The Two Phases of My Recovery
December 29, 2014

Green-and-Maroon-by-Mark-Rothko-1953

Whenever I write about eating disorder recovery, I try to avoid framing the experience as a simple before-and-after. We all know that recovery doesn’t work this way; it is a long and winding process, and distinct endpoints are hard to come by.

Take my case, for example: I didn’t wake up one morning and find myself suddenly and irrevocably freed of the obsessions, the anxieties, the urge to express pain through bony ridges and sharp edges. Like most people in recovery, I went through a turbulent process of detachment, a letting go of the habits that had come to define my existence. It grew easier with time, but I didn’t lessen my grip without a fight.

I can’t pinpoint the moment when I started to identify as “recovered.” My recovery seemed to transpire on two tracks: one was physical—weight gain, restoration of my periods, growing stonger—and one was emotional/spiritual, a process in which I had to explore what it really meant to nourish myself with food, and why I had chosen to resist that nourishment for such a long time. I suppose that I started to identify as recovered when I felt confident that both body and mind had undergone a significant amount of healing.

There were some defining moments along the way: the day I put away my scale. The day I bought bigger clothing. The day I ate something fried, or something sweet, or something processed, and didn’t lacerate myself later for it. The day I started to let go of arbitrary rules and regulations, the false little systems of behavior (like food combining) that had created, for me, an infrastructure wherein I was never allowed to indulge too much.

Looking back on it, a lot of my recovery milestones involved putting what had been a quiet, furtive, and shameful struggle into words: the day I told my therapist, who had been urging me to open up about my weight loss for nearly a year, that I wanted and needed her help. The day I was able to use the phrase “eating disorder” in front of my friends. A defining moment: the day I started to write about my history here on Choosing Raw. I had no intention of writing about my anorexia when I started this blog, but doing so has been an inestimable part of the healing process.

There are these pivotal moments, these crucial experiences that show us how far we’ve come. In that sense, it is possible to delineate a “before” and an “after” in the recovery process. But my point is that the process is fluid and shifting and extended, a road you travel always, not a boundary you step across one day.

the-long-and-winding-road

Lately I’ve been thinking about my recovery process as divided into phases. I’d say that there was an acute phase, a phase of active work, of physical and psychological transformation. This phase involved weight gain first and foremost; I believe firmly that recovery and physical restoration are not synonymous, that you can cease the habits and regain bodily health long before you actually heal your relationship with food. But for me, weight gain mattered, because my thinness had become a metaphor for the very tendencies (self-denial, control, yearning) that I needed so badly to leave behind. Active recovery also involved staring down my irrational food fears and anxieties, expanding my “safe list” of things I’d eat and combinations in which I’d eat them. It involved a rediscovery of socializing, of accepting invitations, of stepping out into the real world. Most significantly, it involved the cultivation of honesty: honesty about my struggle, honesty about my food choices and why I made them, honesty about my motives. It was hard work, but it was good work, and I’ve never looked back.

Lately, I’ve been thinking of myself as having entered a new phase of recovery. One might call it the “maintenance phase,” but what I’d actually like to call it is the “growth phase.” This phase isn’t so much about undoing thought patterns or letting go of anxieties or learning to really love food again. It’s about stepping into new vistas of freedom and confidence. Ironically, some of the lessons I’m learning in this phase of my recovery seem to be antithetical to the ones I learned in my initial recovery, and those contrasts are interesting enough that I wanted to write about them today.

 black_and_white_hands

One of the most poignant realizations I made in my early recovery was the recognition that my body was more vulnerable than I’d given it credit for. When you’re in the throws of self-starvation, you often develop a superhuman sense of energy and power, an almost frenzied delight at how little you need to survive. Oftentimes during my ED I was overcome with the feeling that I could fly away, defy my body’s corporeal limitations altogether. This was encouraged by the fact that my first two relapses involved very few immediate health ramifications. I managed to hover above thinness so extreme that I’d have qualified for in-patient treatment, learned how to “pass” for thin-enough-to-be-noticeable but not thin-enough-to-look-frightening. Later on, in my early twenties, I hit a relapse that was more physically extreme, but even then, my health seemed to withstand it. Sure, I was hungry all the time, dizzy often, and had no period, but I kept waiting for my body to buckle under me, and it didn’t. This seemed to augment the superhuman feeling and validate my self-abuse.

In the end though, eating disorders catch up to you. You can survive the starving or the purging or the ferocious exercise for years, but no one walks away unscathed, and this is something that many of us don’t realize until we’re confronted with an ED-related health crisis. For me, the warning signs were the relentless cold, the shivering through multiple layers in August, the head-spinning when I reached the top of a flight of subway stairs, the absent period. Later on, it was the bone scan confirming osteopenia, the hormones that took years to return to normal, my doctor’s suspicions when yearly blood work came back with electrolyte imbalances.

