Acceptance: moving forward without forgetting where you've been
A common phase to go through during recovery from an eating disorder is the let’s-pretend-this-never-happened stage. Whatever stage you’re at in your recovery, you are almost indefinitely bound to pretend you never had an eating disorder at some stage in your life. This is a perfectly natural reaction to trauma: pretending it doesn’t exist is a form of escapism. But, when the time is right and you want to truly move forward in your recovery, you must learn to accept the past.
Instead of living your life pretending it didn’t happen, we need to start embracing the past and using it as an experience that we’ve learnt from. I can’t even begin to list how many things recovering from my ED taught me, but I shall try my best for the sake of this blog post.
One common reason that people feel the need to hide their past experiences is because they feel ashamed. I, for one, have undoubtedly felt this way in the past. But now, after therapy and further reflection, I have learnt that, in fact, it should be quite the opposite. People recovering or who have recovered from eating disorders are STRONG. They should be PROUD, not ashamed. After all, fighting something that’s inside you isn’t easy.
The reason I first started talking openly about my experiences with an eating disorder was due to my desire to help others going through similar experiences. I personally am recovering from depression, anxiety and OCD tendencies alongside an eating disorder, and wanted to assure others that you can have these conditions and live a full and fulfilled life. I am working towards a healthier, happier me all the time, and I think everybody, illness or not, should do the same. And I don’t mean healthy in terms of diet or exercise, but in the mind. Because if the mind isn’t in the right place, the body won’t be either.
When I was in the depths of my illnesses, there was nothing out there to help or encourage me to get better, apart from support from health professionals and friends/family. This got me thinking: why is it that if you break your leg you can get hundreds of different aids to help you recover, but if you’ve got an eating disorder the world of products goes quiet and there is nothing specifically designed with ED sufferers in mind? So when I got to a stage where I was well enough, in body and mind, I started my own business specifically aimed at creating products to help people with any mental health issue, called Hello Recovery. That was back in 2015, and two years on it is still going strong. I sell spoons stamped with personalised motivational messages to encourage sufferers while they eat, and have sold over 250 since launch its in summer 2015.
The shop, along with becoming a Beat Young Ambassador, is my way of forming something positive from my struggles with an eating disorder. I believe everyone can form something positive from a difficult experience, and it doesn't have to be big – it could be anything from becoming more compassionate/ empathetic towards others, to making a promise to yourself to live every day at its fullest. It doesn't always have to be a physical action, but as long as you know you are doing it, you can have that reassurance that it was not a 'waste of time' (a silly notion, seeing as you did not choose to have an ED! But a common thought among people recovering from EDs all the same), but instead was just part of learning more about yourself. Knowing yourself and what makes you happy or brings will always serve you well.
I believe it is important to identify passions and interests outside of your eating disorder, while maintaining a careful watch to ensure you are enjoying it and not slipping back into old habits. If you pretend your eating disorder didn’t exist, you are likely to ignore the warning signs and are therefore more prone to relapse. Relapse prevention is key: identify your triggers, and always keep these in your mind to ensure you spot the warning signs early on. You can identify these triggers on your own, through thinking about previous experiences, or with a medical professional such as a psychologist/ counsellor. There are different ways of going about relapse prevention planning, so try a few to see what works for you. Recovery is different for everyone; there is no 'one size fits all', and don't be disheartened if the first method doesn't work. You just need to keep trying different things until one clicks.
For me, climbing became my new hobby once I was well enough to continue sport. I quit the sports I had done prior to and during my eating disorder, as I found they brought back unpleasant memories and I could no longer enjoy them. Instead, I started horse riding and climbing, both of which I love. I now climb about three times a week, and compete at university competitions. The best bit about it, for me, is that it feels like a puzzle and not like a competition in my mind. I do not obsess over numbers or targets; I simply enjoy the process of climbing, of spending time with my friends in the club, and being adventurous.
While finding a hobby, especially with a sport, make sure it isn't triggering the obsessive ED part of your brain. For instance, although I am in a good place in my recovery, I still have not gone back to running. This is because I used to obsess over it a lot, and I've learnt that maybe running isn't the best activity for me. And that's okay. Quitting a hobby because it was a driving force in your ED is not 'giving up'; it is putting your health and happiness first, even if it's tough.
Another positive thing to take from recovering from an eating disorder is the skills you picked up along the way. I had a job interview a couple of months ago now, and in it my mental health came up. And although I was nervous, I was fully honest with them about it and about where I was at in my recovery now. I didn’t see this as a problem or reason for me to not perform at the job, which I told them. I explained how it had taught me more about myself, alongside coping strategies and resilience for when I was stressed or under pressure. I made the decision, there and then, that if they were not understanding, then I did not want to work for them anyway and therefore there was no risk in talking about it. And it definitely paid off! They told me they were impressed with my strength, and later told me I had got the job, even though there were other applicants, who perhaps hadn't had these struggles.
So, what does all this mean? It's quite simple; recovering from an eating disorder (or any mental health issue) is nothing to be ashamed of, and there is no reason you shouldn't talk about it. In order to learn to accept yourself, you need to accept your experiences and treat them all as positive learning curves, even if the experience was less than pleasant. If you accept yourself and experiences as part as who you are, others will accept that too. And if they don't? They aren't worth your time! There are plenty of wonderful, understanding people out there. But there are also plenty of people who simply do not understand. They mostly do not intend to be unsympathetic, but just don't have the knowledge, so don't feel afraid to explain to someone more about it if they do not understand. It's likely they will thank you for it, and become a more tolerant person because of it.
That's it for this post – I hope it was helpful, and remember that whatever you're going through, you can and will get through it. It is tough, but the most worth-it thing in the world. Your past should never be a reason for you not to achieve what you want at the present.