It’s easy to assume that recovery from an eating disorder implies—poof!—those harmful behaviors or negative thoughts and emotions have ended, and the person never has to deal with them again. But, just like with any other mental health condition (be it depression or OCD) recovery from an eating disorder is not black and white. Everyone’s recovery story, and even their definition of “recovery,” is unique and personal.
As society slowly works to understand that eating disorders affect more than thin, white, cisgendered women, it's also important to recognize that eating disorders can manifest very differently from person to person, which may also affect their recovery path. People may be at different stages of recovery and move between those stages in a nonlinear way.
Recovery for one person at a given time may look like a reduction in how often they practice restrictive behaviors related to their eating disorder; for another, it may mean they have stopped the behavioral habits but are still working on the emotional aspects of it. Recovery also doesn’t mean perfection, or a total absence of relapse. As the National Eating Disorders Association(NEDA) states, “Slips, backslides, and relapse tend to be the rule, rather than the exception … Overcoming food and eating concerns during recovery is a central goal, but it’s far from the only task of recovery.”
To spotlight just how many shades of recovery really exist and how subjective it is, SELF asked 10 people to share their experiences with disordered eating, and what recovery really means to them now.
1. “As I have gone through recovery, my eating disorder's voice has become quieter, and my own voice louder.” — Alicia, 24
“Since childhood, my relationship with food has always been a tension,” Alicia tells SELF. Growing up in a larger body, they experienced significant bullying. They also dealt with a variety of medical issues, which required them to go on medication for many years. At one point, Alicia’s doctor suggested that they lose a significant amount of weight to help with their symptoms. “That is where my experience with eating disorders began,” they say. After reaching that initial goal, “I didn't feel that I could stop. I had been promised by society that if I lost weight, I would be happier, however no matter how much weight I lost, the happiness never came,” they say. Their anorexia eventually transitioned into bulimia.
In 2015, Alicia started looking into treatment programs. “But being genderqueer, the programs were very cisnormative and not conducive to my recovery,” they explain. Instead, Alicia sought support through online peer support groups and an independent psychologist.
“I don't believe I will ever view myself as 'recovered,'” they say. “The way I explain my eating disorder is that there is a voice in my head, and when I was at my lowest it was screaming, drowning out every other thought. As I have gone through recovery, my eating disorder's voice has become quieter, and my own voice louder.” Although Alicia believes the voice will always be there, they turn to their partner and best friend when they have a hard day. “I am living my best life currently, and that for me is where I always seek to be.”
2. “It took nearly three decades to get here, and it's not perfect, but it's so worth it.” — Raquel, 28
Raquel's family called her "gordita" (meaning "chubby girl" in Spanish) or "Quelly Belly" as a child. But when they moved back to the U.S. from Puerto Rico when she was 5, “I learned quickly that to be fat meant to be ugly, dirty, and inferior. Those sweet monikers started to feel like attacks, and I wanted to disassociate myself from them,” she tells SELF.
Around the age of 8 or 9, she began dieting, but it never occurred to her that her eating was disordered. “I was a voluptuous, low-income Latina girl from the 'hood, and according to every portrayal of eating disorders I had seen growing up, you had to be a white, middle-class, emaciated teen obsessed with models and haute couture to have the illness,” she explains.
At 20, she began therapy. And today, eight years later, she occasionally purges. “Intense pressure or hardship is definitely a trigger for me,” she says. But more often, she uses self-soothing practices such as dancing, singing, or spending time laughing with loved ones. “It took nearly three decades to get here, and it's not perfect, but it's so worth it. Recovery vale la pena,” she says (which means “it’s worth it”). “Just because I may never be 'recovered,’ whatever that even means, doesn't mean I can't lead a healthy, joyous, and loving life. And I really believe I am living that life right now.”
3. “Full recovery doesn’t seem like an absolute that means I am free from every eating disorder thought every second of every day.” — Sarah, 36
Sarah attempted to recover for 17 years. Oftentimes they would restrict and have orthorexic behaviors for long periods of time, only to end up bingeing for a few days before returning to restrictive eating and repeating the pattern.
Still, they were never diagnosed. “I think this was mostly due to my size. No one thinks that a fat person restricting or being obsessed with clean eating is a negative behavior. No one thinks that a fat person losing a significant amount of weight is unhealthy,” Sarah tells SELF. “Our culture typically praises and congratulates this behavior.” It wasn’t until they were sitting in a graduate school class on eating disorders that they realized they had been dealing with an eating disorder of some type for nearly two decades.
Over those years, Sarah used Overeaters Anonymous, individual therapy, and a mind-body retreat for help. “The retreat [at age 34] is really what shifted my perspective on recovery,” they say. “Full recovery doesn’t seem like an absolute that means I am free from every eating disorder thought every second of every day. Sometimes I think that this is what it is supposed to mean. I don’t think that it is realistic for people who deal with discrimination and prejudice on a daily basis. I’m a large fat person. Every day I face looks, comments, and the world not being designed with consideration for my body.”
Sarah rarely thinks about restricting, purging, or bingeing anymore and continues to work with a therapist who is queer and trans-friendly. “Most of the time I am completely accepting of my body size. Other days when I have to deal with really obvious types of discrimination or deal with the barriers to access that others don’t, I am not very accepting and wish my body was smaller,” they say. “Does this mean I’m participating in eating disorder behaviors? Nope. It is very much dealing with the culture that we live in.”
4. “Recovery is a daily battle, and though I may not be 'cured,’ I can be stronger than the voice inside my head.” — Lakesha, 27
When the stress and pain of being placed into foster care at 9 years old become too much, Lakesha began bingeing at night. She continued when she was placed with family members, and by 16 she cycled bingeing and purging with restriction. In 2010, she entered an outpatient program, mainly for her other mental illnesses including bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and PTSD. She recognized that she had an eating disorder as well. However, she felt the treatment team didn’t take this seriously “because I didn’t fit the profile of someone with an eating disorder, because I am black and also queer,” she tells SELF. Eventually the therapist she began working with for her other conditions addressed Lakesha’s eating disorder and became the catalyst to start her recovery.
Today, at 27, she considers herself in recovery. “I see things on a continuum, not a straight-shot destination,” she says. “Recovery is a daily battle, and though I may not be 'cured,’ I can be stronger than the voice inside my head.” She adds that the thoughts and “the mindset” are the hardest parts about recovery. “The thoughts about my body, about food, and about my worth tied to that, have quite the grip,” she says. In addition to writing and sharing her work on Instagram, she continues to see a psychologist and turns to friends, family, and Facebook groups for support. “If I am fighting, I am winning, and if I am winning, I am living,” she says.