When I entered into recovery in earnest, a huge part of my “process” was learning to respect my body’s limitations and needs: the need for food, the need for sustenance, the inability to cope with deprivation and living on the edge. I don’t have my journal entries from back then (I didn’t want to keep them), but I remember once making a list of bodily demands, and I can approximate it here:

-I need food, lots of it, three times a day
-I need to snack when I’m hungry
-I need to eat well balanced meals
-I need to not skip meals
-I still need to eat breakfast the day after a big dinner

…and so on, and so forth.

I channeled these needs into careful food choices. For a long period during my recovery, I planned every meal in detail, taking care to make each one calorically adequate and balanced in terms of macronutrients. I never skipped a meal, never ate anything on the go that was less than satisfying, and never failed to tote around snacks that would help me make my meals filling enough. All-or-nothing person that I am, I devoted the same diligence to my recovery process that I had to the starvation: I was thoughtful about every bite.

But as we all know, any form of giving too much attention and too much diligence to our food choices, even in the name of self-nourishment or good health, can evoke some of the fixation that characterizes an ED. The new phase I’m diving into now is a phase of letting go, of relaxing my ideas about what I need in order to be healthy, of recognizing that my body is no longer fragile and delicate. Here are some of the mental shifts that have characterized this phase, for me:

Letting go of my “famine” mentality.

For a long time post-recovery, I continued to behave as if I was perched on the brink of starvation. I over-ordered at restaurants, filling half the table with sides and appetizers I didn’t need because I was afraid that my meal wouldn’t be filling enough. I over-shopped at the grocery store, stocking up as if I were stranded on a desert island. I brought a preposterous amount of snacks with me to events and dinners and cocktail parties and airports. The behavior made sense, given my history and the fact that I’m vegan, which means that sometimes restaurant dining and travel and socializing are tricky. But let’s be real: I didn’t need to grocery shop for four, and I certainly didn’t need to order two appetizers and an entrée and two sides at a routine dinner. Nor did I need to bring four snack bars to a two-hour cocktail party.

Learning not to panic when I’m hungry.

The root motive behind all of this over-preparedness with food was, I realize, a desperate desire to avoid hunger. Hunger can be a loaded and triggering sensation for me, and by filling my life up with food options, I managed to avoid it most of the time. This was far better than courting it the way I had in the past, but at this point in my recovery, I feel ready to experience hunger now and then without panicking. I’ve come to accept that if I forget an afternoon snack or a day of work keeps me from having a perfectly balanced lunch, I won’t wither away. Of course I plan well whenever I can, travel with snacks, and so on. But when something doesn’t go as planned, I’m learning to feel hunger without getting triggered or anxious.

Not focusing on “perfect” nutrition all the time.

Learning about nutrition was a cornerstone of my recovery process. I was able to recognize how dangerously I’d been depriving myself in the past of vital nutrients, and this served as motivation to take care of myself better. For me, this meant creating highly balanced and well rounded plates of food. This is still my habit, and it probably always will be, but once again I’m learning to relax. I don’t freak out if I eat a meal that doesn’t have an optimal amount of protein or healthy fat, or if my lunch happens not to be teeming with green leafy vegetables. Life is unpredictable, and if we spend the entire time worrying about how nutritious our food is, we sometimes miss out on the fun.

Learning to leave things up to chance.

Here’s an example: I’m in Vieques right now, and vegan dining is a little tricky at first. Steven and I have done a lot of scouting since we arrived, and we’re finding great stuff (which I’ll blog about soon, when I do some vacation recap!), but we’ve certainly had to modify our normal eating habits a little. In the meantime, we packed snack bars and found a health food store when we got here, so that we could pick up some some bread and peanut butter and fruit for our room.

But this is nothing—nothing—compared to the preparedness campaign I’d have launched a few years ago. That would have involved snack bars, green powders (because god forbid I should go a week without thrice-daily greens), protein powders (because I might perish without a proper number of grams per day), chia seeds, oats, avocados, carrots, multivitamins, probiotics, enzymes, and possibly a travel blender. I have no regrets about how I used to travel: in the wake of my ED, it made me feel safe. And I pass no judgment on anyone who wants to feel similarly well-fed on-the-go. But at this point in my own journey, it’s important for me to loosen up the preventive measures and leave some things to chance. It encourages me to be more flexible with my food choices, making the best of what I’m presented with rather than hewing to my routines. And it reminds me, once again, that my body is less fragile than I think it is.

Not planning my life around my digestive health.

