I will tell you now, straight up, recovery is not a grand revelation of hope, health and happiness, it is the hardest thing any person will ever have to face in their life. The fact that many people do not make it through recovery and thus lose their lives to this vicious disorder should not even be a reality. But, unfortunately, it is. This is why it is so important to open up about the truth behind mental health and eating disorders. With knowledge, we can slowly start to overpower the grasp that Anorexia holds over its victims, meaning more and more people will survive this heartless disease.
Here are my top 10 tips for someone taking their first steps in recovery…
IT'S NOT EVEN 1 DAY AT A TIME!
It’s common to hear someone in recovery say that they take it one day at a time. Really, this isn’t the case. In recovery your mood and you body image can fluctuate multiple times a day. Just because you wake up one day, positive and eager to recover, doesn’t mean that it will stay that way for the rest of the day. In fact in almost certainly won’t! It is very likely that by the end of the day you are regretting your decision to recover altogether. Now I am aware that this is not the most hopeful and uplifting prospect and it’s certainly not what you want to hear when you’re first starting to recovery but it is perhaps the most important thing you need to be aware of, otherwise it will be far more tempting to give up when the going gets tough.
But do remember this one thing; it also works the other way around!!! Just because you wake up in a terribly low state of mind does not mean that this cannot change throughout the day! I have had many days where my mood has done a complete 180 flip between morning and afternoon, and I’ve gone from clawing at my body in disgust to calmly eating a bowl of pasta without wanting to cry. Sometimes this change has happened 3 or 4 times a day! Sure it’s never gotten to the point where I’ve been able to look in the mirror and say ‘I love my body’ but you can’t expect to. Remember anorexia is a life long disease; it never truly goes away and ‘loving yourself’ is actually the ultimate goal, not the starting point. If you learnt to love yourself at the start of recovery then there’d be no need to recover. I am 2 and a half years into recovery and I still hate the way I look, just slightly less than I did before is all. It is absolutely 100% possible to accept who you are but, instead of taking it one day at a time, you have to look at recovery as 1,000,000 milestones to take up 1 mighty mountain.
'WHY I RECOVER'
Something I found particularly useful, whenever I was doubting my reasons for recovery, was to break out the pad and pens and make a ‘why I recover’ poster- that’s basically a pretty picture with the words ‘why I recover’ plastered in the middle in great bold letters and reason upon reason crammed onto that page in a hundred different colours. No matter how big and meaningful or small in insignificant you think the reason may be, it’s still a reason to recover and it’s still worth recognising! Once you start to see that page fill up with colour it’ll remind you of why you started recovery in the first place. Below is the first example of these colourful coping tools I discovered early on in my recovery that I have referred back to every time I’ve doubted my progress…
KNOW YOUR FEAR FOODS
For anyone who is unaware, a fear food is basically foods that are just too daunting for the person to eat, even in recovery. For an anorexic you may think that all food is off limits. However, once a person has taken that first step into recovery and accepted that they need to eat in order to get better, they quickly separate all foods into 2 different categories; ‘safe foods’ and ‘fear foods’. While there are some foods that often become common safe foods for most recovering anorexics (eg porridge, cinnamon, apples, bananas etc), fear foods are often entirely unique to the individual- for example, whereas many high calorie treats such as cakes and full fat cream became very safe for me, I knew many others for whom this was their worst nightmare. Fear food lists can be incredibly long and leave an eating disorder sufferer with very little choice of what they are able to eat. This is why it is important to know your fear foods well so that you can control what you eat and, on days where you feel extra capable, you can challenge those fear foods and slowly tick them off your list one by one. Still to this day, 2 and a half years into my own recovery, there are still things that I cannot eat. For me these are sweets, many biscuits, forms of potato and dry meals mainly. While these restrictions don’t massively affect my life, the fact that I still can’t bring myself to eat them does dishearten me. But again, this is just another incentive to keep recovering, to slowly cross these off my list as well till the day when, even if I choose not to eat them, I know that I can!
