Eating Disorder Recovery and the Bigger Picture

Recovery is a noun that describes a continuing process. To start eating disorder recovery is to start a journey.

To be on that journey is to be on your path to health and emotional and intellectual development. Your path leads to your true self, to your inner resources of courage, creativity, self-respect, strength, and ability to be committed and dedicated.

Recovery from bulimia, anorexia, binge eating, or compulsive eating is not just about making peace with food and developing healthy eating habits. Recovery is not just about developing or forcing yourself into living with a realistic sense of your body.

Recovery involves living a balanced life. It means feeling all you can feel and digesting your feelings so they inform and enrich your entire personhood. They don’t spill out for others to take care of. They don’t create such distress that you need to use food or drugs or sex or shopping or high drama or manipulations or dissociation to get relief.

Recovery is about being real in the real world. It is about having the ability to live, cope, adapt, work, love, and play in freedom. It means being responsible for yourself and your actions. It means respecting and honoring boundaries so you can truly take care of yourself while respecting and being in relationships with others.

It means more serenity, joy, and smiles in your life. And it means being able to eat and enjoy food in freedom.

Eating disorder recovery work involves just about every dimension of your life, and that’s a good thing. As you gradually let go of your problematic food-related behaviors (eating too much, too little, purging, exercising to make up for a binge, laxative use, etc.) you find yourself experiencing powerful and sometimes subtle physical and emotional sensations and feelings. You want them to stop, and your eating disorder behaviors are no longer an option. Your task and your challenge becomes: How do I take care of myself instead?

This is your great guiding question that leads you to your new and better life. Following where this question leads makes up the bulk of true eating disorder recovery work.

The question not only guides you along your path, it creates your path. For example, instead of compulsive eating to numb your feelings, perhaps you paint to express them, or get involved in a political movement to express them, or get into an academic program so you are more equipped to address the issues beneath your feelings—“I want to be more competent in the world,” “I want a job,” “I want a different job,” “I want to advance in my career,” “I don’t want to be an assistant, I want to be the prime mover who has an assistant,” etc. You can eat or starve over your frustration and live with an eating disorder. Or you can tolerate your frustration, name it, and equip yourself to rise above it. That’s recovery work.

Recovery is an endless journey where life continues to get better as you go.

© Copyright 2009 by Joanna Poppink, MFT, therapist in Los Angeles, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 19 comments
  • Leave a Comment
  • raydeana

    raydeana

    June 3rd, 2009 at 2:43 AM

    Recovery from eating disorder is an all time struggling battle. I’ve seen this at the rehab i used to work at and never knew how difficult it could be for some people.

  • Caroline

    Caroline

    June 3rd, 2009 at 3:38 AM

    I have never had a true eating disorder but I know that I do have a problem relationship with food. My weight is always yo yo-ing fifteen or twenty pounds, and it seems like I lose weight just to gain it all back again, sometimes more. I never feel like I have a love relationship with food in a healthy way, only a hate one in a bad way. I think of myself as being “good” when I stick to my eating plan and have only a certain amount of calories a day whereas I will describe myself as being “bad” even if I have only a small treat. I do not really know how this relationship with food got started but now I have been in it for years and have no idea how to get out. Does anyone have any advice or things I could read to help me get my life back on track? I feel like I am ruled by food and my problems with it and I hate how that makes me feel.

  • Joanna Poppink

    Joanna Poppink

    June 3rd, 2009 at 7:36 AM

    Dear Caroline,

    Thanks for writing. Many people get caught in this yo yo weight experience yet feel they don’t meet the various criteria for an eating disorder.

    A challenging but efficient way to approach your eating dilemma is to keep a journal. Every morning if possible, write for three or four pages. Write whatever comes to you mind. And if nothing comes to your mind describe your room or what you are wearing or what you did yesterday. Just write.

    Keep all your writing in a notebook so it’s not scattered sheets, and date every page. Be sure to include your feelings.

