Do you believe recovery just isn’t possible, at least, not for you?

Lessons from ICED 2013

I see 30-40 individuals suffering from anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder and disordered eating each week. Men and women, preteens through age 70+.  So short breaks and vacations are, of course, quite refreshing.

But last week’s Academy for Eating Disorders Conference, the International Conference on Eating Disorders (ICED) offered anything but relaxation.

Stimulating, inspiring, fascinating and hopeful—even these words do little justice to the conference presentations. I became pumped, and felt validated that the progress I see with my patients is not random. I was sparked by the incredible research demonstrating the progress in the understanding of eating disorders and their treatment. It only confirmed my belief that there’s reason for you, too, to know that recovery is possible.

Let me tell you about a session I was most excited about—Lisa Dawson, a PhD candidate’s research presentation entitled Recovery From Chronic Anorexia Nervosa: The Tipping Point for Change. You don’t have long-standing anorexia? Don’t stop reading. The lessons from this psychologist’s research are inspiring for all.

Dawson decided to select those individuals who recovered from anorexia—and I mean trulyrecovered—because by looking at this population we can figure out what elements are critical for recovery in anyone living with an eating disorder. They had to be free of anorexia for 7+ years, in an objectively normal weight range, and free of eating disorder behaviors. “You mean such people really exist?” you’re thinking? You bet. And she identified the common elements that contributed to their movement toward and their ultimate full recovery, based on extensive interviews with the participants. Here are some key points she identifies:

There are 4 stages to recovery, which individuals move through in one direction, and for differing amounts of time:
  1. unready/unable to change
  2. the tipping point of change
  3. active pursuit of recovery
  4. reflection and rehabilitation

In the first stage, people feel like they didn’t know why they were doing what they were doing (wrt ED behaviors) but felt they just couldn’t stop. They internalized the eating disorder and they perceived treatment as unhelpful. They felt misunderstood and lacked insight. In summary, recovery seemed impossible; they didn’t feel like anything they did made a difference for recovery, they had low motivation and had a sense of helplessness and hopelessness.

Over time, they realized that their eating disorder wasn’t helping them. Those who recovered also started to experience feeling understood. They were able to externalize the eating disorder and over time gained insight into their condition. They became more worn out by their eating disorder as well. Motivation increased. They started to feel that they had the power to change their situation, that they could impact their curse.

More value was placed on life outside their eating disorder. They learned skills to help them cope as they let go of their eating disorder behaviors.

Self-discovery, self-acceptance, and learning to love oneself were components of the maintenance stage.

It was a long, and slow process. But it happened.

So here’s an email I received this week from a patient of mine who, in spite of living with anorexia for more than 25 years, is now in recovery. The timing couldn't have been more fitting for this post:

"I've been continuing to do well with food.  I know I was upset at my last apt with life in general, but that did not affect my eating.  To date, I still have not purged or restricted or exercised.   Can you believe it? And... I don't want to forget to tell you so I'll share now, re: exercise...  I have been taking walks after dinner with either one of the girls or my husband or all (not every night, but several) and it didn't dawn on me til yesterday that I can go on these walks and I haven't:

  • thought about how many calories I'm burning
  • gone at fast pace to burn more calories
  • obsessed over having to walk each and every night/same time/same pace/same path 
Instead, I:
  • go on a walk if I feel like it
  • enjoy whatever pace I seem to be going at, without thoughts of burning calories
  • actually enjoy being present with the people I'm walking with!!! 
I do not fret if I can't make a walk.  I do not keep track of how many nights I've walked. I do not feel it's necessary if I've eaten a larger dinner. The obsession is not there!  Where did it go? I don't feel it, all I feel is the happiness that I'm going on a walk with a very loved family member where we can chat and talk and laugh. 
Huh? When did this happen?! Although it may not seem big, it really didn't hit me until yesterday that these walks are not the same walks as in the past. Not one bit. I am totally present and I completely enjoy them. And I continue to eat. Normally. I think I now know what normal is. At least, my normal. And I never, ever thought I would find "normal". And "normal" to me means:
I can eat when I'm hungry, know when I'm full, eat what I want in moderation... and because of this, I have not gained 30 lbs in 5 days as previously thought. I have gained weight.  I am working on accepting the feelings that accompany this. I think I'm in a better place to work on this. Nobody likes to gain weight, that's pretty much reality. But... I'm healthy.   
I put myself, my body, through hell. Can you imagine deliberately depriving your own body of nutrients it needs to stay alive? Can you imagine the destruction throwing up food causes? Or ingesting a plethora of pills to help further the weight loss process? How good is THAT for your body?! Oh my God, I sit and think how the hell am I still alive!!!  This has been going on for decades!  
I am at a really low point - sad, lost, confused, lost, angry, lost...  I feel like everything is out of control in my life.  Where did I turn for all those years to gain control over something when everything else felt so out of control? Ed. But what is happening now? Everything feels so out of control, yet the ONLY thing that feels IN control is my decision to eat well. Isn't this the complete opposite? What is going on here?  
So, the point of this email is to tell you that I have the strength to continue fighting this and I will succeed.  You are not going to see me relapse. Everything about this eating disorder is finally beginning to make sense. I have so much more to share but I'll save that for our next meeting. 
Lori, boy I can't begin to tell you how everything you've taught me is now landing in place and making sense and how in the world do I thank you for that?I was so, so sick.You saved my life.I still have work to do, I'm a work in progress, but slowly I'm regaining inner strength - which is just what I need to move forward. 
Thank you, thank you, thank you..."

I share this, with her permission, because while recovery is challenging, to say the least, it happens. And what I hear from her and from others confirms what Lisa Dawson shared in her study—that belief that you can recover, that change is in your hands, is essential for recovery. And that working with providers who get it and help you feel understood, and provide hope that full recovery is possible, can make all the difference.

Your thoughts?

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