Throughout my illness my avoided foods have varied. The foods I tended to avoid were for different reasons depending on where I was in recovery. Fear foods often change unexpectedly and for no given reason- one day you may eat a bowl of cereal without a shred of guilt, the very next day you can barely get the spoon to pass your lips. But if you keep your list of fear foods updated then you will always feel more in control and able to eat least find something you feel comfortable eating.
Below is an example of a fear food list I made just a few months into my recovery…
POTATO!!! Sliced cheese/meats Dry foods/meals Butter and Oils
Corn on the cob Porridge Vegetables- particularly broccoli and green beans
Salad A whole banana Small food snacks eg fudge or brownie bites etc
More than 2 slices of pizza White bread Chocolate Meat fats
Liquid calories Muffins Fast food Crisps Apples, pears and other fruits
Gum Ready meals Sweets Dips Bacon Wraps
Most cereals particularly Weetabix Full fat Philadelphia Biscuits Breakfast bars
A whole sandwich Salt Popcorn Unweighed/Unmeasured foods
Meals I haven’t cooked myself Waffles/Crepes Rolls Restaurant/Cafe foods
Boiled eggs Creamy pasta Marshmallows Doughnuts Soup
Mac and cheese Pasta salad Couscous Cheddar Croissants
Flapjacks Yoghurts Salmon Any type of white fish White rice/White pasta
Pittas Crumpets Condiments eg Pickles and dressings Garlic bread
Scotch eggs Ice creams Quiches Milk Cream Pie
Now whether that may seem like a lot to you or not, that table holds over 60 foods that I had a real debilitating phobia of and simply could not allow to pass my lips at that time- and I am certain that list was incomplete. But, as I say, putting this vast list down on paper did wonders for my recovery, even if I didn’t realise it. You see, not only did having this list in front of me make me realise how much I still needed to overcome and give me the motivation to do so, it also means that now I can see just how much I have overcome and thus gives me the motivation not to go back! The only thing on this list I still struggle to eat is potato and even that has been reduced to just mash and jacket potato.
COOK YOUR OWN MEALS
People are often surprised to hear that anorexics are total foodies; they take so much pleasure in cooking delicious meals for those around them and they often spend hours looking for recipes trawling food blog pictures and collecting cookbooks…it’s just their love for food stops with the prospect of having to eat anything themselves. They can’t enjoy food itself when they have such an inherent fear of it. This is where cooking for yourself really comes in handy. You see, even to this day I feel so much calmer when eating if I have cooked the meal for myself. I remember for at least the first year of my recovery I had to be involved with every aspect of the food prep and I would often end up having a full blown panic attack- screaming, crying, the works- if ever my mother so much as chopped and onion without me being there to oversee it. I don’t believe she understood just how vital being involved with the cooking was to my recovery but I can assure you that this was a compulsive need, not at all a petty act. What you need to remember is that anorexia is all about controlling exactly what goes into your body. So for someone in recovery from the disease, the best thing to do is to take that need to control, and implicate it in a far healthier way. Through being involved with everything from the food shop to the meal on the plate, you can be aware of exactly what is going into your body. On that note, it is also a very good idea, especially when starting recovery, to plan your meals in advance. Don’t come home from school or work to an empty fridge- that’ll simply leave you feeling uninspired and with no desire to eat. Instead, just sit down on the weekend and plan your meals for the week. This is still something that I do now and, while I’m grown to be far more flexible should situations change during the week, I still find planning my meals keeps me motivated and eager to create some delicious dishes.
MAKE MEALS WORTH IT!
