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What is Recovery?

People with eating disorders do and can recover

For the majority of people with an eating disorder, there comes a point when their lives become unmanageable and they make a decision to seek help. Fear accompanies this decision to seek help because recovery entails letting go of the eating disorder, which up to this point has helped the person to feel safe and secure. Up to this point, the eating disorder has brought reassurance, answers to the question of identity for the person, and safety in the experience of being in control. It is precisely because the eating disorder serves this purpose that it becomes very difficult to stop its progress. The longer it is established, the more it will take on a life of its own and take over the life of the person affected. They are caught in a bind. For many, overwhelming feelings of helplessness, guilt, shame and self-disgust become an insurmountable block to seeking help. Fear of having their eating disorder taken from them, fear of letting go of the eating disorder, and fear of change are huge barriers to getting help.

It is really important that those supporting a person understand this fear and try to ensure that while acknowledging and reinforcing the need for change, they reassure the person that change is a gradual process. This gradual process begins with the person acknowledging that the way they are living and coping with their life is damaging and destructive, not only to their physical well-being but also to their psychological and emotional well-being. It may take some time for this acknowledgement to fully happen. However, when something of this is acknowledged by the person, the opportunity arises to find out ways of getting help and support to let go of the eating disorder, and learn/develop an alternative way of managing one’s life.

Recovery is a form of re-learning, which involves constant practice. It is a gradual process, involving many challenges as a person learns not to rely on their eating disorder to feel safe and secure. Recovery is a learning process involving steps forward and steps backward as a person tries to let go of the eating disorder.

An important part of recovery is learning from each new experience and situation whether or not this is a step forward or a step backward. Much sensitivity, compassion, respect, understanding and patience, will be needed by those around them (family, friends, G.P. and other members of the treatment team) if a person is to be successfully encouraged and supported on their journey towards recovery. Once the individual can trust that nothing awful will happen if they let go of a bit of their eating disorder [control], then they can face this challenge. The feeling of safety comes slowly. It takes time to build confidence.

Recovery is about taking responsibility, establishing one’s own boundaries and accepting those of others. It can only begin with the will to change. It will require commitment and it will take a lot of courage. It cannot be forced. Recovery allows the person to live their life in a way that is not driven by a need to control, but rather, as an individual who is secure enough in themselves to live their life, welcoming the ebbs and flows of circumstances and emotions, safe in the knowledge that they can trust themselves to be okay and able to cope.

Note: Adapted and with permission from “Eating Disorders and the Recovery Process”, MA Thesis – Harriet Parsons MA, MSc (Psychotherapy), Training and Development Manager, Bodywhys – the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland.

Video – Dealing with setbacks in recovery