I like to write positive posts about recovery and what it means to be recovered and all the fantastic things about it. I like to illustrate how amazing it is to go from being very mentally and physically sick to being a functioning human being with passions and interests. I like to talk about going from empty to fulfilled; suicidal to content. But I also want to talk about the realities of recovery, and talk about where the eating disorder goes once you reach remission.
In an ideal world, reaching full recovery would mean that the eating disorder was banished from our brains for good. It would mean that the war, once won, was never to be fought again. In a way, that can be the case. You don’t have to fight that war ever again if you remain stable and strong in your remission, but there will be a few riots to deal with, and the odd battle here and there. The war will be won, but the eating disorder will always try and rebel where it can.
The eating disorder will always be there, in each and every one of us who have been a victim of this deadly disease. It is part of our genetic make up, and worse than that, it’s a part that has been triggered. It cannot be un-triggered, and it cannot be un-learnt. But that’s okay: people who have suffered from an eating disorder and fought it are some of the bravest and strongest people. If you’ve never had an eating disorder you will never know how exhausting and gruelling it is to fight it, but take my word on it: it’s one of the toughest (if not the toughest) that we will ever have to do. With all that strength we have, after beating the eating disorder, keeping it in check is a hell of a lot easier than what we have already been through.But it is important to know that it will be there, and you have to make sure that you are the one that stays in control at all times.
It is a mistake that those who haven’t had an eating disorder can easily make: that once it has been defeated, then it is gone. Sometimes people don’t understand that once a day, or once a week, or once a month, there will be a little battle that we have to fight. And it is fairly easy to win it, but if we give in due to not being vigilant, or feeling too tired to resist it that day, it is something that can quickly spiral out of control.
Take my last 24 hours, for instance. I had to go home from work with a severely upset stomach. My mum told me not to eat for 24 hours (a sensible thing to do in this situation), so I geared up for that challenge. After eight hours, I was starving, so I ate a cracker and smoked a cigarette, and my hunger pretty much vanished. That reared the head of the beast, and a little voice said see how easy it is to make your appetite disappear. I also kept stroking my stomach to see if it felt flatter, because when I was sick and would have an upset stomach, my stomach always felt super flat and I liked that. After 20 hours with only 3 crackers, I tentatively made some toast to test out my stomach. The little voice told me that I could just go longer without eating, and that I’m too sick to eat at all, and I felt resistance to wanting to start eating again. I will fight that small battle every time I get a stomach bug and can’t eat for a while, because for me, once I stop eating, I find it a small challenge to start again. I know that I can fight that, but there is always the possibility that I could give in to it and that the eating disorder would take the wheel and I would fall into the back seat. It is so important to recognise when the eating disorder is trying to worm its way into your thoughts and influence your actions, so that you can roar at it to get back in its place (metaphorically, of course – I’m not sure how those around you would react to that kind of outburst).
Another example is exercise. I enjoy some types of physical activity like badminton, swimming, and walking. I love doing it, but so does my eating disorder. That means that I have to constantly assess how I am feeling towards it. It means that when I can’t do exercise (like now, being ill), I feel anxiety. It means that I have to consistently challenge myself to make sure that I am in control, not my eating disorder. This means that I take rest days where I don’t exercise whatsoever. If ever I told myself to take a rest day or two, and couldn’t do it, there would be a problem. It would not be me taking charge in that situation, and I’d then have to work through that and fight a bigger fight. I think anyone who chooses to be active in their remission and has had exercise addiction will always walk a line with it. If I ever exercise when I am ill or injured, or when I have challenged myself not to, or because I feel I have to even though I am not enjoying it, that is when there will be an issue. I have to watch out for that, and so does everyone else in my position.
There are also bad body image days. In our society this is – tragically – normal, but for those with an eating disorder it can be accentuated, or a trigger and therefore more dangerous. It means accepting the bad day, or week, or month, and not responding to it, which can be incredibly hard as someone without an eating disorder, let alone someone with one.
There are many different things that will trigger different people, and although a lot of triggers become null and void, most people have one or two (or more) that remain with them. Having those triggers, and having the eating disorder itself, means that we are always at risk of relapse. It means that we do still have to fight battles that other people do not have to fight. It means that we have to be vigilant and careful and assess our thoughts and behaviours towards things like food, exercise, and our bodies on a regular basis.
Recovered does not mean cured. Recovered means in remission. It means that it can come back, and it means that we will always be fighting, even if the fight is a million times easier to win.