It’s easy to assume that recovery from an eating disorder implies—poof!—those harmful behaviors or negative thoughts and emotions have ended, and the person never has to deal with them again. But, just like with any other mental health condition (be it depression or OCD) recovery from an eating disorder is not black and white. Everyone’s recovery story, and even their definition of “recovery,” is unique and personal.
As society slowly works to understand that eating disorders affect more than thin, white, cisgendered women, it's also important to recognize that eating disorders can manifest very differently from person to person, which may also affect their recovery path. People may be at different stages of recovery and move between those stages in a nonlinear way.
Recovery for one person at a given time may look like a reduction in how often they practice restrictive behaviors related to their eating disorder; for another, it may mean they have stopped the behavioral habits but are still working on the emotional aspects of it. Recovery also doesn’t mean perfection, or a total absence of relapse. As the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) states, “Slips, backslides, and relapse tend to be the rule, rather than the exception … Overcoming food and eating concerns during recovery is a central goal, but it’s far from the only task of recovery.”
To spotlight just how many shades of recovery really exist and how subjective it is, SELF asked 10 people to share their experiences with disordered eating, and what recovery really means to them now.
1. “As I have gone through recovery, my eating disorder's voice has become quieter, and my own voice louder.” — Alicia, 24
“Since childhood, my relationship with food has always been a tension,” Alicia tells SELF. Growing up in a larger body, they experienced significant bullying. They also dealt with a variety of medical issues, which required them to go on medication for many years. At one point, Alicia’s doctor suggested that they lose a significant amount of weight to help with their symptoms. “That is where my experience with eating disorders began,” they say. After reaching that initial goal, “I didn't feel that I could stop. I had been promised by society that if I lost weight, I would be happier, however no matter how much weight I lost, the happiness never came,” they say. Their anorexia eventually transitioned into bulimia.
In 2015, Alicia started looking into treatment programs. “But being genderqueer, the programs were very cisnormative and not conducive to my recovery,” they explain. Instead, Alicia sought support through online peer support groups and an independent psychologist.
“I don't believe I will ever view myself as 'recovered,'” they say. “The way I explain my eating disorder is that there is a voice in my head, and when I was at my lowest it was screaming, drowning out every other thought. As I have gone through recovery, my eating disorder's voice has become quieter, and my own voice louder.” Although Alicia believes the voice will always be there, they turn to their partner and best friend when they have a hard day. “I am living my best life currently, and that for me is where I always seek to be.”
2. “It took nearly three decades to get here, and it's not perfect, but it's so worth it.” — Raquel, 28
Raquel's family called her "gordita" (meaning "chubby girl" in Spanish) or "Quelly Belly" as a child. But when they moved back to the U.S. from Puerto Rico when she was 5, “I learned quickly that to be fat meant to be ugly, dirty, and inferior. Those sweet monikers started to feel like attacks, and I wanted to disassociate myself from them,” she tells SELF.
Around the age of 8 or 9, she began dieting, but it never occurred to her that her eating was disordered. “I was a voluptuous, low-income Latina girl from the 'hood, and according to every portrayal of eating disorders I had seen growing up, you had to be a white, middle-class, emaciated teen obsessed with models and haute couture to have the illness,” she explains.
At 20, she began therapy. And today, eight years later, she occasionally purges. “Intense pressure or hardship is definitely a trigger for me,” she says. But more often, she uses self-soothing practices such as dancing, singing, or spending time laughing with loved ones. “It took nearly three decades to get here, and it's not perfect, but it's so worth it. Recovery vale la pena,” she says (which means “it’s worth it”). “Just because I may never be 'recovered,’ whatever that even means, doesn't mean I can't lead a healthy, joyous, and loving life. And I really believe I am living that life right now.”
3. “Full recovery doesn’t seem like an absolute that means I am free from every eating disorder thought every second of every day.” — Sarah, 36
Sarah attempted to recover for 17 years. Oftentimes they would restrict and have orthorexic behaviors for long periods of time, only to end up bingeing for a few days before returning to restrictive eating and repeating the pattern.
Still, they were never diagnosed. “I think this was mostly due to my size. No one thinks that a fat person restricting or being obsessed with clean eating is a negative behavior. No one thinks that a fat person losing a significant amount of weight is unhealthy,” Sarah tells SELF. “Our culture typically praises and congratulates this behavior.” It wasn’t until they were sitting in a graduate school class on eating disorders that they realized they had been dealing with an eating disorder of some type for nearly two decades.