This may seem like a crazy hard first step for someone starting out in recovery but avoid all reduced fat or low calorie items that you’ve grown used to buying! Why? Well think of it this way…products that are ‘reduced ___’ anything are always going to taste somewhat blander and thus not as good as the original product. As an anorexic you feel unbelievably guilty for eating absolutely anything…so imagine just how guilty you would feel for eating a meal that you didn’t feel was 110% worth it. This concept is both hard to understand and hard to explain but, once you do grasp it, it does make total sense. You see, even now if I eat something that I don’t really like or that I don’t feel was 100% worth it, then I just feel like I’ve eaten ‘wasted calories’ and suddenly I feel 10 times worse about myself for doing so. However if you’re eating meals that are full of flavour from all the proper fats and oils etc then those meals will begin to feel so much more satisfying and you will begin to enjoy food again because you know that you are eating for the taste and not for the sheer fact that you ‘have’ to eat. Plus, buying full fat foods also means you don’t have to eat such a large portion in order to regain the weight therefore causing slightly less bloating and psychologically making you feel calmer for eating less.
And really, what is more appealing to you? Which would you honestly prefer to eat?
DITCH THE SCALES
One thing I firmly believe when you are starting recovery is that you should not weigh yourself!!! What good have those scales ever done for you? They’ve never made you happy; as soon as you step onto them, you want to lose more! During the final year before my recovery I was weighing myself around 30-40 times a day. It was an obsession I had to break free from if I had any chance of making any sort of progress in my recovery. This is partly why I loathed therapy and doctors appointments; because I was being confronted with my weight gain 3, 4, even 5 times a week! Now do not think that because I wanted to avoid the scales, I wanted to avoid my problems and pretend that I wasn’t gaining weight at all because that is absolutely not true! I was fully aware that in order to recover, the weight gain had to happen. However I did not need to have the figures thrown in my face when doing so! Think about it, anorexics see numbers everywhere! Numbers become their life and they lose the ability to think of literally anything else because their head is just overflowing with numbers! They’ve also convinced themselves that ‘lower’ = ‘better’. So to have to see that number on the scale slowly rising is a big, red, flashing ‘STOP’ sign before their eyes. Still, even to this day, I do not weigh myself because, although I’ve reached a place where I am confident I shan’t let myself fall back down to that deathly low weight again, I also know that if I stepped on the scale and saw the weight I am now, my state of mind would take a nose dive beyond belief and all those anorexic urges would come flooding back making it 10 times harder for me to resist them.
YOU'RE ALLOWED TO ENJOY EXERCISING
One of the most detrimental things to happen to me at the start of my recovery was being told I wasn’t allowed to return to my dance classes. While I fully accept that I was dangerously ill at the time, I firmly believe that banning me entirely was the worst decision that was made on my behalf. For anyone who knows me, knows that performing is my heart and soul. At my lowest I felt that I had lost everything, my friends, family, career, voice, future…everything! I felt that my dance was the only thing I had left to live for. So to have that ripped away from me was a direct message from those around me to end my life. Why would I bother putting myself through recovery if I had nothing at the end of the road to live for? No one recovering from an eating disorder is going to allow themselves to eat if you’re only allowing them to sit around as it forms into fat on their body.
Please do not misunderstand what I am trying to say here. I am not saying they should eat a 200 calorie doughnut and then immediately burn off 400 calories at the gym because that completely negates the point of recovery. However I do believe that when entering recovery it is important to learn how to enjoy exercising and not just use it as a tool to satisfy Ana’s needs! Whether it’s dancing, going to the gym, running, swimming, bike riding- whatever it may be- as long as you’re doing it because it makes you feel good and not because it makes Ana feel good then exercising can be used as a great way to keep you calm, in control and able to eat throughout recovery!
I understand that unless you have a love for exercising to begin with (like I did with dance) then it is very hard to gain a love for any reason other than Ana telling you to. But if you can learn to love it for the reason that it’ll help you get your life back then, with time, you will learn to love it for other reasons as well. Just remember…
Exercising makes you hungry- it’ll make you feel more at ease eating.
Exercising makes you feel strong and healthy- it’ll make you feel better about your body.
Exercising is a hobby- it’ll give you a reason to get out of bed.
Exercising can be communal- it’ll give you a way to integrate back into social life.
Exercising can be done solo- it’ll give you time alone to clear your head and focus on helping yourself.