My ED story is heavily intertwined with my history of IBS and digestive illness, because IBS symptoms often compounded and intensified my desire not to eat. My digestion rebelled during the very start of recovery, and then it went through a long, blissful period of being nearly IBS-free. Two summers ago, I got sick with a bacterial infection, and since then my IBS has been infrequent but intermittent. Whereas I used to plan my life around IBS-scrutinizing each food choices with the intention of keeping bloating at bay, blending my meals up into baby food thinking that it would all be easier to digest–I’ve simply come to accept that I live with a digestive condition and I probably always will. Stress is the only trigger that’s predictable, so lately I’m spending less time worrying about how my meals will impact my digestion and more time mitigating my stress levels. Not stressing out about perfect nourishment all the time is a big part of this.

into_the_unknown

I thought about calling this post “the afterlife of recovery” or “the growth phase of recovery,” but in the end I settled on “the two phases of recovery” because I wanted to map out the two very different processes I’ve gone through on my own journey. In the first, it was my task to recognize my body’s limits, to realize that I couldn’t put myself through indefinite amounts of deprivation and expect to sustain longterm health. This meant becoming careful and conscious about the way I ate and treated myself. In this new phase I’m in, I’m learning that, while my body isn’t invincible, it’s also not weak. It is resilient, flexible, and adaptable, and I don’t have to treat myself so delicately anymore. I don’t have to worry about myself anymore. Having taken time to regain my health, I can now trust that it will sustain itself.

I hope that this post resonates with some of my recovered/recovering/ED readers, and provokes some thought. I’d love to know if anyone has had a similar experience, too — what phases have defined recovery for you all?

From the beautiful island of Vieques, I wish you all a great night.

xo

Top image is Green and Maroon by Mark Rothko, 1953.

Categories: Food and Healing

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    57 Comments
  1. I love your blog It shows regardless how you recover at the end of the day everyone is fighting the same beast and that there is no perfect process.

    Mine was far from it I didn’t even get help from councillors or nutritionists. My fam was going through divorce so everything was a bit in the air and my parents were not thinking that straight. So I had to do a lot of self help.

    It has also given me the biggest relief ever. All this time I thought that not getting proper help was the reason I want to eat all the time. Which guess is causing slight resentment in my life and me always thinking to myself I’m not really recovered. Especially after seeing all the people recover on insta it looked so focussed and perfect and mine felt rugged and rushed.
    After reading this tho I feel like all the ‘problems’ that I seem to have with recovery are quite human. I just have to trust that I will survive if I don’t manage to pack all my snacks, eat a meal late or survive off left overs.

    Thank you lovely gen xox

  2. Gena, what a truly wonderful post. I am currently in a stage of recovery where I can strong identify with many of these things. Leaning not to panic if I get hungry and not being so stringent in planing ahead are two of them. I am elated each time you make a post in your recovery series. Thank you for sharing and creating this safe place.

  3. hey gina.

    first of all, this post is so helpful. thanks so much for taking the time to share your story and helping others<3 i have a few questions for you…
    around when i was diagnosed with ibs a few years ago (after a lot of stomach pains), i began eliminating foods that caused discomfort and thus ate small meals with a few snacks, resulting in (unintentional) weight loss. however, i was scared to eat more for a while, thinking it would upset me. eventually, i had to go on a meal plan to regain the weight that had me stuff myself, 3 full meals and snacks, until i restored my weight and could eat normally again.
    however, i got used to "stuffing" myself, and constantly eating and snacking. while i now eat a healthy and balanced diet, i find myself snacking too much, binging, etc, even though i am conscious full, to the point of being uncomfortable.
    i know this happens to some people after restricting. i am getting better at being intuitive, but do you (or anyone else) have any suggestions?
    sorry about the long post, but thanks for your time

  4. Two phases of recovery – I’m guessing you also had two different feelings for this post. It was probably hard to write – letting go of everything you’ve experienced, but I imagine also cathartic.
    I really appreciate you sharing this Gena. I’ve said this before – but I’m in treatment right now and having a difficult time. Seeing your posts is really helping me keep perspective that my recovery doesn’t have to happen overnight. And I breathe a huge sigh of relief seeing all of the stages and phases you went through, seeing that I am going through them too and knowing it’s to a certain degree “normal”. Thank you =)

  5. This was so beautifully written, as are all of your posts. I love the idea of phases of recovery and the concept of being in a growth phase. Even though I have a few solid years of recovery under my belt, I’m acutely aware of the fact that there are certain things my body and mind still need to maintain my recovery. My family and friends might not think twice about skipping a meal, and often wonder why I get upset when I’m around them and also have to skip one, but it’s really a part of my healing because it’s all too easily to let a meal skipped turn into a second, third, and so forth. Recovery has given me a lot of gifts. It has helped me stand up and speak up for my needs, and to take care of myself regardless of what others around me think. It makes me sad to think of the things I used to put myself through, but I’m also grateful for my current health and proud of myself for doing the work it took to get here. Recovery only happens when the person really wants it and they are doing it for themselves. The way I describe my life is that my worst day in recovery is 1,000 times better than my best day in my eating disorder and I mean it. Though in my most vulnerable moments I sometimes miss that high that I got from starving myself, it only lasts for a few seconds because I know now what true strength is, and that’s worth far more to me than anything I got while in my ED.

