For those of us who have never personally struggled with an eating disorder, it is easy to judge, easy to assume that recovery is just a matter of trying harder. Or that once a person in treatment has regained their weight, strength and physical health, they have fully recovered. The Trauma and Attachment Report recently had the opportunity to talk with Trisha, who is in the process of recovering from an eating disorder (ED). This is her story.
Q: Can you tell me how you realized you had an eating disorder?
A: My problems with eating began around grade 10 or 11. My parents noticed my weight was going down and I would try to hide it. I would engage in self-induced vomiting. I knew that something was messed up about it, but I didn’t think ‘eating disorder.’ I thought this is just want I’m doing to control my weight.
My parents booked an appointment with a psychologist who told me I could be diagnosed with both bulimia and anorexia. I was sceptical about what she was telling me, and stubbornly denying that something was wrong. I saw weight loss as a good thing, and I didn’t understand why anyone was telling me that I was doing something wrong. Finally in grade 12, I realized it was a problem and started seeing the psychologist regularly.
Q: What program best helped you on your road to recovery?
A: I went to Toronto General Hospital’s day program for eating disorders. I would go there from 9-5. Throughout the days there were different groups to attend. I had breakfast at home, and had lunch and dinner at the hospital. Everything I ate was supervised. There were also different therapy groups like Family therapy and Art Therapy as well as a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) group.
The CBT group was about identifying triggering situations and changing core thought processes surrounding these situations so they don’t lead to disordered eating behaviors. This was one of the most important things for me. During recovery I was at the grocery store, and I filled my cart with bread and carbohydrates and such, and a woman in line behind me said, “Oh wow, you’re very thin for eating like that!” And I immediately thought, “Oh my god, what am I eating? This woman thinks I’m going to get fat if I eat this stuff.” I took the situation to my CBT group, completed a ‘thought record’ (which is a CBT exercise), and it helped me change my problematic thoughts around what happened.
Q: What factors in your life made it easier to overcome the eating disorder?
A: First, having a good support network is extremely important. For me it was my family: my mom, dad and brother, because I wasn’t open to telling my friends. My family really listened to me. Some see their daughters struggling with an ED and think that it’s just a phase. My parents fortunately were open-minded enough to see it as a serious illness and they never minimized it. I also had a good psychologist and a dietician. My dietician helped me conquer food fears and helped create a meal plan, and my psychologist really helped me talk about my issues.
Also, concentrating on feeling like a normal person is huge. I always felt like ‘I WAS the eating disorder.’ So focusing on taking time to do things I enjoyed and doing things that made me feel like I’m more than just an eating disorder was very important. My friends would help me feel like me again, we would go to movies and hang out, we would talk. They reminded me of who I really was.
Q: What made it harder to overcome the eating disorder?
A: Being in a relationship was very difficult. I was seeing someone at the time and when you’re in a sexually intimate relationship, you have to be comfortable with your body. It was extremely difficult to be comfortable with my body especially when we were intimate, and it was very hard to get over that. I kept thinking ‘I don’t like my body, I have to keep being sick.’
Second, being around people who are very diet oriented and people who are “healthy eaters,” (but who are actually restrictive eaters) was very triggering. I sometimes feel restrictive eating has become synonymous with healthy eating habits, but that doesn’t have to be the case. As well, being in a very media-focused world and being constantly exposed to images of thin people was very difficult for me.
Q: What important lessons do you think you left the treatment program with?
A: I walked away with a more realistic view of myself, that my self worth was not contingent on my body size. I was fortunate that the psychologists were interested in who I was and invested in my success. One question I remember being asked really sticks out for me: what my dreams were, what I wanted to have on my tombstone. Did I want it to say ‘Trisha, stayed 100 pounds all her life, cared about counting fat grams.’
I realized that if I continued with my ED I couldn’t be the kind of person I want to be. I also left treatment with a healthy attitude towards food. I could see ice cream as just food, not poison. Before treatment, I thought I was only lovable if I was thin.
Q: Do you still experience negative eating disordered thoughts?
A: Definitely. I still have days when I hate my body. I don’t think it’s a realistic expectation to love your body every second of every day. For me, it’s become more about body acceptance and being present in my body. I know it’s not necessarily the most perfect body, but I’m going to accept it. I want to live my life to the fullest and for me to do this, acceptance is key.
My ED really creeps up on me during periods of stress. I purged once over winter break after a rough time with my family. The important thing is that I see it as a set-back but not a relapse. I still want to continue with my recovery.
Q: How do you deal with these negative thoughts?
A: I know that I don’t want to go down that road again, and my ED is a very slippery slope. What starts out as purging once a week will become twice a day. Once I see little red flags, I know that I need to start focusing more closely on eating normally and having a healthy attitude towards food.
People think that recovery happens once the person has restored a normal weight, but that isn’t accurate. Recovery is a long term commitment. It’s easy to feel discouraged but every day gets easier, and eventually there will be a time when food and weight don’t have the same control over your life.
Q: What would you tell someone who was struggling with recovery?
A: That is a very difficult and important question for me because a friend of mine who suffered with anorexia recently died. I would tell someone who is struggling:
Find out what purpose is for you. Work with that and constantly challenge yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask for support, the people in your life love you and want to help you. You should take full advantage of that and increase this support by seeking out a psychologist.
Most important: Even though you have an eating disorder, this does not mean you are an eating disorder.
-Jeanine Tang, Contributing Writer