Over those years, Sarah used Overeaters Anonymous, individual therapy, and a mind-body retreat for help. “The retreat [at age 34] is really what shifted my perspective on recovery,” they say. “Full recovery doesn’t seem like an absolute that means I am free from every eating disorder thought every second of every day. Sometimes I think that this is what it is supposed to mean. I don’t think that it is realistic for people who deal with discrimination and prejudice on a daily basis. I’m a large fat person. Every day I face looks, comments, and the world not being designed with consideration for my body.”
Sarah rarely thinks about restricting, purging, or bingeing anymore and continues to work with a therapist who is queer and trans-friendly. “Most of the time I am completely accepting of my body size. Other days when I have to deal with really obvious types of discrimination or deal with the barriers to access that others don’t, I am not very accepting and wish my body was smaller,” they say. “Does this mean I’m participating in eating disorder behaviors? Nope. It is very much dealing with the culture that we live in.”
4. “Recovery is a daily battle, and though I may not be 'cured,’ I can be stronger than the voice inside my head.” — Lakesha, 27
When the stress and pain of being placed into foster care at 9 years old become too much, Lakesha began bingeing at night. She continued when she was placed with family members, and by 16 she cycled bingeing and purging with restriction. In 2010, she entered an outpatient program, mainly for her other mental illnesses including bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and PTSD. She recognized that she had an eating disorder as well. However, she felt the treatment team didn’t take this seriously “because I didn’t fit the profile of someone with an eating disorder, because I am black and also queer,” she tells SELF. Eventually the therapist she began working with for her other conditions addressed Lakesha’s eating disorder and became the catalyst to start her recovery.
Today, at 27, she considers herself in recovery. “I see things on a continuum, not a straight-shot destination,” she says. “Recovery is a daily battle, and though I may not be 'cured,’ I can be stronger than the voice inside my head.” She adds that the thoughts and “the mindset” are the hardest parts about recovery. “The thoughts about my body, about food, and about my worth tied to that, have quite the grip,” she says. In addition to writing and sharing her work on Instagram, she continues to see a psychologist and turns to friends, family, and Facebook groups for support. “If I am fighting, I am winning, and if I am winning, I am living,” she says.
5. “There are days when I feel nostalgic for my eating disorder, but looking back, that was the lowest point of my life.” — Olivia, 23
After a bad car accident in the summer of 2017, Olivia developed depression. “I tried to use food and exercise as a way to regain control of my life,” she tells SELF. What started as restricting shifted into bingeing and later purging. By November of 2017, she entered an inpatient treatment program and later moved to an intensive outpatient program.
“Compared to where I was last year, I’m a million times happier and have a much better relationship with food,” she says. “I consider myself as recovered as one really can be with this disease.” She no longer makes excuses about why she can't go out to eat with friends or attend events where food will be served. When she's tempted to control by restricting, she turns to exercise, which she's now able to do in a healthy manner, and leans on her family and close friends. “There are days when I feel nostalgic for my eating disorder, but looking back, that was the lowest point of my life,” she says. “Today I'm in a much better place in basically all areas of my life.”
6. “Understanding certain patterns and truths about myself empowered me to want to accept and care for myself rather than punish myself and try to escape my body.” — Marissa, 32
A formal diagnosis at 19 confirmed what Marissa already knew: She struggled with anorexia and bulimia. However, it wasn't until about four years later that she began making real strides in recovery. “I decided on my own that I wanted to get better. I began learning more about myself and what led me to the disorder to begin with,” she tells SELF.
Writing her book, Starving in Search of Me, helped Marissa see that her disorder had nothing to do with food. “Understanding certain patterns and truths about myself empowered me to want to accept and care for myself rather than punish myself and try to escape my body,” she says. “What I was actually struggling with was a lot of anxiety around my identity and sexuality, paired with social anxiety.”
Although she considers herself recovered from the eating disorder, she still experiences anxiety and body image issues and has a slew of self-care habits to help manage those things. “I definitely still struggle with a lot of irrational shame around my sexuality, wanting my body to appear more 'male' or androgynous. That’s what you get after so many years of being conditioned inside of a heteronormative society,” she says.
7. “There are still times when I see a diet commercial or a beautiful celebrity and her fitness regime that I think about dieting again.” — Rebecca, 36
Rebecca struggled with body image since about 10 years old. “I was aware that being fat was bad and being small and skinny was good,” she tells SELF. “I often tried to be anorexic, but anorexia wasn't my eating disorder of choice. I liked to eat too much.” She began purging around age 15 and continued until her mid-30s when she was “ready to be done with bulimia,” she says. With the help of a psychiatrist, dietitian, and Prozac, she considers herself recovered today.
