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15 lessons learned in 4 years of anorexia recovery

15 lessons learned in 4 years of anorexia recovery

December 27th, 4 years ago, I made the decision that turned out to be a new beginning in my life, a rebirth, a radical change that subverted all the basis of mi world view until then: I chose to start recovery after 11 years with anorexia nervosa.

I knew a couple of things about the way before me because I had been reading some blogs. But experiencing it has been very different. It’s not the same to read about the deafening screams, the excruciating pain or the suffocating darkness than to feel them. It’s not the same either to read about the personal transformation, the blossoming and the conquest of truth and freedom than to live them.

Besides, some of the most important things I’ve learned through my personal journey haven’t always been the same I’d read or listened from others (even professionals).

This post isn’t intended to be a compendium of everything I’ve lived during the past 4 years. I just want to offer some rough outlines of part of the discoveries I’ve made and ponder what has helped me move forward and what has held me back. Hoping that someone, when she finishes reading it, has more conviction to undertake or continue the way of recovery and figures out what her next steps must be.

1. The turning point in my recovery was understanding that God was in favor of it

Of course, I suspected that when I chose to start it in the first place. But it was going to take me a long time to remove the false beliefs that were so deeply rooted in me and determined my world view. I was lucid enough to decide early that I needed a spiritual director to guide me through this, and had the grace to find the ideal person. But, no matter how convinced I was after each of our meetings that recovery was the way through which God wanted me to give Him glory… Immediately the confusion came back.

Because I didn’t feel like that. I felt guilt and remorse. That I was selfish and had given up the hard path of sacrifice to surrender to the pleasures of the flesh. I was disgusted with myself. I had contaminated myself with those worldly things —food— I had promised to avoid. And that took me even further away from God… how could I turn to Him to ask Him for help with something that deep down I thought was a betrayal to Him? It would be like asking Him for help to steal or murder. And the whole Bible and most saint’s texts were pointing me in the same direction, the one I had become used to find in them.

What saved me was the conviction that, above everything, obedience was the safest way to give glory to God. Even if in the end the one I had chosen (anorexia) was objectively better, if I renounced it because of obedience I wouldn’t be making a mistake. But, despite everything, this obviously entailed a huge spiritual tension. That made the first months of recovery absolutely horrible and miserable.

I see

Only when, with time, I started to see by myself, and not just because others were telling me, that indeed recovery was from God, that the voice of anorexia was the voice of the evil one, and that He wanted to rescue me and save me from that deathly abyss, everything became much easier. Which doesn’t mean easy. Just possible. If God was really by my side, if He wasn’t turning His back on me because I had betrayed Him, but now I was on His way, then I could walk safely through it without constantly looking back. I could celebrate the challenges overcome without the shadow of doubting if I was celebrating a shameful act. Then, no matter how long it might take me, no matter how many obstacles I might find in the way, no matter how many times I might fall… victory was guaranteed. 

2. Enjoying food is good. Being happy is good. Choosing what you like is good

As I’ve mentioned, I used to feel very guilty when I ate; but, above all, when I enjoyed what I ate. I could go as far as to accept that I had to gain weight, but then it should be a duty to be fulfilled with abnegation, without finding delight in it, which seemed to me would turn it into a selfish desire. Because then, deep down, I wouldn’t be doing it to give glory to God, but out of gluttony. Was the solution then to gain weight only by eating bland food I didn’t enjoy? (In fact, that was exactly what someone suggested to me).

The mindset shift was understanding that I gave glory to God not only by gaining the weight I needed, but appreciating His gifts, giving Him thanks because He allowed us to satisfy our need of food with delight, finding Him in every bite. The good things of the world, including a yummy taste, can lead us to God.

But accepting that about food made me want to “compensate” for it in other areas of my life. Like, ok, have your delight in food, but at least have the good grace to never ever ask for anything else. You’ve given up a great sacrifice, let’s see how you make up for it. I thought that being happy consisted merely in the satisfaction for having fulfilled a duty, even if I didn’t like it at all. What’s more, if I liked it even just a little, it was very likely bad and I was choosing it out of selfishness and not because it was really God’s will. That’s why I thought I was happy when I was anorexic. As I always say, what happened was that my horizons of happiness were very limited.

