Long-Term Strategies for Surviving Your Eating Disorder
Eating disorders are serious health conditions that can sabotage virtually every aspect of a person's life. Untreated eating disorders can progress in severity and become life-threatening, requiring professional help to treat and manage.
An estimated 30 million Americans, 20 million of whom are women, are affected by an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Although symptoms most often develop by young adulthood, an eating disorder can occur at any age. Certain traits—including perfectionism, impulsiveness and the need for control—seem to predispose a person to develop an eating disorder.
Most common eating disorders
The three most common types of eating disorders are:
People who suffer from anorexia are usually severely underweight and have a heightened fear of gaining weight. Anorexia nervosa goes hand in hand with body dysmorphia—a condition that causes people to hyperfixate on flaws that may be real or perceived. People with anorexia nervosa live by strict rules about their food and lifestyle, and maintain a false sense of control over themselves and their environment by restricting food intake.
Long-term recovery from anorexia nervosa ultimately comes from letting go of rigid rules and the need for control. Embracing imperfections is key. Psychologists typically suggest replacing negative thinking with positive self-talk and affirmations, such as "I love and nurture myself," "I am worthy of love exactly as I am right now" and "I love nourishing my body and mind with positive, healthy foods and thoughts."
This condition is characterized by overeating, forced vomiting, overuse of laxatives and diuretics, and excessive exercise. Binge eating followed by purging often enables bulimics to maintain average or even fit bodies, and that often allows sufferers to hide their eating disorder from family and friends. However, long-term effects of purging include blood pressure abnormalities, kidney problems, indigestion, constipation, diarrhea and heartburn. People with bulimia nervosa have a tendency to be quick-tempered and are prone to impulsivity and poor decision-making.
Recovery often includes a combination of medications, nutrition education and therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy, family-based treatment and interpersonal psychotherapy. Though most people recover, symptoms can recur later in life due to life circumstances. Consult your doctor if you find yourself back in a binge-purge cycle.
Binge eaters consume more-than-normal amounts (which varies depending on the person) of food rapidly, even if they're not hungry or are even feeling stuffed. They then try to hide their eating and feel shame, disgust, regret or guilt when thinking about binging. Binge eaters are often overweight, and unlike in bulimia cases, they do not try to purge the food or calories. Instead, they use food or eating to cope with anxiety, depression, fear, anger and loneliness. Obesity puts binge eaters at risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain kinds of cancers and other health conditions.
Long-term strategies for recovery include developing positive coping strategies, journaling, art therapy, exercise and building a community to turn to for support during difficult times.
Seeing it firsthand
My eating disorder began with an addiction to sugar and flour products in early childhood. I am the classic "one is too many and 50 is not enough" when it comes to candy, cookies, sugary cereals, pizza and pasta. By the time I was a teenager, I was bulimic.
In early adulthood, I was obsessed with eating, not eating and making sure whatever I did eat did not end up as weight on my body. I read every diet book ever written. The Mediterranean and South Beach were not destinations, but rather magic bullets that would finally fix me. I hired personal trainers, nutritionists, life coaches and hypnotists. I spent extraordinary amounts of time and money trying to achieve an ever-changing goal weight.
I paid a high price for my eating disorders. I lost jobs and relationships. I picked fights with live-in boyfriends so they would leave me alone to eat the way I wanted. I avoided having sex because of my shame. At other times, I sought a succession of partners to validate my attractiveness. I was often baffled by my own behavior.
Now, my long-term strategy for coping is simple: One day at a time, I completely surrender my behavior with food and I seek support.
Today, I eat three weighed and measured meals a day to ensure I neither over- nor undereat. I don't snack or graze because this could lead me to binge. I avoid all foods that trigger my compulsions. I rigorously examine the underlying personality aspects and trauma that triggered my eating disorders, and I have a huge network I can call for support when I discover something about myself or my past that feels overwhelming.
Help is available
Recovery from an eating disorder is not one-size-fits-all. The options for help include psychotherapy, intuitive eating, mindful eating and 12-step programs, which base recovery on spiritual principles. There are a variety of websites that can help you learn more about eating disorders, such as the National Eating Disorders Association website.
Each of these methods must incorporate support. Your chances of permanently overcoming an eating disorder are much greater when you can lean on a community seeking the same goal.
I didn't think it was possible to live free from my obsession with food, my body and my weight. Twelve years into recovery from the full gamut of eating disorders, I can positively say recovery is not always easy, but it's never impossible.