke to my friends and we did some affirmations: you are loved and supported, you are safe where you live, your fear of gaining weight is a fear of failure, we will still love you no matter what. I tried to read this book on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and I also read Tabitha’s book Love Fat. These things were, at once, helpful but also sometimes triggering.

Thinking about recovery sometimes makes me want to give up on everything entirely because it feels so hard.

Since my revelation I have been eating more and doing meal plans and eating a lot of cake. I’ve also had bad weeks where I’ve decided to restrict, track and exercise as much as possible which have inevitably led to binges which have led to me feeling like that whole step back was ‘pointless’ in terms of what I wanted, or what the ED wanted, which was to lose weight. Sometimes my ED is very angry that I can’t ‘commit’ to restricting again properly and have to binge and tries to persuade me that if I could only go back to how things were I could feel safe and stay thin. That, actually, although I was suffering before at least I was thin and safe. Right now, I am fat and chaotic so the logic goes. Right now not only am I miserable but I am also bigger. And what could be worse than that?

I’ll tell you what could be worse: keeping on with the restricting, getting dangerously underweight, my body shutting down. Not being able to go out and enjoy my time with friends because I’m too busy worrying constantly about food and whether we’ll be eating and how much or little I am going to eat. Having to plan my day meticulously around when I’ll get to exercise and strategically plan my meal times around when I’ll need to have more energy or at least the little energy I am going to get from such a restricted diet. Being angry when the tiniest thing interrupts my plans and my routines or when somebody cooks me food but adds too much oil so I ‘can’t’ eat it. Being so angry. Being so tired but pushing myself to work through it so every muscle in my body aches. Being so tired there’s only room to worry about food and exercise and nothing else matters or is an inconvenience. Being so, so hungry all the fucking time. Trying to pretend that I am not so unbelievably hungry.

I am afraid of my hunger now. Eating again you’d think that your body would be used to living on less, that you could just gradually increase things like a good little anorexic and let your weight go up gradually, gradually, gradually. But instead, my body is rebelling. It is ravenous, it is desperate, it is a demented goblin, a plague of locust in a trench coat, several pigs stacked on one another’s shoulders. (Laugh, this bit is funny).

It’s hard to explain what it’s like but you start to feel legitimately terrified of your own hunger, how enormous it is and how it constantly drives for more and more. Once I gave myself permission to eat, my body took that as a sign to try and take in as much food as humanly possible. It wants CAKE. And cake tastes the best it’s ever tasted in my short 28 year old life. It tastes like you didn’t eat all day, got mega stoned – like so stoned you can barely move – and then got munchies and ate a cake that was created by the greatest Parisian baker known to this world. Like a baker who won competitions and some kind of Nobel prize in baking. Except it’s a cake you bought from the shitty dessert shop two doors down that are a dime a dozen in central Birmingham (by the way, the dessert shop staff in the one by my house have truly seen me at some of my darkest hours and don’t even know it). And you’re mostly not that stoned just fucking hungry.

Anyway, right now I am trying to teach myself not to be afraid. I don’t really know how to do that and it would be great if I were, say, receiving treatment from the NHS instead of on an indefinite waiting list with no indication of when I might be seen. However, I don’t really have time to fuck around so I guess I’ll get by with a little help from my friends. Wish me luck.

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