    Just do this for months. Eventually you will go through your weight gain and loss and regain because that’s your pattern. Then read your journal.

    You will see how your thoughts and feelings change. You will get insight
    into what “triggers” your patterns. Once you have this information you will be better able to make your decisions about what,if anything, you need to place in or remove from your life (or both) to keep yourself steady and free from that yo yo experience.

    Please let me know how you are doing!

    warm regards,

    Joanna

  • Pamela

    Pamela

    June 4th, 2009 at 2:31 AM

    I feel the same as Caroline. I don’t really beat myself up when I eat something bad, I get disappointed in myself and wonder what good did it do, that the taste was only going to be temporary. I get back on the bandwagon again and try again. It’s not about dieting, its about eating right, healthy and if I decide to eat something that’s not really what i need, I’ll just eat a bite or two, just to satisfy that craving. Portion control is what it is all about for me.

  • Joanna Poppink

    Joanna Poppink

    June 4th, 2009 at 11:42 AM

    Dear Pamela,

    Thank you for your post. I’m thinking about what you and Caroline are saying. Here’s what I come up with.

    If you have an eating disorder, you will get caught in the behavior regardless of any structural changes you make in your behavior. The underlying reasons that are the basis of your particular eating disorder will remain unaddressed.
    So sooner or later, the behavior will return.

    But… if you don’t have an eating disorder, making structural changes WILL have a positive effect on your behavior.

    You know that portion control is something you need to be aware of.

    I wonder about your using the word crave. It’s a powerful word. When it’s used by a person with an eating disorder it can relate to that person being on the verge of a binge and then either bingeing or going into starvation mode as a response.

    If you don’t have an eating disorder, I suggest you find other words to use for what you mean. Having a yen for? Having a taste for? Something looking good or appealing? Then you have framed your experience differently in your own mind.

    It’s okay to have a yen for something or have a taste of something that looks good to you right now and have it — just not amounts that lead to trouble.

    It sounds to me like you are or are becoming an intuitive eater. And that’s great.

    Intuitive eating is all about creating a healthy relationship with food.

    intuitiveeating.com/

    Thank you again for your post!

    warm regards,

    Joanna

  • Ryann

    Ryann

    June 4th, 2009 at 4:57 PM

    My twin died from complications from anorexia so I know what a challenge these feelings about food can be. They become all consuming and that is all you think about. I mean I even struggled with my own issues while she went through hers thinking things like we weigh the same thing so maybe I am fat just like she thinks she is. Luckily I was able to be honest with myself and accept that this was not the truth but Rhiannon never was so lucky. She saw herself as fat until the day she went into the hospital and never can home again. It was like her brain and her eyes and her body had rebelled against her and led her to believe the grossest untruths about herself. There are great recovery programs out there but I know having lived through this that there just are not enough of them, and that there are not enough families and doctors even today who treat this as seriously as they should. You would think that with all of the research out there that would be changing but there is still so much shame attached to the subject that there are still those who do not feel comfortable with talking about it.

  • Joanna Poppink

    Joanna Poppink

    June 4th, 2009 at 9:00 PM

    Dear Ryann,

    Thank you for sharing part of your story with us. I am so very sorry for your loss. To watch your twin sister deteriorate has got to have been a tragedy for you and your family.

    I marvel at your strength and wisdom and applaud your ability to be your own person. You are a force working against ignorance and shame by speaking the truth of your experience so plainly and clearly.

    You enrich us with your post. I hope you will continue writing. You have much of value to share with the world.

    warm regards,

    Joanna

  • Georgia

    Georgia

    June 5th, 2009 at 11:55 AM

    Joanna I have a question for you. Do you think that eating disorders can ever truly be overcome or do you think that self doubt that often accompanies these diseases is always there lurking beneath the surface, ready to emerge the next time there is a negative trigger?

  • Joanna Poppink

    Joanna Poppink

    June 5th, 2009 at 4:41 PM

    Dear Georgia,

    Thank you for asking this question! So many people want to know the answer.

