Recovery from an Eating Disorder: Unlocking the Mystery
Patients often enter treatment with little or no hope for recovery. Almost always they ask whether recovery is possible. They talk about finding it difficult to imagine a life free from their eating disorder. It feels difficult to imagine they will ever come to peace with food. Many have been told that they will always struggle in some capacity and that a full recovery is not possible. Family members and friends worry too, is this something their loved one will always be destined to deal with?
Unfortunately, the field of eating disorders has been vague and contradictory about defining recovery. Outcome studies have varied widely in the criteria used to measure recovery. Few studies assess a truly holistic approach one that measures psychological, social and physical functioning.
A recent article in the NY times examined this very issue from a variety of angles:
Many have responded with frustration that the article did not adequately focus on HOPE and the idea that full recovery is sustainable and lasting. I think the article portrayed different perspectives and different view points. After all, every individuals experience with an eating disorder is diverse and personal to their own lived experience. Why should the recovery process be any different?
Although I don’t disagree with the article I do think it is important to promote hope. True and lasting recovery from an ED, food preoccupation and weight anxiety is absolutely possible! Yet maintaining a full and lasting recovery does not mean there may not be work along the way.
Do people with a history of an ED have a vulnerability to relapse? Absolutely. So do people who experience alcoholism, depression and anxiety. If we believe there are biological predispositions to these illnesses (and the research strongly supports there are), then we have to understand that this makes people predisposed to developing them and potentially relapsing. It does not mean they will. You can be recovered and still understand that dieting could be triggering or a certain environments or competition regarding weight loss is unhealthy for you. I tell my patients that just like I would not encourage an alcoholic to hang out in a bar, I would discourage them from dieting or engaging in weight loss promoting activities. That does not mean they are not recovered, quite the opposite. It means they understand themselves and are able to navigate their own vulnerabilities while protecting their health they have worked so hard to regain.