  6. Gena
    This post is truly beautiful in its authentic and powerful description of something that can be so difficult to put into words… it is very healing to read something that can feel so chaotic and ‘messy’….thank you for that gift – it helps tremendously.

  7. Gena, thank you so much for this wonderful post – I think one of my favourites so far! As a fellow ED “recoverer” I feel the need to congratulate you on the amazing progress you have made and continue to make – I often feel like ED recovery is the work of a lifetime, but condensed.
    Your post really resonated with me, especially the way you describe the various different moments which “quantify” your recovery a bit – using the word “eating disorder” when speaking with friends, etc. I have had very similar experiences, and I find they continue to happen, even though I consider myself well into my recovery from anorexia.
    The power of hindsight has been significant in my experience of my eating disorder, and I find you capture this beautifully here…I could, for example, only vaguely imagine the effect that getting rid of my scale would have on my life. And my slipping into compulsive exercise behaviours (which I maintained for a long time even though I already considered myself recovered) has only really become properly clear to me over the past year or so.
    I suppose what I want to say is recovery never really stops. For me, it has been at times a terribly difficult journey, and as you describe, it has not been an ordered and clear-cut path to walk. But it is so worth it! My recovery has improved my quality of life even in comparison with the time before my ED, and for that I will be forever thankful.

  8. This is a fascinating topic, Gena, and you illuminate it so bravely. I can absolutely relate to phase 1 and 2 recoveries. My phase 1 was rapid and solid. Phase 2 has been a winding, hilly course with lots of vistas where I think I can see the jungle below clearly, and then mountains from which I can see the that the hills were engulfed in jungle. (Or something. I’m dreaming about being back in Vieques now 🙂 ). And I now recognize a (past) relapse in the form of orthorexia, and that ED has been much more tricky than the original AN (if less physically dangerous). Phase 2 had so many pieces… the body dysmorphia that lingers, the denial that I still had ED thoughts, the denial that I needed or deserved help, the denial that I had a bad enough ED to merit any care, and the fear of weight gain or relaxed/spontaneous mindset about food. The fear of losing control and the fear of admitting weakness. There was also the liberated feeling of enjoying food and rebelling against the ED, and the shame I felt afterwards, and the shame when I gained more weight than I needed (which can also occur for physical reasons after an ED). I notice that the body dysmorphia and the food-control-mindset aren’t totally correlated. Sometimes I feel relaxed about food and acknowledge the complexities of nutrition and weight and surrender to them, but hate my body. Other times I feel good about my body, but anxious about adhering to a very healthy diet to sustain my health and body image. Maybe it’s more year by year… and so, in phase 16, the color and humor have returned to everything, and there is much more flexibility and resilience to challenges and triggers, but there’s still shame about sharing my story, and sometimes shame about my body, and sometimes the thrill of a new way-of-eating idea.

    • Laura, this is beautiful, and oh-so challenging, and I hear you- so much of what you shared reigns true for me, particularly the shame in sharing, recognizing past relapses, and the many many phases that we go through in the recovery process. Keep being open and flexible and resilient!!

  9. Good stuff, Gena. So much of what you say resonates with me, but in particular your bit about “basing my life around my digestive health.” Along that vein, I have some advice to seek, from anyone, on how I might treat my own, food-related health issues in a way that recognizes that food is not just about achieving physical health.
    If I might elaborate: some months back I began experiencing a wide range of discomforts. There were digestive symptoms (reflux and upper GI pain), but also hay fever-like symptoms, aches and pains and just general malaise. I went to my NP, who prescribed reflux meds and Flonase, in addition to sternly telling me to avoid caffeine, spicy foods (the usual suspects). Nothing seemed to touch my troubles, and I continued to go back to her seeking relief. Well! By the third time I went back to her she seemed to have had enough of me. When I inquired about getting another endoscopy (I had one a couple years ago for chronic reflux, accompanied by no other symptoms), she said, “There’s no reason for you to get another expensive test. This is clearly food-related. Maybe it’s wheat! Maybe it’s peanuts! You just have to figure out what’s causing it.” And that was that. She gave me no other advice. I left her office feeling very disheartened, and very unsure of what to do.
    Here’s the thing: I’ve begun to appreciate food as more than just a source of sustenance. I work with food, bake for stress relief, and find creating and mastering new recipes engages my brain in a deeply positive way. I love reading cookbooks, using my candy thermometer- all of it! And having to consider what foods might be poisoning me is very depressing. I really resent having to limit my diet. What I resent even more, though, is that my provider couldn’t even be bothered to see how negatively obsessing on my diet could impact me. She couldn’t even be bothered to, say, instruct me on how to do a proper elimination diet, or order a celiac screening. I feel like she just wanted to yell, “Food!” and then leave me to my own devices.
    I’m in the market for a new provider now, but I’m feeling a little scarred by my experience with my NP. I’m wondering how I can find someone who can treat the whole food issue with more nuance, who realizes that food restrictions come with their own risks and are not just to be blundered into.
    I apologize for the long, self-obsessed rant. Any advice, though, is very much appreciated!

