You Can Pull It Off--But It Won't Be Pain Free

What Nobody Tells You About Eating Disorder Recovery

Ever have a bad wound that you covered protectively with a large Band-Aid? Then you decide to just pull it off and ouch it hurts! There's that darn adhesive that clings tenaciously to your skin and mini hairs. And there's the sensation of being exposed; the injury is fresh and even small bangs or temperature changes impact it—it’s just so sensitive—and the sensation of clothes brushing against it feels awful. And don’t you hate the way the wound can look?
Well, in many ways, this analogy applies to removing your eating disorder behaviors.

Perhaps with the Band-Aid, you've come to expect that there's some discomfort, and you know at some point the bandage no longer works and has to be forcibly removed. Peeling off this layer may leave your injury exposed, but over time it allows you to heal. But your eating disorder? Did anyone warn you that it might not feel so good to remove it, to move in a healthy direction?

It's time to come clean. Yes, pulling away the protective layer of eating disorder behaviors doesn't necessarily feel so great. In fact, it can feel like crap. In part, because you start to feel—emotions, positive and negative—as well as physical sensations. 

And feeling things you'd rather not experience is no picnic. If you've been restricting and now begin nourishing your body, you'll start to be more present. You'll notice your hunger again, and that increased hunger may be rather scary. You may feel that you have no ability to manage this hunger, that it will simply spiral out of control, getting stronger and stronger. And starting to eat again after a restrictive mode can cause physical discomfort, as food takes longer to move through your digestive tract compared to when you were eating normally.

But it gets better. Really it does.

You may be surprised to find yourself feeling sad, or even more depressed than you’d been when actively engaging in eating disorder behaviors. No surprise. It’ll take some work with a good therapist to learn to sit with those feelings, and to discover that they too shall pass.

But it gets better. Really it does.

Why bother recovering, then, if it’s a painful process? How do you get yourself to do something that may feel so bad—at least at the start?

It may help to remember that it also feels terrible on many levels to maintain the unhealthy place you’re at, and that the risks are quite high. Need a reminder?

The physical ones include risk of sudden death, regardless of where your weight is at. You can be bulimic and have a shift in your electrolyte balance causing sudden heart problems and death. (I kid you not). If you’re the restricting type, it may be a longer, slower move toward permanent damage, with a decrease in your immune function, making you more susceptible to infections, a slowed heart rate, low body temperature and decreased kidney function, to name a few. It may take a great deal of effort to move through your day, although you likely have forgotten just how much better you can feel—since this is what you’ve come to view as normal.

The cognitive changes include the challenges of processing information and difficulty working, studying, and parenting. Your thinking becomes distorted with food restriction and you’re more likely to start ruminating with obsessive thoughts.

Need I describe the mood changes? Ask any loved one and they’ll describe the irritability, self-loathing and isolation that result from your tortured relationship with food. Depression and anxiety may have preexisted, but they worsen. And of course hopelessness overcomes you.

Is it really better to stay where you're at, patched with your Band-Aid, out of fear of feeling, or fear of failing at recovery?; to live life as an out of body experience?; to not fully enjoy the company of loved ones and close friends?; to not be there for your beloved pet?

Eating enough, and moving from binging is neither painless nor easy. But improving your quality of life, and realizing that there’s more to you than your eating disorder is something worth doing. And if you need help pulling off the Band-Aid, reach out for a hand. If things have gone too far, it just might be time to allow others to start lifting up the corners.

This post is dedicated to an old patient of mine who recently resurfaced and asked for help. At her first visit, she pulled out a quote she had typed up and attached to her recovery binder—a statement I made to her several years back when she was struggling. “I’m still not giving up on you”, it said. And I’ll say the same to you. It’s not yet too late to turn things around, unless you refuse to reach out and ask for help.

Let me know how it goes.

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