There is no single, universally accepted definition for recovery from an eating disorder (and at time the discussion is controversial). For some, including many insurance companies, recovery is looked at only from a medical, behavioral and weight stabilization perspective. Outsiders may look at to see if the tangible aspects of an ED have disappeared. If a person appears to stop their restriction, or their binging, or their purging, or they restored their weight, than the eating disorder must be cured, right? Specialist in eating disorder treatment, and more importantly, patients with eating disorders, know that recovery is so much more than that.
In the simplest of terms, ED recovery could be defined as a return to “normal” eating patterns. The obvious next question is, “what is normal eating.” Well, most people have at least some idea of what, where, when, and how often to eat. Everyone thinks about food during the course of the day, although most people are not obsessed with or distressed by the thought of foods and eating. Most people also would like to be fit and healthy and they spend a part of their day thinking about their body, but again, they do not become obsessed or severely distressed with those thoughts. While a typical person may spend 5-10% of their day with thoughts about food, weight and body image, most individuals with an ED will spend 80-100% of their day with these thoughts and obsessions creating a very distressing quality of life.
Nearly every individual who suffers from an eating disorder, had a “non-eating disorder” period in his or her life. Sometimes, recovery is a “rehabilitation” back to one’s baseline eating patterns. So recovery can be thought of as a return to baseline: a return to one’s own baseline thoughts and patterns they had in the past, and return to a baseline level of distress that is found in typical people without dysfunctional food, weight and body-image obsessions. Recovery is about getting back to a place where the mind is “freed” from the obsessing and distressing thoughts. Where food and eating is not a terrifying experience. Where a person can once again “participate in life” and find pleasure and joy in the world, as well cope with the tougher times that everyone goes through without seeking escape. In essence, recovery can be thought of as a freeing of the mind, an absence of the ED voice which can be demeaning and controlling.
SO IS IT POSSIBLE? …… YES!
Full-recovery is possible because it has been seen with our patients. There are many patients that can say, “I am recovered.” They no longer perseverate over food and they can eat a variety of foods and enjoy them including meats, dairy, carbohydrates, and yes, even dessert. They are comfortable with their body even if they know it is not perfect. They think about food, weight and body image for maybe 5-10% of their day. They have a “spark” again, they feel more connected to others, they are less irritable, less distressed, and are living life again. It is full recovery. And while they may say, “I am recovered,” they also know to never say, “I’ll never relapse.”
There are also some people who say they are “better” and less distressed, and they may not technically meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder, but they still have thoughts that occupy 25%, 33%, or 50% of their day. They have a partial recovery, but they still retain thoughts and behaviors that come from an ED place. For full recovery it is important that one see their treatment though till they reach that goal of a “freed” mind. It may take a while, but it will be worth it.