  10. Dear Gena, once again you manage to write a post that touches my heart and soul and makes me think about my own life, my choices and relationship towards food as well as how it figures into my life. I can relate to so much in this post, from letting go of over-planing and over-preparing to feeling the exciting and at the same time frightening experience of just letting things come and do whatever feels right when I’m in the particular place at the particular time. I feel so strongly about nutrition but at the same time now – being so busy and hardly having any time to play around in the kitchen – I am too letting go of the idea all my meals have to be perfectly balanced and beautifully arranged as well as really complicated or what else. When I was on holiday this summer, the minimal preparations I took at first scared me so much but boy, there would have been so much fun to be left out if I had brought all my own food all the time and hadn’t eaten the occasional “unhealthy” dish. I feel that the concept of balance is more and more growing on me, and this is one of the most crucial parts of overcoming my fixation. I do love my normal routine and eating habits, but as you said there are also times in life when you need to let go of the familiar and step into new environments for a while that bring different food situations and the need to adapt to enjoy life to its fullest. It is a rocky road for an ED person but the reward seems to be so much more. What always helps me now is the security in knowing there will be a time again where I can eat all the kale I want and enjoy a protein-rich morning smoothie. Maybe it’s just now right now and that’s ok because yes, the world is not going to end if today is a little less than perfect. I strive towards making each meal count – whether that be nutrition wise or socially nourishing. Being easy on myself while enjoying a dinner friends or family prepared, going out without frantically preparing and checking the menu – it feels so incredibly lifting and experiencing food as a social binder and get togehter is so freeing. I thank you Gena, for your constant honesty and letting us see into your thoughts that truly make a difference in how I perceive situations in my own life. Lots of love, Maike

  11. “In the end though, eating disorders catch up to you. You can survive the starving or the purging or the ferocious exercise for years, but no one walks away unscathed, and this is something that many of us don’t realize until we’re confronted with an ED-related health crisis”.
    Thank you so much for your insightful and honest post. It struck so many chords, not least your humour regarding the vigilance of the recovery phase, the fear of the fragility of the body, and the very fact that recovery from an ED is the same as any addictive illness – a day by day process characterised by trying to move away from rigid and restrictive behavioural patterns around food and weight. After 13 years of self starving, compulsive exercising, and periodic binging, I succumbed to a further 11 years of M.E. I truly believe that I had pushed my body to a state of total collapse, not only through extreme bodily behaviours but also through the stress of the mental exertion needed to maintain constant vigilance and control. While the illness helped to start the process of releasing me from the ED, through the realisation that health rather than thinness had to come first, and that low body weight did not equal good health, and I entered a solid recovery phase, I still found myself relapsing into rigid and controlling behaviour by becoming fixated on eating the perfect diet. Any deviation from this carefully prescribed diet led to the stress of fears of worsening health and the anticipation of a fully fledged health crisis. Nowadays I am able to eat a largely healthy diet which also enables previous “sins” such as alcohol, chocolate and crisps, though I will confess that there is still a part of my brain which is watching and counselling the part which would panic that such “lapses” would lead to either unwanted weight gain or a health issue. I suppose my point is that managing an ED activates the positive flip side of the controlling and vigilant behaviour that is so negatively characteristic of the dynamics of the illness itself.
    Thank you also for the Mark Rothko image – so beautiful and drew me into the post.

  12. Once again, I am amazed at how eloquently you capture the struggles and triumphs of recovery. Your words ring so true. This post is particularly timely as I just got home from a rowing camp in San Diego where all meals were provided by the program. I told the director that I am vegan and gave her an indication of what I typically eat, and she assured me that she could make the accomodation. I left it at that, besides making sure to bring a daily multivitamin and some dates for high-energy snacking, but my mother wasn’t entirely convinced. She made sure that I had extra food from a local grocery in case there wasn’t anything to eat (there were kitchens in the hotel rooms). I told her this wasn’t necessary. I don’t think she understands that I can always make something out of what is available and that I am not going to starve myself. I couldn’t quite explain that it’s okay if I don’t have a “perfect” meal; it’s good to mix up the normal schedule and foods I eat – that is life. It’s okay to feel hungry because it’s important that I am able to recognize bodily cues instead of just ignoring them or never experiencing them. As it turned out, the extra food was unnecessary as I was able to enjoy delicious meals with my crewmates, along with feelings of hunger and the desire to rest after a hard practice, which gave our group a great camaraderie that I otherwise would have missed out on if I had been inflexible and close-minded.