“I no longer feel urges to binge and purge. Permission is the hardest part—recovery is all about giving yourself permission to eat all types of foods. And once I got my anxiety under control with medication and therapy, I was able to allow myself more and more of those foods that were 'forbidden,’” she says. “And when something isn't 'forbidden' anymore, it's just normal.”
She acknowledges that recovery isn’t a straight line: “There are still times when I see a diet commercial or a beautiful celebrity and her fitness regime that I think about dieting again,” she says. But when Rebecca still struggles with body image, she writes, meditates, and practices yoga and gratitude. “And I tell myself that I love myself every day at least once. I know, I know. It sounds cheesy. But that's really what I do and it works for me,” she says. She also pays attention to who she spends time with. “I know now that I can't hang around people who don't love their bodies and openly express that. It's not healthy for me,” she says.
8. “I don't think that [my eating disorder] will ever magically disappear. I'm not cured of it; I simply manage it, day to day.” — Melissa, 33
In her early 20s, an emotionally abusive partner told Melissa that she was fat, had to go to the gym, and didn't look good naked. "I went on a diet to prove him wrong—and it spun out of control into an eating disorder," she tells SELF. After a good friend expressed concern, she sought help from her primary care doctor and then a dietitian, in addition to going on an SSRI.
Today, she works within the field of eating disorders and body image and considers herself in recovery. “I don't think that [my eating disorder] will ever magically disappear. I'm not cured of it; I simply manage it, day to day. It isn't a perfect process; it isn't like recovering from the flu, where one day you're sick, and then one day you're better,” she says. “I see my eating disorder more as a disability now, a chronic condition, something that ebbs and flows, something that flares up. And I find that acknowledging that aspect of it—that recovery is less about perfection and more about management—allows me to have more compassion for myself as I move through this journey.”
9. “I have faith that I will be able to say I am fully recovered one day.” — Lexie, 23
As Lexie tried to recover from bulimia as a teen, her behaviors changed from purging and restricting, to binge-eating, to emotional eating. “Binge-eating felt like a comfort, and purging felt like a release,” she tells SELF.
Today she sees a therapist weekly and can notice when stress, anxiety, or feeling overwhelmed elicits an urge to binge and purge. “Recovery has taught me to be more self-aware, so I remind myself that using those behaviors in the moment could feel like a relief, but they’re also a Band-aid. The short-term relief will cause long-term consequences,” she explains.
She cannot currently afford a dietitian or support group on top of her therapy and instead relies on friends or uplifting music and funny shows for support when she has hard times. “I am in recovery still, but I have faith that I will be able to say I am fully recovered one day,” she says.
10. “I have a really incredible relationship with my body and food on the whole. It blows my mind that I'm at this juncture. I can't believe it's the same person sometimes.” — Caroline, 35
From the ages of 11 to 21, “I had a cocktail of eating disorders,” Caroline tells SELF. She saw everyone from therapists and eating disorder specialists to acupuncturists and nutritionists. “I had physical access to recovery, but I didn't have the emotional and spiritual access,” she explains. “It was the choice to get recovered and stay recovered that kept me in recovery.”
She now considers herself fully recovered for 14 years, which for her means that she no longer has urges to engage with eating disorder behaviors. “I have a really incredible relationship with my body and food on the whole. It blows my mind that I'm at this juncture. I can't believe it's the same person sometimes,” she says.
But she doesn’t deny that body image issues can still creep in: “I am in this body for the rest of my life. I will have emotions and feelings and thoughts the rest of my life,” she says. “The only way for me to manage a body image flare-up is thinking about what my feelings are, how can I be more present in my body—do I need more self care, do I need more ice cream? It isn't in my wheelhouse to hurt myself as a way to cope with being alive.” Instead, she gives her body whatever it's telling her that it needs.
However, she emphasizes that her view of recovery isn't the only way to recover. “We have to make space for the expansiveness of recovery. It is possible to recover and not struggle every day,” she says. “And it's equally important for someone to face challenges every day in order to survive. There's no one answer and no one way for recovery to look. We have to be able to support each other in that.”
If you or someone you love struggle with disordered eating, contact the National Eating Disorders Association (U.S.) helpline at (800) 931-2237 or National Eating Disorder Information Centre (Canada) at (866) 633-4220.