Exercising can be a splendid thing, so long as it is used as a weapon by you against anorexia, not a weapon against your body by Ana.
CALORIE COUNTING IS FINE
For the first few months in my recovery I made a list, every single day, of all that went into my body and all the calories with that, from the moment I woke up till the moment I went to sleep. It is unreasonable to expect a person just starting out in recovery to abandon all of their anorexic tendencies. Calorie counting is a huge anorexic tendency. However it is also something that can be used again Ana if only you know how. When you’re trying to lose weight with an eating disorder, you have a calorie target to want to stick to (usually as low as possible). Well it’s the same in recovery just in reverse; you have a target calorie intake you want to hit, usually 200-500 higher than it would be for a healthy person to gain weight. This is because an anorexic body is so malnourished that it takes far more energy to gain weight than it would for a healthy body. My calorie target for weight gain started at about 2500 calories a day. Obviously, going from 50 calories a day to 2500 calories a day was going to be a monumental challenge so, in order to make me feel more in control with what I was putting into my body, I made a list every day so that I could see I was not over nor under eating. This helped me more than I can say. I felt far calmer for doing it and, if at the end of the day I hadn’t hit my target intake, I could assess what I had eaten and usually find something else I felt able to eat in order to make up the missing calories.
Even now I still count calories every day! I add up how many calories I’ve eaten after each meal so that I know how many I have to spare throughout the rest of the day. For my lifestyle mixed with my metabolism I figured out round about the amount I can intake in order to maintain my weight. Yes this fluctuates but again I have learnt how to use calorie counting as a tool against anorexia rather than fuel for anorexia.
DON'T PRESSURE YOURSELF
One of the worst things you can do, especially at the start of recovery, is to put too much pressure on yourself or allow too much pressure from others around you. I experienced this. The amount of times I heard the words ‘you’re not trying hard enough’ or ‘I’m not seeing progress fast enough’…a lot of the time it felt like the progress I was making was never recognised or appreciated as people were always focussing on what I still had left to go! Well all I can say is it’s lucky I didn’t take on board those comments being thrown my way or I don’t think I would have ever recovered!
Recovery is not just a long road- it’s never ending! And you can’t just skip 10 miles ahead; you have to take every single little step in between in order to get there. Every achievement you make along the way counts because every obstacle in your path is as hard as each other. In fact, often the ones at the start of the road hold more weight because there are far more boulders piled up at the start than there are scattered about at the end. Do not focus on the day you start recovery because, really, there is no one day. I can’t pinpoint the day I first started recovery, only the month. Instead, just focus on the little things you overcome each day.
BRING ON THE BLOATING...
An anorexic’s worst nightmare is to look ‘fat’…well I’m sorry to have to say you’re not just going to get a food baby during the start of your recovery, you’re going to look as if you’re suddenly 7 months pregnant! One of the only physical consequences I’ve been left with by Ana is my IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). This basically means that, not only am I gassier than your teenage brother after a vindaloo and 2 litres of coke, but that I also bloat like you would believe possible. While this has gotten a lot better over the last 2 years thanks to the gift of time and the help of a lot of meds, at the start of my recovery bloating meant a bowling ball sized lump of solid gas aggravating my stomach and causing cramps 10 times more painful that those on your period (yes girls, I really mean that)!
Again, I know this is not something you want to hear if you’re just starting or thinking about starting recovery…but it is something that you need to hear. If you’re aware that it will happen, then you can prepare yourself on how to handle it. First off, ease yourself gently onto the dairy products and don’t just jump straight in. Also, make sure fibre products are a staple part of your diet as these are the best things to aid digestion! On that note however, avoid ‘white’ starches if you can and instead stick to whole wheat pastas and wholemeal breads; while the theory is not cut and dry, these products usually cause less bloating and are also healthier in general.
These tips will not equal some sort of magic remedy to make recovery a stroll down the yellow brick road, however they will give you a fighting chance at survival and help you cope with the long battle ahead in the hopes of a far brighter future.