  13. Thank you so much for your words. I think this post is going to resonate with everyone and anyone who has ever dealt with any kind of eating disorder.

    Every time I read your accounts, I am blown away by how our stories are so similar. I have recently been dealing with the whole idea that IBS is just something that I will have to live with, and that stress really is the main factor. Thank you so much for your words, it is truly like reading my own thoughts.

    You are an inspiration. Happiest of New Years to you beautiful friend!

    <3

    • I know it can initially seem demoralizing to “accept” a chronic health condition, but I can’t tell you how much freedom and relief I’ve found in coming to terms with the fact that IBS is something I live WITH (it’s a “syndrome,” after all — not a disease with a perfect start point and end point). I’m glad you’re there, too! Always grateful for your insight.

  14. i can’t thank you enough for sharing this post gena, i myself am currently recovering from anorexia and it has been a long 6 months of getting my body back to a healthy weight. i can definitely can relate to worrying about food or obsessing over my body. your blog has really helped me overcome some of my food anxieties.

  15. Gena, this is quite possibly – no, most definitely! – the most accurate, honest, truthful, and vulnerable piece of writing about eating disorders I’ve ever read. Like many areas in life, the grey is often skipped over/ignored because it’s messy and, quite often, not perfectly tangible. In the case of EDs, I feel that this instills a sense of guilt and/or shame around recovery, as if there is pressure to choose illness OR recovery, when in fact it’s often a case of engaging in both simultaneously, with no clear lines between the two.

    For me, recovery has, ironically, mimicked the descent into illness in that it’s involved paring away layers to expose that most visceral; only instead of doing so as a means of self-protection (physical degradation as armour), healing has meant shedding (many) coats of bullshit in order to find my truth underneath. (Sending that truth out is scary for *anybody*, not just those with EDs.) Every day there are new discoveries, more beliefs to challenge, more shadows to explore (and honour). It truly is a journey, and one that I am slowly coming to experience with curiosity rather than impatience and frustration.

  16. As ever, your words strike such a chord of me Gena and are especially fitting right now when the “second phase” is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. In terms of loosening up my views on what healthy means to me and, similarly to you it sounds, not worrying about meals that aren’t perfectly balanced or eating too much of one macro group in one day, etc.
    This phase certainly seems to have happened more organically than the first very active phase which felt much more of a battle. I suppose it’s a combination of things which makes it so: Having more physical strength to rationalize thoughts and process emotions, more confidence and a better opinion of myself as a person (which in turn makes my decisions about food seem less monumental), and simply the power of time to heal.
    Whatever it is I’m happy to be in this “phase” and through most of the really hard struggle and happy that you sound to be too. E x

    • Emma, I love when we compare our journeys; there really are so many rich parallels to talk about! (Come visit NYC so we can have dinner, why dontcha.) Thanks for sharing from your own story.

  17. Wow, so much of this resonates with me. All the phases are helpful, but it’s also important to move through them, and yet sometimes so hard. I think I’m in a similar phase even now! I’m trying to let go a little. To purposely not load up the car on the way to go stay with in-laws in MA. Yes, they eat differently, but there will still be plenty of options. I purposely don’t order the “extras” at the restaurant, trusting there will be enough, and that if there isn’t I can order more later. And I purposely indulge in the less-than-perfect things, exactly when I want them and not just when it’s expected. Feels like freedom to me!

    • I love this. Your comment makes me realize how much of this is about trust–trusting that the body is strong, that we’ll be safe and cared for, that small shifts in plans won’t derail us. Thanks for sharing, Laura, and happy new year!

  18. Thank you for writing in such detail about your journey. I have gone through a lot of the same things as you.

    In the beginning I was very focused on perfect nutrition as well. At the time I saw this as a healthy obsession but looking back I can see many of the same tendencies as in the acute phase where I was severely restricting calories.

    I also had a lot of the same behaviors in regard to overcompensating with food for fear of going hungry – especially when traveling, which can increase feelings of vulnerability just by its nature.

    Over the years I’ve learned to let go of the idea of being perfect and now just do the best I can. Giving myself this flexibility greatly reduces the stress of traveling and like you I have noticed that this is a very important factor for general well being in itself.

    I regard myself as being fully recovered from the ED but my health is still fragile due to other factors. So in some ways where I am at now is kind of opposite to you. I would happily be a lot more flexible with my diet than I am at present. My lifestyle involves a lot of travel in many different countries so I do sometimes allow myself to explore a completely different way of eating.