God and our desires

I learnt to see that God’s will for my life matches the deepest desires of my heart, since it’s Him who has placed them there. That there doesn’t have to be a dichotomy when one lives in grace and has an intimate and honest relationship with the Lord. That when one sees a good way and a bad way, the logical thing is to choose the good one, and you’ll find the cross there, but not the heavy yoke of the evil, which are different things. That the Lord is looking forward to giving us good things, and isn’t happy that we suffer.

That doesn’t mean we’re always going to be cheery, or that we don’t have to make renounces and sacrifices; but it does mean that we must not choose systematically and/or in fundamental choices in life whatever causes us the most rejection because we believe that would be the most perfect thing. We can like something that’s bad, or not like something that’s good, but those cases are pretty well delimited in the commandments.

What’s not true is that, if we like something, then it’s not good. The more we grow in a life of grace and virtue, the more similar what we like and what’s good will be. We shouldn’t discard our personal preferences when discerning, God has created us with preferences towards certain things not so as to we have to put up with them and suppress them, but so as to, orienting them well, we discover what we’re called to do. He wants us to be happy.

Still...

I still struggle to grasp this; when I want something, when I like something, I tend to think that then surely it’s not what God wants. It’s a wound that I’m healing little by little, as I get to know better the Heart of Jesus.

3. You’re going to feel trapped in your own mind. Or expelled from it

Those were my two more common states of mind in the beginning of recovery. Many times I felt trapped, locked up, there were too many voices, very loud screams, noisy alarms, everything against me, and I couldn’t escape, get out of there, stop listening. I couldn’t block the thoughts that tormented me because they didn’t come like from outside, but they were inside, 24×7, non-stop. And you can’t run away because you can get out of your own mind.

But there was something even worse, and it was, sometimes —when I had the most serious panic attacks— feeling like I was indeed on the brink of getting out of my own mind. Being expelled, letting my last voice fade and the thoughts take all control. Like ceasing to exist, or at least entering into a lethargy until something or someone was able to wake me again. It never finally happened, the thin thread of my sanity wasn’t broken, but I was utterly frightened at some episodes.

The problem is that, during all the time I’d been actively engaging in the eating disorder, I had let the thoughts enter, proliferate, take the seats of honor and assume the government. Because I thought they were me. With recovery, I discovered I wasn’t them, and now I had to reconquer the stronghold of my mind. But it can be done. At some point, the tables were turned and I saw I was inside, and they were the ones trying to attack to get in. They’re difficult to hold back, and sometimes they’ve won the assaults (before, often; now, seldom). But having to be the one who attacks is not the same as being the one who only needs to defend the stronghold. Taking control is not the same as just protecting it.

"The desperate man" - Gustave Courbet. 1885.

4. The mind recovers following the body

Usually, the mind goes far behind the body in a recovery process. The weight goes up, but you aren’t getting better internally. That makes you want to stop, because you just feel worse and worse every day, seeing your body getting out of hand. But, in the end, the physical recovery drags the mental recovery. They go together, and keeping on with the first one makes possible for the second one to start getting better, and with time, to catch up.

Because there’s a part of the mind that’s physical. The brain suffers the effects of malnutrition, you can’t think well when you don’t feed it enough. I with anorexia believed that I could, that I was more intelligent than other people because I didn’t have fat interfering with my mental functions, but that was just another trap to keep me hooked up. The brain consumes approximately 20% of the calories we eat, so it’s very affected when those are too low.

When we think of the tissues that needs to be repaired with recovery, we always come up with things like the heart, the bones or the gut, all of which are very important, but we overlook the brain. And, if the other organs can’t function optimally until they aren’t repaired, why do we expect the brain to do so?

Many of our thoughts, including body dysmorphia, will improve drastically or disappear once our brain is more recovered. Therefore, don’t fall into the trap of waiting until the mind is better to resume physical recovery thinking that, if not, you won’t be able to cope with more physical changes. Trust the process.