    Let me circle your question a little. The answer takes in more than what you ask. Suppose we take eating disorders out of your post. Then you are asking, “Does self doubt lurk beneath the surface in our psyches, ready to emerge when there is a negative trigger?”

    Now we’ve really got something. Do we ever become so self confident that we never experience self doubt? Mmm. I would be wary of people who never questioned themselves, never explored their assumptions, they knew all they needed to know and had all the tools, skills and depth of awareness they would ever need for a lifetime of living in our ambiguous and changing world.

    If this is a realistic perspective, that is, if having occasional bouts of self doubt is normal and healthy, even useful when we need to learn something, then self doubt will emerge periodically throughout our lives.

    Your question refers to “self doubt lurking beneath the surface.” My question is, ‘why would self doubt lurk near the surface?’ If that is true
    then the person is skating along in life with little self confidence and can be easily swayed by people or events.

    Many people struggling with eating disorders wish for the day they will be completely free. Or they don’t try to recover because they think complete freedom doesn’t exist.

    But being human means we have to continue to learn and grow. We are continually meeting challenges that could be thought of as triggers in life. We don’t get complete freedom from stress, anxiety, worry, rage, fear or any of the human emotions. The challenge has more to do with how we experience these feelings and whether we use them as information or whether we act out.

    Sorry this is a long answer. I’m trying to make it short as possible, but there’s a lot to cover!

    So, can a person with an eating disorder find real recovery? Yes. Can she be free of the compulsions? Yes. Will she ever find herself in a situation where something – maybe she knows what and maybe she doesn’t – triggers powerful feelings and the desire to act out in old eating disorder ways? Probably. Will she have the strength, self confidence, ability to explore her own self doubts to find her way through the experience without acting out her eating disorder? Yes.
    That’s what real recovery looks like.

    In recovery you don’t find a perfect world where no triggers exist. In recovery you don’t become a perfect person where nothing triggers you.

    In recovery you become a healthy, self reliant person. You can meet your own self doubts and have the strength and resiliance to stand for what you believe if that’s what’s called for or beyond your limited beliefs if that’s what is necessary to live a full and healthy life.

    Hope that gets to the heart of your question, Georgia!

  • Lila

    Lila

    June 8th, 2009 at 3:12 AM

    Why is it that food seems to be a problem for a lot of us. I know it’s not the food that’s the problem but Us who has a problem with food. And it seems like the bad, junky food is always the food we want the most. Food tastes great and the more junk food out there, the more i think people will have a prob with it.

  • Joanna Poppink

    Joanna Poppink

    June 8th, 2009 at 9:12 AM

    Dear Lila,

    We live in a stressful demanding world. Today, in my opinion, we need to be more healthy, strong, confident and resilient than ever before. And we need to relax. We need soothing from stress and strain. We need a “time out” so we can heal, repair, think, feel and learn from our experiences.

    When we can’t find ways to take care of ourselves because of a vulnerability of some kind, we will look for what will “work” for us. Bingeing on broccoli doesn’t do it. Snacking on liver and onions won’t do it. But the carbs, the sugars, the products made with flour, will take us “out.”

    Unfortunately when people get to that numbed state think they are relaxed because the pain or anixiety has stopped. That’s not being relaxed. That’s being anesthetized.

    We need to develop ways to really take care of ourselves, whether we have an eating disorder or not,. Walks, baths, books, time with friends, writing, gardening, dancing, yoga, meditation, painting, sketching are all healthful and productive ways to care for ourselves and get us through stressful times. They work much better than junk food.