    However, I have invariably found that my health is best when I eat a very simple, high-raw diet.

    It is all about balance and for each of us this will be different and always evolving. I’m sure your writings will help a lot of people gain a better understanding of this process.

  19. A lot of this post resonated with me. I’ve been at a normal weight for a number of years now, but still struggle with many of the mental aspects that come with anorexia. I, too, have IBS and got some sort of parasite. Since then my IBS has been much worse and it has really thrown a wrench in my recovery process. My diet is really limited and I am terrified of becoming bloated or having bad pain. I’m not really sure how I’m going to get past this, but it helps to know that it is possible. Thank you so much for continuing to write about eating disorders and recovery. There are so many blogs out there written by people who are obviously unhealthy, yet promote themselves as having the epitome of a healthy relationship with food and exercise. You give me hope.

    • I’m so glad I can give you some hope. IBS can be a beast to deal with during recovery, complicating the process in so many ways. I wish you healing and happiness.

  20. gena – i can’t thank you enough for writing this. there are very few people who really “get it” (“it” being what the recovery process truly entails), especially in the blogosphere. as someone who is currently fighting to get back on track, seeing that there is a light at the end of the tunnel is always encouraging. what struck me about your post was how objectively you reflected on your “stages” of recovery. for example, rather than judging the phase where your primary focus was on food, you described it as a sort of stepping stone that enabled you to get to the point at which you are now. i admire your candor and self-compassion (it’s easy to criticize/beat oneself up for things that seem, at least retrospectively, illogical or senseless).
    i look forward to reading up on all of your upcoming (culinary and other miscellaneous) adventures, and hope that someday (soon) i’ll be able to send in my own “green recovery story.” nothing would make me prouder than to be featured, and to perhaps inspire another reader just as you had inspired me!
    all the best in the new year.

    • Coco, I know you WILL have a green recovery story to share, and I can’t wait for it. Thanks for reading. The process is long, but self-compassion and forgiveness light the way. Be well!

  21. “I don’t have to worry about myself anymore. Having taken time to regain my health, I can now trust that it will sustain itself.”

    Living the dream.

    Thanks for this, Gena. Those are really nice words to be able to read, and to know someone was able to write. Excellent sentiment on which to start my day.

    And I cannot wait to see your Vieques recap. Your IG looks incredible. I’m looking outside at the cold, wet day here, and I am way jealous. 😉

    • It’s freakishly pretty here. I’ll recap soon. Happy New Year, Amanda, and thanks for always reading and sharing.

  22. This post came at the right time, Gena. Thank you for sharing this – truly. And I’m happy that I got to work with you in the past.

    Looking forward to more of your inspiring posts in 2015.

  23. Thanks so much for this post Gena, and your thoughts and reflections. I think there can sometimes be too much focus on recovery as a before/after divide and not enough recognition of the phases and stages people go through. Of course everyone will be different – but you always inspire hope in the possibilities and I suspect many will be grateful for the insights into your journey.

  24. Gena,

    What a beautifully honest,, heart- felt, articulated post! We’re lucky to share a lot of the same peaks and troughs of the illness, and i’m grateful for your heightened insight. I really love how you shed light on the stages of recovery and that totally and completely reigns true for me, too. Although i’m still trying to find my balance, it’s a daily, moment- by- moment work in progress and i’m learning to be ok with that. I laugh now, but when you mentioned preparing for travels, I think back to when I went on a road trip to L.A and had to have a whole suitcase full of “foodie staples”– you know, the usual suspects: energy bars, nooch, green powders and protein, oats, AM, nut butter, powders of sorts, i even brought my own Himalayan sea salt (don’t judge)! Stabilization was a good four years for me, then now another four to fully come to terms with acceptance of embracing my identity as an ED sufferer. Translating recovery into my own customized personal language; learning to tune out all other media/ alternative health prospectives that try to tell me differently; self love and compassion; asking for help when i need it; rising above my toxic thoughts and taking every thought captive; meeting myself where i’m at and learning how to best get my needs met without turning to the ED… Fighting the good fight! It’s a tough, evolving and continuous one, but the baby steps matter and add up!
    Grateful for you and the CR community! <3

    • Love this, love all of the compassion and self-forgiveness I see in this comment, as well as the humor (lol, Himalayan salt). Happy New Year, friend.