5. It’s more worth it to look to the future than to the past

It makes no sense to constantly stir up possible causes, hidden traumas, your family, your environment… That’s what many psychologists like to do. Trying it isn’t bad, perhaps you see a very specific cause and you have to act on it. But I believe that, when it isn’t obvious, it’s not worth it to insist and reopen old issues.

Instead, moving on is much more fruitful. The thing is, you are where you are, what are you going to do to move forward? Coming up with ideas of practical things, of the next right step you can take. Leaving the past behind and not throwing pity parties. Learning to live again, strategies to cope with your daily fights, goals and dreams to achieve, finding a meaning and a direction and figuring out how to get there. How to survive to the attacks every day, first, and how to fully live, later.

That’s why I liked to read Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl, whose psychological approach invites more to search and to hit the road, rather than to lament your past. I also needed to find a meaning after the only one I had ever known was torn to pieces. 

It’s also the story of Ruth Soukup, the creator of the blogging course Elite Blog Academy. She suffered a series of terrible episodes of depression, and when she finally decided to get out of it, she said to her therapist that she didn’t want to talk about the past or explore her traumas; that hadn’t worked all the previous times. She wanted to know how to live from then on, how to rebuild her life from the state she was in, looking forward. And thanks to that, she could little by little get out of the hole.

6. Say things out loud

Don’t be ashamed to ask for help. That doesn’t make you weak, just the opposite. And once you have it, be honest, very honest. Just having the humility and courage to say the thoughts out loud weakens the ED a lot. That’s one of the first things I learned. I realized that what was more characteristic of this illness was secrecy, the lies, and therefore now I had to do things the other way around in order to recover. So from the first moment I was very honest with the people that were helping me.

When I had the worst thoughts, the ones I would never want anyone to find out about, I told them. Overcoming the fear that they could believe (or discover) that I was a horrible person, that I was crazy or anything worse. That way, I showed the ED that it didn’t have me tied, intimidated and submissive anymore; that it wasn’t going to shut me up. Sacrifice the “what will they think”: salve your body and your soul.

7. Own your faults. But turn the page

We always have freedom. No matter how under attack we are. And responsibility. There’s a trend to diminish people’s freedom, to justify their worst actions because of the hard circumstances they’ve had to live (like the obsession in the movies that all the villains from traditional tales deep down are good). But we mustn’t accept a role of victims, as if we were subdued by superior forces that decide our actions. No. We’ve done bad things in our eating disorder, and it’s us who have done them, not it. Deceived, manipulated, yes, but we always had a choice.

This is the way to assume too that now we have a choice and we have a responsibility. It’s important to have blind trust in the people who are guiding us through this journey, yes, knowing that we can’t trust our judgment and believing what everything inside us screams it’s a lie, and doing what makes us feel awful. But that doesn’t mean passivity. We need to choose recovery every day, actively. The constant guidance, letting others lead us by the hand, must be a temporary stage; at some point you’ll have to take charge.

Consecuences

That’s what happens, unfortunately, to many people at inpatient treatment. They get used to a situation in which what they do doesn’t matter, whether they cooperate or resist, whether they work at getting better or they’re just there, because at the end of the day the doctors are going to make sure they’re kept alive. When they go home, they aren’t able to continue recovery there, and they enter a vicious cycle of inpatient and relapse. Only when they choose recovery consciously and actively (even in the context of being inpatient, which can be useful), they’re able to break it.

This also means you can’t treat people as you fancy just because you’re in pain. You have no right to take out your anger on others and believe they always have to excuse you because you’re sick. It’s not even good for yourself, it depersonifies you.

Accepting salvation

But don’t beat yourself up. Don’t enter a spiral of self-hatred. Sometimes you’re going to lose your nerves, make mistakes, relapse into ED behaviors, do what you know you mustn’t do. Own it. Fix it as far as possible, but don’t get frustrated if you can do that completely.

Jesus Christ has already paid for you, because He loves you and wants you to keep going. The same thing applies when you see the horror of the things you’ve done. They’re in the past. Own them, take them to Confession, and leave them behind. You don’t have to add more burdens to the heavy one you’re already carrying.

