Bulimia recovery is possible: what worked for me
For many years I accessed online support for bulimia and was repeatedly told ‘recovery is always possible’. This felt really hollow to me. People kept telling me it was possible but not how it was possible. I needed hope at a time when it was in short supply.
I struggled with an eating disorder for around 15 years. I was a young teenager when I became ill with anorexia and after a brief period of remission I relapsed and was diagnosed with bulimia.
I would like to focus on hope of recovery in this blog and so I don’t wish to spend time focusing on the past for too long. For many of you reading this, the pain of an eating disorder will already be known to you and I don’t personally find it helpful to dwell on the past. What I will say is this: at one point I was so unwell after being on a waiting list for an assessment (not treatment) for over a year that I was referred for inpatient treatment. This is unusual for those with bulimia and I believe reflects how bad things got.
These days I am a completely different person. I am fully weight restored and haven’t engaged in any eating disorder related behaviours for almost two years. This is probably one of my biggest achievements to date and I will continue to maintain this progress because I have now lived something I only dreamed could be possible: recovery.
For me recovery started with a big change, a very supportive friend and sheer determination. The support from my friend was particularly important because I had lost faith in myself that I could recover.
When I first started my recovery journey, I don’t think I actually believed I could do it, but I was coming up to 30 and I knew I needed to at least try. I was completely sick and tired of the gruelling regime I had created for myself. I was fed up of not having a social life because it involved food or drink or I needed to exercise. I’d had enough of the misery and anxiety of constantly thinking about food and exercise. But most of all, I was sick of the voice. You know that voice. Everyone’s eating disorder voice is different but for me it was relentless, incessantly cruel and critical. If it was a person, I can’t repeat the word I’d use to describe him or her. I knew I needed to change.
The hardest part for me was that accessing support services felt impossible. I had lost faith in services’ ability to help and support me. That’s not because psychotherapy and evidence-based treatments don’t work, but I felt that if I asked my GP for a referral I would be waiting a long time to start my recovery and I wanted to make the change now when I was motivated and had the social support.
With this in mind I would like to share with you what worked for me. This is not to say this should ever replace specialist support, but I think it can be helpful to hear what has worked for other people.
- My brain needed to change: To progress in my recovery I had to change both my relationship to food and my thinking. A delusion is defined as a ‘fixed belief that does not change, even when a person is presented with conflicting evidence’. For me that summed up my experience of how I evaluated my weight and self-worth. All the evidence was there to tell me I wasn’t seeing things the way other people did, but for some reason I had been unable to use this to change the way I thought. I also had to stop thinking in such black and white terms. I thought I would either be overweight or underweight. I didn’t think I could maintain a healthy weight. I thought I either had to stick to my gruelling regime or else my weight would spiral uncontrollably. I now know this is far from the truth.
- I needed to understand my biology: With bulimia the restrictions put on your diet affect your hormones, and this makes you crave food. This is completely normal for all of us. For me this kept me locked in a restrict, binge and purge cycle. Returning your eating patterns to normal does change this. It doesn’t happen overnight, but now I barely even think about eating when I’m not hungry, unless it’s a treat or a social event. For a long time I rejected this, convinced myself my body wouldn’t respond that way if I changed and that everything would spiral out of my control.
- I had to stop thinking about thin and start thinking about health: When I was stuck in bulimia all I thought about was keeping thin. Exercise was a punishing ritual and I constantly felt like a failure each time I ‘failed’ to stick to my unrealistically low intake targets. I don’t know when it happened but my relationship with food and exercise changed. Recovery starts with loving yourself and recognising that food and exercise are there to nourish us. It sounds cliché but it’s true. Now I only exercise when I want to, to keep fit and to keep my heart healthy. Now, I try to eat healthy food in the week so my skin and body gets the nourishment it needs but at weekends I eat what I want. And that’s completely okay!
- I needed to understand myself: I needed to understand my eating disorder behaviours and challenge them. I won’t go into too much detail regarding this point but the better you know yourself, the better you will be able to challenge the thoughts and behaviour that keep the cycle going.
- Reflection and gratitude: Finally, to keep me going I kept reflecting on how far I had come. Whenever I find myself in situations which would have been difficult for me – eating a cake, going to the cinema, family meals etc. – I pause to reflect on how far I have come and how grateful I am for the fact I am no longer locked into the bulimia mindset. It’s an amazing feeling.
A greater understanding of my biology has allowed me to change how I think about food and eating. I don’t restrict my diet at all and haven’t for a long time. My weight has remained constant despite this lack of control over my intake. Essentially, my body knows what a healthy weight is for me and so long as I listen to it, it keeps me at a healthy weight.
My dad said to me some years ago that recovery from bulimia would be one of the hardest things I would ever do. And true to form, he was not wrong. But difficult and impossible are not the same thing. Difficulty can make us believe something is impossible but just because we believe something, doesn’t make it objectively true. Yes, recovery is hard, especially when you’ve spent over a decade behaving a certain way. But I would not change it for anything. I have my life back and you can have yours.