  25. Hi Gena,
    I just wanted to let your know I’ve been following you for a while now, and you’re one of my biggest inspirations for general life advice and blogging. You have the most beautiful writing style and the braveness to share your stories about these serious topics such as EDs that you have had personal experience with. Mad props to you! This post was so potent and real to me, I had to leave a comment saying just good job and thank you. I’m sure many of your readers who have also suffered with EDs can relate to your “phases” in recovery. Recovery from a mental illness like an eating disorder takes a long time; a lot of self acceptance, self care,support and honesty.I know sometimes people on the road to recovery, though have the intention of recovering, tend to latch on to other restricted forms such as eating extremely “clean”, organic, healthy…ect. Thank you for sharing how you moved on from this,I think it will help a lot of people to accept that moderation is part of life, and life shouldn’t be restraint rigourous and tiring rules. Life shouldn’t be consumed by hours of grocery shopping, instead of spending that time with loved ones. Life shouldn’t be having panic attacks on which brand has no BPA or persavatives all the time.Sometimes you have 3 cups of veggies in your salad at lunch, and sometimes you have peas and carrots in your mac and cheese. Anyways sorry for the long comment, you don’t have to reply, just wanted to thank you for your honesty and effort you put into this post.

    • The comment about mac n’ cheese almost had me up in my chair and cheering. So insightful and funny. Thank you, N. I’m really, really happy that this blog is a source of comfort and inspiration for you. <3

  26. Well said, Gena. All of this rings true, particularly the anxiety of feeling hungry. Oftentimes when that feeling of hunger comes now, I remember how during my ED years, how I would let that feeling linger for hours. Going to bed feeling hungry almost felt like an accomplishment as I had succeeded in not giving into the growls coming from my stomach. Now I know that’s it better to fuel myself when hungry, rather than prolonging it.

    • I totally agree. Hunger still gives me a hard time, but I’m learning to stay calm, and to neither run away from it nor seek it out. Happy New Year, sweetie!

  27. Gena, this might be my favorite post of yours that I’ve read, and something I really needed to read (even though we’re on opposite ends of the spectrum.) Also, Sarah’s comment above is amazing and also something I needed to read. Thanks to both of you, and safe travels home, Gena!

  28. I would say that my two phases were very similar to yours. However, I had a very long battle with bulimia and binge eating after recovering from anorexia that made mine fit less comfortably into two phases. For me, it was a lot of trial and error to figure out how what I did physically could support coming to a more peaceful relationship with food. Relaxing when I travel, as you mention, was so, so important for me, and that has only really happened in the last 2 years, I’d say. Interestingly, I can handle things when I travel (digestively) that I can’t handle whilst at home, and I think that’s stress related.

    Besides nourishing my body, for me the biggest shift happened only when I realised that recovery happens NOW. Not when I sort out all my past demons. Not when I definitively identify the ‘root cause’ of my ED (as though there was only one!). The mainstream view is that EDs aren’t about food, and I subscribed to that for a long time, without much success in recovery. But for me it really was about food in a very tangible sense. Sure, the source of the problem may have been more complex, but it was only when I simplified my approach to food and demystified its role in my life that I was able to move on.

    The most successful phase of my recovery was when I took a more practical, grounded approach to recovery; free from endless emotional cataloguing, psychoanalysis, and searching for meaning in my past experiences. I thought this was peculiar until I read the book “Brain Over Binge” and found that there are other people for whom this sort of approach works much better than the traditional focus on healing the many psychological causes of the ED. It won’t work for everyone, but for me it was a massive relief to realise that I wasn’t mentally ill and I didn’t have to heal all of my psychological wounds before I could recover. Recovery could happen immediately, and it was completely in my control. Controversial to link my ED so tightly to the physical body, I realise, but it was the single greatest epiphany in my recovery that enabled me to stop spinning my wheels.

    • This comment is so full of amazingness that I don’t know what to say except “thank you.” I especially love your emphasis on recovery happening NOW. I respect all avenues to recovery, including an emphasis on self-exploration, analysis, finding childhood demons, etc., but sometimes it’s true that, in all of the searching for a root cause, we forget to get on with it 🙂 Much love and gratitude for your contributions to these posts!

  29. This post spoke so strongly to me. I often read about others’ journeys through eds but have always thought that my own journey has been so much more haphazard and difficult to put into words. I feel that you have honestly captured this haphazardness here.
    What speaks to me most, though, is the fear of hunger. I am still at that stage- fearing that feeling hungry will lead to a binge, or if I ignore the hunger, wonder if I’m restricting again without realising! (It can really sneak up!). This leads, as you said, to meticulously planning meals and being a walking vending machine. It was great to read such articulate thoughts on such a messy topic.

    • I completely understand this. I feel as though I have to be perfect at recovery. I almost feel trapped by a routine of eating. I still question my hunger cues so rely on the clock to schedule my meals. I get stressed out if I’m not prepared or have food on hand and feel as though I will binge if I get to hungry or that if I am at a friends house they may not have vegan options or any nutrient dense foods. It can be frustrating but compared to where I was even a year ago, I’m still progressing and have a desire for freedom.

    • There is so much power in acknowledging the messiness, in not running away from the jagged edges and rough patches. Thank you for reading. I’m happy the post gave you comfort.