8. Everything doesn’t work for everyone

Take from each person (including me) whatever helps you. There are as many distinct ways to recover as people in recovery. There are very dogmatic people who believe everyone has to follow a method to the letter: eating a certain number of calories, not counting calories, being inpatient no matter what, x meals per day…

I think that each case is different and it’s great to share what has helped you most so those who come later can take ideas, but not for them to copy us, just for them to discover their own model by taking things from several sources.

For example, there are several things in which my recovery hasn’t been conventional (and that doesn’t make it better or worse, there are people who thrive in conventional advice, but no one should feel guilty if that doesn’t work for them):

Exercise:

A lot of times, it’s said that people in recovery shouldn’t work out until they reach a healthy weight. For me, however, it’s been really helpful. The key is learning to use it to build and not to destroy, as the purging method it used to be.

It must be adapted to the state of the body and only increased with supervision. It’s a privilege, not a right. But it’s served me to release stress, to improve my mood, to appreciate my body for what it can do and look to be stronger to overcome new challenges and, together with that, to improve my body image

Cooking:

Sometimes the person in recovery is expelled from the kitchen, to prevent her from becoming nervous when she sees the ingredients used (such as the amount of oil) and so there aren’t conflicts or she tries to impose her will over the food that’s cooked.

But I think it’s worth it to put up with the tantrums. At first, my mother and I always ended up crying in the kitchen. But now I’m glad to have been there, so it’s become a natural process. I love to eat things I’ve cooked with my own hands, especially when they are fear foods such as sweets. It’s therapeutic.

Knowledge:

People usually frown when someone in recovery wants to learn about nutrition, as if it was just another facet of her obsession. For me, on the contrary, it’s been very helpful, since it’s served me to demystify food, get rid of false beliefs, and have solid arguments to refute my thoughts. Also to get fascinated by how the human body works, so I want to honor it better.

Having knowledge empowers me since now I don’t just have to follow rules, but I understand the reason behind them and I can be more in charge of my own recovery.

Choosing isn't restricting:

I’m a firm advocate of the idea that one should try all the foods at the beginning of recovery, since usually almost every reason to refuse to eat something is an excuse because you’re scared of that food. You must be careful not to go from one disorder to another and fall into orthorexia. It must be taught that there aren’t bad foods in themselves and help the person to relax their customs.

But, as the process goes forward, the person in recovery can be allowed to make her own decisions. For example, I first decided to choose real food over ultra-processed food, being careful not to turn that into an obsession. And now I’m opting too for a more sustainable way of eating that takes into account animal wellbeing. 

Obviously, these two changes have limited the amount of food options among which I usually choose. However, I don’t feel inhibited or restricted at all, because I’ve made these choices freely, with knowledge and because of a personal conviction. Freedom isn’t exercised by keeping open the more options the better, but by choosing the ones you perceive as better.

Knowing your weight:

Another thing that’s usually contraindicated is to weight yourself. I, however, know I’d have gone crazy if I hadn’t known my weight throughout the whole process. Then, I’d have believed all the time that I was gaining weight too fast.

Knowing the number has helped me to be more objective and that way not to let body dysmorphia totally deceive me. Again, there’s no reason to be scared of a number, it’s just one more piece of information, and knowing it allows you to be more in charge of your recovery.

9. It’s ok to take a break

Recovery requires, at many moments, 100% of your attention and energy. It will drain your time and strength. Therefore, don’t demand yourself to have the same pace of life as others who don’t have to carry this heavy additional burden. You aren’t weak for having to take your time and set your own pace. Prioritize your health, especially your mental health.

I always think I should have taken some time off college, it was a mistake to push myself to the limit. I did slow down the pace in the last quarter, leaving some subjects to the extra exam session… but it would have been good to have some more peace. So, if something is affecting your mental balance, cut it off or pause it for a while.

Yes, I've tried to select one with a similar lighting on purpose.