    Thanks you for asking your question, Lisa.

    warm regards,

    Joanna

  • Amy

    Amy

    June 9th, 2009 at 1:52 AM

    Joanna, You are totally right! Food is almost like alcohol. When we are depressed, feeling blue, down in the dump, some of us turn to food just like some turn to alcohol. It satisfies us for a while, but aftewards, when reality hits, we feel guilty for giving in and succumbing to what is only a temporary fix

  • Delia

    Delia

    June 9th, 2009 at 3:55 AM

    I appreciate all of the questions and comments here. I guess I never realized just how complicated the whole range of eating disorders really is. I thought it was something that someone could just control themselves, you know stop the throwing up and just eat! This helps me to see that it goes so much deeper than this.

  • Fran S

    Fran S

    June 14th, 2009 at 8:46 AM

    Do you have to have special certification to work with those who have eating disorders? I am thinking of going back to school and this is a subject that interests me a great deal. Thank you.

  • Joanna Poppink

    Joanna Poppink

    June 14th, 2009 at 1:58 PM

    Dear Fran,

    As far as I know, legally a clinician doesn’t need special certification. However, most mental health licenses have a section in their rulings stating that a clinician must work only within their scope of competence.

    Those words can seem vague or specific, depending on the eye of the beholder. To me, in terms of working with people with eating disorders, the phrasing means that a clinician needs to get specific training in whatever
    population he or she works with so the work is conducted within the scope of competence. Does that make sense to you?

    In order to be a member of the professional organizations, International Association of Eating Disorder Professional (IAEDP) and the Academy of Eating Disorders (AED), a clinician must meet certain specific requirements in terms of experience and training.

    These organizations also sponsor conferences that provide a broad spectrum of education in the field.

    Many organizations and licensed clinicians offer classes, workshops, seminars in the field or related fields that help equp a clinician to work with the eating disorder population.

    And, yes, IMO, legally required not, in order to be competent and bring genuine help to people with eating disorders, special studies, experience, education and training is required.

  • Joanna Poppink

    Joanna Poppink

    June 14th, 2009 at 2:02 PM

    Dear Fran,

    P.S.

    I included IAEDP and AED in my last comment because their requirements for membership can sure as a base for getting solid competency work in the field of eating disorders.

    Meeting those requirements will allow you membership in the organizations.

    Meeting those requirements will help you establish a foundation of
    experience, education and skill that will help you become competent in the field. And meeting those requirements will help you be aware of what more you need to learn in an ongoing basis in this most challenging field.

    Good luck to you!

    Joanna

  • Nicki

    Nicki

    June 17th, 2009 at 2:38 PM

    Thank you very much for this article – I feel I have made real headway in overcoming my problem with binge eating and it has certainly been very challenging. I really agree with you that it is all about learning how to look after yourself and for me that has been learning how to deal with my emotions and how to be kind to myself. Not an easy thing to do! It has also been really important for me to finally take responsibility for myself. I do feel as though I am on a journey and a very exciting one at that!

  • Joanna Poppink

    Joanna Poppink

    June 18th, 2009 at 12:07 PM

    Dear Nicki,

    Thank you for writing in, and congratulations on your recovery progress.

    The great thing about the journey you are on is that the journey continues long after you find your eating disorder recovery. You just keep on growing, learning and developing, hopefully, for the rest of your life.

    I agree, it’s not easy, but it’s great!

    warm regards,

    Joanna

  • Jaki

    Jaki

    June 19th, 2009 at 11:17 AM

    I really enjoyed this article and the comments. I’m in recovery from 10 years or so of bulimia/anorexia… have been out of therapy and in solid recovery for several years.

    Do you think recovery is an endless journey? Or do you reach a point where for all practical purposes you’re recovered? Or is it always something that is just there, waiting to crop up?

    I was also wondering: do you think someone who is in solid recovery from an eating disorder but later has a severe bout of depression, should that person find a therapist who has experience with people with eating disorders or does it not matter?

    My last question… I read your description of recovery, and feel how much my recovery falls short of that inner healing. What to do if some of the underlying stuff never changed? Does it just take more time?

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.

 

 

* Indicates required field.

Therapist   Treatment Center

Advanced Search

Search Our Blog

Title   Content   Author