How does a person heal from an eating disorder? I wish that was a simple answer. Personally, I would reframe the question as: What path of healing works best for me?
I wish that healing for me meant the same as healing for you, because then I could give you a specific gameplan. But healing is unique to each person and each body.
Recently, one individual who has helped me to better understand the journey of recovery has been theologian Henri Nouwen in his book The Inner Voice of Love. Below are some bits of wisdom from Nouwen and how each has shaped my own perspective of the healing process. I hope they may be of some help to you or someone you know who is struggling with recovering from an eating disorder — take what you need and leave what you don’t.
Healing requires a deep sense of connection between self and others.
“Your own growth cannot take place without growth in others. You are part of a body. When you change, the whole body changes. It is very important for you to remain deeply connected with the larger community to which you belong… your journey is made not just for yourself but for all who belong to the body.”
Though I am from a family of seven and am a twin, I am still highly individualistic. It has often been difficult for me to welcome experiences that are different from my own, or to accept the fact that I really am just like others in many ways.
The eating disorder magnified this attitude by convincing me that I was special because I had an eating disorder (that is, until I found out just how many people were actually struggling with the same disease!). Eating disorders feed off of secrecy and isolation, but they begin to lose their power in connection and relationship.
For me, eating disorder support groups helped to normalize the illness; friends and family reminded me of how much the world needed my gifts; and my faith community helped me to understand that my identity lies not in my own struggles, but in the person I am becoming, the people I am helping, and the God I am glorifying because of them.
I needed to love the me who struggled with an eating disorder; to accept the me who was sick.
“You have to acknowledge where you are and affirm that place. You have to be willing to live your loneliness, your incompleteness, your lack of total incarnation fearlessly, and trust that God will give you the people to keep showing you the truth of who you are.”
Eating disorders thrive on shame: “I am too X, or too Y.” So telling myself every day that I wouldn’t be worthy until I was healthy again was not helpful for my recovery. Yes, I was sick and struggling, but I was not “better” or “worse” as a person because of it.
I began changing the way that I talked to myself. When I noticed that my clothes felt baggy on me, or that I had no energy to go on hikes with my friends, I would tell myself: “What I look like and what I am capable of does not define me as a person.” Slowly, I found that my goals became less about looking a certain way or gaining certain abilities and capabilities, but rather the way that I thought about myself and others.
Though healing had to be a choice of the heart and mind, progress was ultimately out of my hands.
“When suddenly you seem to lose all you thought you had gained, do not despair. You must expect setbacks and regressions. Don't say to yourself, ‘All is lost. I have to start all over again.’ This is not true. What you have gained you have gained.... When you return to the road, you return to the place where you left it, not to where you started.”
Life is complicated. Just because I chose recovery didn’t mean that it was going to magically happen. For example, during a very pivotal week of my recovery, I came down with the stomach bug (talk about bad timing!). I literally blamed myself for picking up germs, adding more undue stress to an already bombarded mind.
After some time, I was able to let go of some control in the recovery process. This took off the pressure of meeting yet another senseless demand: the need to be “perfectly” healthy again and the need to achieve “perfect” recovery (whatever that meant in my mind!). In handing over my recovery journey to God, I could more easily get back on track when I veered off.
There is no one correct way to heal from an eating disorder, and there is no one correct goal for each person.
“You have to trust the inner voice that shows the way. You know that inner voice. You turn to it often. Only by attending constantly to the inner voice can you be converted to a new life of freedom and joy.”
If I’m being completely honest, up until very recently, I struggled immensely with feelings of shame and guilt because of the approach that I have taken towards healing. I felt like a fraud in the recovery community. These anxieties told me that I needed to be on par with the rate of progress of my peers.
Then I realized that in addition to healing being a lifelong journey, it is very much an individual journey. My acceptance of my own personal struggles — some similar to my peers and some different — has allowed me to better connect with others in the recovery community. My own journey toward healing was made more difficult by the fact that I had been (unknowingly) also battling a chronic illness, and owning my story has allowed me to let others own their stories as well.