10. When you think you have everything under control, it will attack you from where you least expect it

You can’t take anything for granted. So don’t be surprised, or at least don’t get frustrated, when suddenly a fire you thought was extinguished burns you again. It has happened to me especially when I’ve started to behave in a slightly prideful way, forgetting my total dependance on God’s grace. He has shown me many times that if it wasn’t for the mercy He is constantly pouring over me, I’d fall again and again. 

You’ll have the most primitive thoughts again: such as clunky attacks of making me feel fat or like my stomach protrudes from my jeans, when it isn’t true, but I have that perception and it’s maddening…. that used to happen to me constantly in the beginning of recovery, and then I thought I had overcome it, but still some days it suddenly comes back.

You’ll fall in obvious things: such as reading triggering websites when you know they don’t do you any good, but you think that, bah, they aren’t going to affect you anymore…

11.You’ll realize how messed up society is

As you recover, you notice that many things that were part of your illness are totally accepted and praised by society. People boast about skipping meals, say they’re going to compensate, apply moral adjectives to food (speaking about temptations, saying “I’ve been bad”, etc.), restrict whole food groups, demonize sugar, carbs or fats, eat less in public and always complain that they’ve been served too much… Diet culture is really annoying. Once you recover, you’ll be better off than most people.

I feel I have the mission to educate, to fight against the alarming myths and lies that are spread through the media, against concepts such as applauding food restriction as if it denoted willpower, against the need to justify what you’re eating out of fear of being judged, etc. Eating disorders sprout from the disordered eating prevailing in society.

This includes the other extreme too: laughing at “healthy food” and exercise, eating whatever without thinking about its nutritional qualities, the epidemic of overweight and obesity… In fact, they’re two sides of the same coin. Balance and temperance have been lost.

I believe the solution to this implies restoring the order God-soul-body on which St. Augustine insists so much. That, when God reigns over our soul, we may learn how He guides it and takes care of it, and apply the same principles to the reign of the soul over the body.

12. God gives you the grace you need at each moment

Worrying beforehand isn’t worth it, you’re causing yourself an unnecessary suffering; the only one, in fact, because the rest of them —the ones in the present— can be offered and therefore aren’t lost, but this one is vacuous since it isn’t any cross we’ve come across, but one we’ve made ourselves.

Most of your fears will never come into reality, and even if they do, they won’t be as you had imagined them. There are things I thought I wouldn’t be able to cope with, but when they’ve arrived, I had changed so much at that point that they haven’t even bothered me.

For example?

For example, being at the weight I’m at now is very different from what I had imagined. I thought I was going to see myself so horrible that I wouldn’t even be able to look at myself in the mirror, but my body image has healed too.

I thought that I’d be stressed all day long, measuring everything to the millimeter out of fear of gaining more weight, but I had never felt as free around food as I do now.

I thought I’d have to restrict my intake massively to avoid overshooting, but now I can eat intuitively. And I’m doing fine.

I thought I’d need to stop a little bit below a healthy weight in order to know I have “a margin”, but now I can even begin to accept that the margin begins at the minimum healthy weight, not below it.

St. Augustine prayed: “Give what You command, and command what You will”. And that’s how He acts. But He doesn’t give you more either. Just what you need at each moment to take the next right step. One of the things that my spiritual director has had to repeat more to me is that, when you start thinking about problems of the future, it’s like if you were facing them without the divine grace for it, only with your own strength. That’s why they seem so unsurmountable. But, when they arrive, if they arrive, it’s completely different because at that moment you can count on grace.

13. Recovery doesn’t mean you stop suffering. But it’s wonderful

I love reading recovery stories, but sometimes you can get the impression that once you achieve it, you’re going to enjoy a perfect and stress-free life. It’s not like that. Don’t be disappointed when new desolations come. But it’s 100% worth it. Because it gives you a real life: the other thing is a life so full of lies that it can’t truly be called life.

Truth sets us free, because only with it can we achieve our full potential, fully develop, be who we’re called to be. Free to love, because we don’t have to devote our total attention to the food idol. Because we don’t have to be constantly lying to and hurting our loved ones. When our life dream ceases to be being sick and being left alone so we can be even sicker.

