Recovery: A Year On

As I begin writing this post I’m a day shy of one whole year since the day I consider myself to have begun my recovery from anorexia. I wanted to share some reflections and thoughts on what I’ve experienced this past year – what helped, what didn’t, how things have changed and where I’m at right now.

On 18th August 2021 I made the decision to start my recovery. I had been trying on and off for a few months before this – I had a few successful days here and there but then it’d all come crashing down again and I’d start restricting my food and lose the weight again. I hadn’t been able to handle the intense feelings of guilt for long enough, I hadn’t fully committed to the idea of recovery, it hadn’t felt like a real thing I could do.

That summer was hard, for many reasons. I was still signed off sick from work. I was waiting in vain for some kind of NHS support that would never come (and I really mean never). My friends were struggling and I was spending a lot of time trying to help them. My body felt weak and tired all the time. I spent my days reading furiously about how to recover but not knowing how to begin, how to make the leap. I was so scared. It felt like a hell I could never escape from.

Yet, gathering all the information about what to do, how it would feel; knowing that my friends would help me made me realise that if I wanted my suffering to end; the only way was through it. There was no skirting around, no skip button, no quick fix. The only way was through; through those murky underground chambers of darkness, the unknown, the gaping chasm. The fear was so intense I wasn’t sure I would survive it. But I did.

I remember well that first time I decided to eat again – we got Burger King. For some reason that was an ultimate fantasy to me. There were a lot of things like that that felt like my wildest fantasies – eating chocolate cake, pizza and mountains and mountains of peanut butter. Eating so much pasta I thought I would burst.

Nothing had ever and has ever tasted as incredible as the food I ate during that time; my starving body heightening the experience in an attempt to encourage it to continue. Yet, I was terrified of it. The panic and anxiety I felt, the unbearable guilt were all things that had prevented me before and getting through them felt truly awful. I wondered if this amount of hunger could even be real – I felt like I was some disgusting beast, consuming and consuming endlessly. The disgust I felt at my own hunger, my own body was hard to bear.

I regret not eating even more than I did, reflecting back on it. I feel such intense compassion for my body at that point, trying desperately to get all that it needed, all that it had been denied. I wish I could tell myself – this is what you need, this is what you deserve. Don’t hold back.

I stopped my compulsive exercising a few weeks later. At the point that I did this it felt even harder than the eating had. Exercise had always been my justification for the pitiful amount of food that I’d allowed myself. Without it, I felt truly out of control. The compulsion to exercise was so strong, so intense I thought that something awful would happen to me were I to stop. Weight gain, yes, but also something much worse…though I didn’t quite know what. It just felt very important that I didn’t stop. And that is exactly why I had to.

When I stopped; something strange happened – I felt even more tired, so fucking tired, more tired than I had ever felt. The adrenaline that kept me pushing through was gone and I was finally resting and it felt terrible. Bone achingly, soul crushingly tired, like I was being drawn down and down a plug hole; draining deep, deep underground with nothing to hold on to.

I stopped exercising for only two or three months. In retrospect, I wasn’t entirely ready when I did return to it. Part of it was motivated by my fear. I was still desperately afraid of my own hunger, of gaining more weight. I gained so quickly, it felt, in those first few months. I wanted some of the control back. I thought – I look so much bigger, alarmingly so and simply everyone must have noticed! Looking back at photos from that time it was really nowhere near as noticeable as I had dreamed up in my head. I just looked more normal. Still too thin, in many ways, for what my body comfortably needed.

The jobs I took on at that point were also very active and I struggled to keep up with them, plus all the exercise I was still trying to do. I’d come home from a shift and fall asleep right away. My energy levels were very low. I remember writing out this idea of a perfect week where I would exercise every day with one rest day (this was how I justified it to myself) and how I would get all my shifts done and cook all my lunches and read and all of these things. Then I would get upset when it never worked out that way. I still struggle with this mindset which I think is a part of the eating disorder, perfectionist mentality. The idea of a ‘perfect week’ where everything would get done seamlessly and I would have exactly the right amount of energy for it. Getting angry at myself for not having this energy EVEN THOUGH I was eating now so all my problems should be solved. I had blamed so much on the restriction that I thought things would be instantly healed by stopping it.

