Bulimia Recovery: Recovery ≠ “Better”

When I labeled myself as being in recovery for an eating disorder, I have noticed among my peers, friends, and even my parents, that the word, “recovery”, especially in relation to eating disorder recovery, magically equates to me being one hundred percent healthy, bulimia free, and even “normal” at times. There is this idea that recovery means eating disorder treatment is a cure-all. Interestingly enough, if you were to Google the word, “recovery”, the first definition that comes up is this: “a return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.” While this definition gives a nice overview of the idea of recovery, it leaves out the main component that is crucial for everyone to understand: the process.

That single, essential idea tends to get left out when people think about recovery and it causes me, and maybe others, to feel pressured to have a linear recovery, free of the highs and lows that are actually quite common during recovering from disordered eating.

The stigma around recovery from bulimia nervosa is tough to tackle because one day I feel like I’m on top of the world: having positive thoughts, listening into my hunger cues and body, not restricting foods, able to make choices for myself, feeling comfortable in my own skin, my thoughts are occupied by the notes I'm reading from class, not the dinner I just ate, and I’m open when talking about my struggles with my therapist. This laundry list of things is what recovery feels like for me, and while it’s not exhaustive, being able to accomplish even one of those tasks gives me a euphoric feeling, rather than filling me with guilt, as it usually would before I began my recovery. Others struggling with disordered eating may have different goals for their recovery, and that is perfectly okay. Everyone is unique in how they recover and format their goals.

The caveat, like most things in life, is that not all days are filled with sunshine, positivity, and joy. Some days, I cry myself to sleep because the thought of the oily Asian food that I had for dinner now digesting in my stomach will later be converted to fat. Other days, my clothes feel like they’re suffocating me, so I change my outfit three times. Maybe, I felt like I overate with friends, didn't listen to my hunger cues, so I go and throw it up in the bathroom to ease my anxiety that would come later that day. It’s unpredictable and damn near difficult, and while most days would not reach these extremes, they certainly can be common among those recovering.

Experiencing some of those events makes me upset, but I also realize that this is a learning experience stemming from something that I just went through that day or week. It could have been stress from my chemistry midterm, getting sick from the flu, or just not getting enough sleep. Stepping back and looking at the whole picture helps me realize that I haven’t backtracked in my recovery, just experienced an off day, like any other person would have.

The problem is when I do end up having a not-so-great day and I share about it on social media or with friends over text, people become confused, taken aback, because – wait, “I thought you were in recovery?”

Those in recovery are just like any other person you may encounter on your daily commute: angry, upset, happy, or content. We’re humans, too. We all have off days, even with our eating disorders. From someone else’s perspective, our bad day might be interpreted as falling back into our disordered eating tendencies, while, in reality, sometimes, it’s just that we tried something new that day.

It’s never simple, attempting to accomplish a task you’ve been afraid of for so long; it takes rigor and perseverance to break through the mental blockade you’ve become accustom to facing for so long. The fact that we felt comfortable enough to try and branch out of our comfort zone, to attempt to reach this idea of “normal” set by societal standards, it is a big leap. But, sometimes our ED comes back out and latches onto us because it does not want us to leave it for a better, healthier, much happier lifestyle.

Recovery does not always signify that we’ve finally abandoned all of the terrible struggles we’ve experienced with eating disorders or the situations that arose from them; that would be ridiculous! Recovery is a period of learning to trust yourself and the decisions you make day to day. It’s not a simple process, but one thing we can hope for, if we have shared that we are in recovery, is that those around us can understand that this journey is not easy or straightforward; there are off days, and those off days do not necessarily mean we have backtracked in our recovery.