Powerful descriptions

Evelyn Waugh, an English writer of the 20th century, said the following quote referring to his conversion to Catholicism, and I apply it to recovery too, which after all is another conversion:

“Conversion is like stepping across the chimney piece out of a looking-glass world, where everything is an absurd caricature, into the real world God made; and then begins the delicious process of exploring it limitlessly”.

That’s the best definition I’ve found to date. That’s exactly what happens. Waugh also said that: “every hour you spend outside the Church is an hour lost”. And, in parallel, every hour you spend without undertaking recovery, or without taking it seriously, staying in a limb, is an hour lost. Because you’re living half-assed, wasting the time you have to that delicious limitless exploration, to expand your ability of loving and receiving love, to have the strength needed to fulfill your mission in this world.

Moreover, when we suffer, especially when we suffer for our mental health and enter semi-depressive or depressive states, the only thing that’s truly effective is to hold fast to objective truths. Not trying to motivate ourselves and feel better, that’s ephemeral. You need to hold fast to what doesn’t change, what’s immutable, and that offers the best consolation.

14. Recovery is so much more than gaining weight

It affects the person as a whole. I don’t recognize myself when I look back; yes, there are certain features, qualities and values that are the same. For the people outside, I think the transformation isn’t so notorious, that they think I’m the same person but I’ve removed something, the ED. They underestimate the place it had in my life. It was my whole life, it impregnated everything. I’ve had to build from scratch.

In fact, I don’t even know up to what point recovery is a precise name, because the prefix re- indicates “again” or “backwards”, while in this case you don’t go back to anywhere. You don’t end up as you were before going through this, especially when you’ve been sick for as many years as me, but I think even if you haven’t. I think it’s impossible to go through something as this (purifying) fire of recovery and come to the other side as you were before.

15. I’m still scared

I never know what I should say; am I recovered, or am I in recovery?. My body has arrived to a weight that’s «healthy» according to the BMI scale (but… healthy for ME?); my mind —despite all its progress— is still a bit behind.

Until now, when I had bad body image, I could tell myself that it wasn’t possible for me to be fat if my BMI was indicating that I was underweight. But, now I’ve reached a «normal» BMI, I can’t tell that to myself anymore. I can’t oppose that reason against my thoughts.

Until now, when I saw other girls and thought they were thinner than me, I knew that most likely they actually weren’t and it was just a distortion of mine, but that even if they were, then it was their problem because that would mean they were malnourished. Now I sometimes have to face a situation in which I’m not the thinnest girl in a group.

Until some time ago, people saw that I needed to gain weight. Now, people think I’m already healthy. So I’m scared that if I keep gaining people will start to think that I’ve gone too far, that I should stop now, that I’ve gone too much into the other side.

What's next for me?

It scares me a lot to not know which weight above the minimum «healthy» will I have to reach so it’s really healthy for me. I know the minimum one isn’t usually the optimal one. Even if I’ve got my period back, I still need to rebuild damaged parts of my body, especially my bones. I know that all the girls I follow as recovery inspirations aren’t at the minimum, and yet I think they’re perfect.

I know that the healthiest weight has to be also the most beautiful one, that God wouldn’t have created us in a way that we had to choose between those two goods, that they were contradictory. But what I know isn’t always what I feel. And what I feel is fear.

Fortunately, all those fears are physical ones. That’s why they can’t stop me. As I said in the beginning of this post, what used to hold me back more were my spiritual and moral fears. Knowing that God is with me, that I’m not going against Him but with Him and towards Him, I know the fears don’t come from Him. They’re enemies to fight against. And if I’m good at something, that’s at fighting. Which isn’t a great merit either, since I’m enrolled in the best army.

If you’re in the same situation I was 2 years ago, it’s your moment to rebirth. I invite you to take the first step by contacting myself of filling the form you can find at paolapetrinut.com/consultations. Today. Remember, every hour you let pass without taking action is a lost hour. I can’t ask you not to be afraid, but I can ask you to jump, even if you’re afraid.

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