I started obsessing again over calories – this time fixating on the recommended daily allowance for adults. I saw this as ‘better’ because it was not a ‘diet level’ of food. But it was still restriction and, in reality, my body actually needed significantly more than that – partially due to needing more food in recovery and also due to the amount of activity I was doing. Plus, I was still hungry which is always the number one sign you should be eating more! I can’t tell you how many times I deleted and re-downloaded my calorie tracking app. Getting rid of it entirely took about six months. I’d go weeks without but then this compulsive urge to just know would overtake me and I’d download it again out of ‘curiosity’. I know now that I can never use apps like that again or count my calories in any way because it instantly becomes obsessive for me. Eating should never be dictated purely by numbers.

Christmas was a really difficult time for me in recovery. I was working shifts that started at 6.30am and cycling half an hour in the pitch darkness, freezing cold and I continued to work these shifts all through the Christmas period, meaning I was exhausted. I was so stressed about the idea of food but also completely obsessed by it. I was terrified at the prospect of so many meals out, so much emphasis on food and that my weight would go up significantly because of it. In the week leading up to Christmas I briefly relapsed and started restricting my food again ‘in readiness’.

We were hosting Christmas with friends at my house but I asked my friends to also bring food with them from their house because I was worried there wouldn’t be enough (the scarcity mindset of my eating disorder). Due to the anticipated size of the Christmas meal I felt I couldn’t eat much until that time but my friends were very late as they’d cooked a lot of food. I sat for hours feeling desperately hungry and miserable and frightened. When we finally did eat I piled my plate high and one of my friends made an unfortunate comment about it that brought up my guilt. I powered through but I remember feeling so stressed that we had too much food and how would we finish it and it was all going to waste and we needed to eat it but we couldn’t eat it and…

Once I got past the actual day things started to look up again. I’ve always preferred New Year to Christmas and this year was no exception. I woke up on New Years day and said ‘fuck it’ and I did what I love doing which is reflecting on the year, setting myself nice goals and feeling like I got to ‘start fresh’. There are definitely flaws to that mentality and I know that New Year is prime time for people to start their ‘weight loss journey’ or whatever. But for me I decided to use it to reaffirm my commitment to recovery. I had already come really far, especially with my eating, and I was finally beginning to feel that I didn’t want to go back.

Wanting to relapse is a huge part of recovery. At first, I thought about it all the time. How much easier it would be, how much safer, how I’d gotten so fat and I really needed to stop it now. I wanted to give up desperately but I also did not want to go back to suffering so much. The further I got the more I wanted to avoid having to take a step back and do it all again. The physical symptoms in the first weeks and months were difficult – your guts and digestive system atrophy when they are not being used regularly. Many people with restrictive eating disorders, myself included, have chronic constipation and this gets worse for a while during recovery. You also get serious bloating of the stomach and, sometimes, the feet and hands which can be very painful and uncomfortable. The idea of having to repeat these experiences was a good motivation not to relapse!

I also spent a lot of time reading about weight science, why dieting does not work and fatphobia. Learning about set point weight theory – the idea that your body has a natural weight it will sit at comfortably under normal conditions and try to return to when your weight is altered – was a very important discovery for me. It essentially boils down to the fact that weight loss can rarely be sustained without constant restriction. I think I saw things like ‘diets don’t work’ when I was in the depths of my eating disorder but I’d always just thought I needed to ‘diet harder’. I also learned a lot about my own internalised fatphobia that had led to me wanting to diet in the first place, triggering my eating disorder. I think this ‘psycho education’ element of my recovery has been, and still is, very important in preventing relapse and helping me to understand more of what happened and why. My blog has been really important for this step and writing out my findings helped me solidify the lessons I learnt and am learning.

Around March or April time this year I realised that I really, genuinely did not want to relapse any more in any meaningful way. This was a huge step for me. I can’t say it’s never entered my mind since then but I have always been able to talk myself out of it more easily. I know that certain things could trigger those thoughts more acutely, so I’m trying to remain mindful of that and what seems to set me off – usually high stress, feeling a lack of control over things, feeling directionless.

I continued to struggle a lot with my energy levels in the early part of this year and discovered I had a fairly serious vitamin D deficiency. I was prescribed a high dose tablet once a week for 20 weeks and it did seem to have an effect. I’m not sure if the deficiency was due to my eating disorder or not – it’s certainly possible. However, I had no actual medical intervention into my eating disorder so it has been hard to say. So many symptoms I wish I could’ve asked about and had to rely on researching myself. I’ve gotten sick a lot this year and I wondered if it was due to lowered immune system as a result of the eating disorder – nobody could tell me, I could only guess.

In September, towards the beginning of my recovery I was assessed by the Eating Disorders Unit at the Barberry in Birmingham. A psychologist asked me a lot of detailed questions about my behaviours and my feelings about my body and then he weighed me. He phoned me two weeks later with the anorexia diagnosis but said the wait for one to one therapy was 18 months. I was offered group therapy in March (6 months time) which I agreed to but this never actually materialised. He said I may be contacted by a dietitian. I was never contacted by a dietitian. They gave me this diagnosis of the most deadly mental illness and then did nothing. This year I was offered one additional appointment – one I accidentally missed, one they cancelled on me last minute.

The other day I received a call for my appointment. They asked me how my eating was and I said it was much better. Then they asked my current weight and I told them and they said ‘oh you’re recovered then’. I’ve now been discharged.

It made me think – am I recovered? Certainly according to their metrics my weight has gone up to the point they’d likely have me ‘cutting back’ again. It’s hard to know what ‘weight restored’ really means to me – some people define it as reaching your set point weight or a weight that you can sit comfortably at without restriction. I feel I can confidently say that I no longer restrict my food. I have a few weird rules or triggers – I fixate on making sure I’ve eaten at least 5 fruit and veg a day in order to have ‘permission’ to eat other types of food. I often feel guilty if I eat out or get take out twice in a row or ‘too close together’ for some reason. It feels like a lot to do that sort of thing and, in this sense, I don’t think I feel total freedom but I try my best to challenge this mentality.

My journey with exercise has been complicated – as I said, I did return to it too quickly and was still struggling with the compulsion for longer than I cared to admit. The process of removing this compulsion has been more time consuming and complex in some ways because it is far more socially acceptable and less understood as problematic behaviour. I’ve been focusing on weight lifting and power lifting because this form of exercise requires a great deal of rest and nutrition to be viable. It feels a lot harder to push myself through this type of exercise than it does with more cardio based activity. I often say ‘I hate cardio’ and, let me tell you, nobody fucking likes that. People love going to great pains to defend cardio. And that’s fine. They’re not me, they don’t understand where I’m coming from when I say that; the emotions and mental image of pushing myself through as much cardio as possible to the point of collapse on a daily basis. I never want to do that shit again so yeah, that’s what I mean when I say I hate it!

Finding a gym buddy who understands exercise compulsion has been extremely helpful for this journey, too. We can keep one another in check, empathise with the feelings of wanting to push too hard but knowing we shouldn’t and providing support and encouragement to take things easy when needed. Having someone know the signs and feelings related to my exercise compulsion has meant I’ve been able to recognise when I need a break by also recognising when I would suggest they take a break. I’m not sure if my gym habit would’ve been so healthy without this on-going support.

I got a lot of support throughout this year, particularly from my partners (my gym buddy being one of them) and close friends. Especially in the early days having my partners on call to help me almost every day was invaluable – them taking me out for meals, cooking for me when I was too tired and anxious to cook, helping me to rest by picking up tasks and also supporting me financially to be able to access therapy I could not have afforded without them. Not only this but also researching therapists, dietitians, psychiatrists for me even before I was ready for it. Believing in me, praising me, researching to understand me better and provide the best support they could. I could not have recovered to the extent I am without them.

I would describe my current situation – one year into recovery – as being at the ‘maintaining’ phase of recovery. That is, most of the hard work is over now – my eating patterns are normal, I eat a wide variety of foods, I can eat out with friends, I have a healthier approach to exercise. Finally, my body image is just starting to improve more. This took the longest to achieve and I still have bad days but recently I’ve been finding that I am worrying less and less about how my stomach looks every moment of every day. It is what it is. Maybe my weight will change again, maybe it won’t but trying to mess with that is absolutely not worth it. It’s not worth the misery I was in when I was unwell. I don’t want to go back to that place. I need to keep on top of things to avoid that – know my triggers and how to handle them. I’m working on this in therapy now.

Overall, I am very proud of myself for all the work I have done on recovery this past year. I would always say that recovery is absolutely worth it and I do not regret it in the slightest!

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