What Recovery from Anorexia and Bulimia Looks Like

‘I was once a shell of a person.’
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‘I was once a shell of a person.’

“Are you getting help?” the emergency room physician asked, his voice stern yet his eyes soft with pity. I wondered if he had a daughter.

“Yes,” I lied, averting his concerned gaze. My shame was compounded by awareness of my naked body, visibly starving through the slits of the humiliating blue hospital gown. “I’m seeing a therapist.”

Hours earlier, I’d bussed myself to the hospital after throwing up blood and feeling scared my eating disorder was going to kill me. I’d sat in the waiting room alone, too ashamed to tell my boyfriend at the time why I couldn't meet up with him that night. I have too much homework, I’d told him.

Having managed my depression and anxiety with bulimia and anorexia for years, I’d “binged” on a bagel (a “forbidden” food) and, in a panic, made myself throw up. I’d lived this way for almost a decade—a cycle of self-loathing, restriction, over-exercising, bingeing, purging, lying, isolating, and crying on the bathroom floor. Having an inexplicable hatred for myself for as long as I could remember, part of me believed that if I could be thin enough, I would finally be good enough. I’d been reading airbrushed fitness magazines and believing healthy eating and exercise meant I should look like that. Turns out I did get to a point where I looked like “that,” but it came at the cost of joy and was certainly not the result of “healthy eating and exercise.”

If you were to meet me today, almost seven years later, you’d find it hard to believe I was once that shell of a person. I’ve since gained half my body weight—my “worst fear” realized —and yet I’m the happiest, most confident, and most connected I’ve ever been in my life (fo’ realz). And I want everyone to get there, because everyone deserves to live life free from the shackles of an eating disorder. Here's how I healed.

Realizing My ED Was Lying to Me

When I was in the pit of anorexia and depression, my boyfriend of three years dumped me. To this day, it’s still the most painful thing I’ve ever been through. However, it was also the best thing that ever happened to me. You see, I’d grown up with the mentality that being thin would protect me from pain and ensure no one would ever leave me. My parents went through a brutal divorce and my true greatest fear—under the illusion of weight gain—was abandonment. Having my worldview flipped upside down in that way showed me experientially that my eating disorder was lying to me. And if it was lying about that, what else was it lying about? Was being thin really the avenue to happiness? At my lowest weight, I’d been my most miserable and disconnected. Realizing my ED had been lying to me allowed me to open up to the “risk” of change and weight gain.

Restoring Weight and Saying Goodbye to Dieting

Studies show that as long as we’re underweight, our eating disorders stay “switched on.” We think about food nonstop because our body is in starvation mode, and fixating on food is what we do to survive.

In a similar way, most eating disorders are triggered and perpetuated by dieting. Similar to being underweight, restricting (which is what dieting is) causes our body to compensate by thinking about food and bingeing when it is available (or when we “allow” ourselves to eat), then following up such “bad” behavior with purging, overexercising, restricting again, or some other form of “diet” behavior. Giving up dieting, coupled with the acceptance that there is nothing “wrong” with my body as it is, allowed me to get out of the vicious cycle of restriction, bingeing, purging, over-exercising, and obsessing about food and my weight.

Connecting with Others Again

Eating disorders are incredibly disconnecting. Not only do they take a great deal of time to manage, they make it very challenging to do anything social. I declined invitations for fear of the calories from food and alcohol. I canceled on people if I hadn’t made it to the gym. When the interventions began happening, I just avoided friends and family because I didn’t want to feel like I had to explain myself. After the breakup, though, I was desperate for reprieve from my pain. I sent out some awkward “Hey, I know we haven’t talked in a year, but…” messages, and attended events with my anxiety at ceiling levels. But it got easier, and I began to reconnect, and once again proved my ED wrong: I had believed I’d be unlovable if not thin, and as I gained weight I continued to be welcomed and loved by friends and men I feared would reject me.

Practicing Self-Compassion

A hugely transformational shift for me was learning self-compassion. Self-compassion isn’t about believing you’re perfect; it’s about believing you’re imperfect, like everyone else, and THAT’S OK. Your imperfection is what makes you human.

For example, rather than looking at myself in the mirror and saying “I love my cellulite!!!” I might say to myself, “It’s understandable you’re feeling self-conscious, Megan. Our society paints the illusion that women shouldn’t have cellulite, and you’re internalizing that voice right now. But remember this is an unrealistic ideal fed to you by the media, and no one loves you more or less based on how smooth the back of your thigh are.”

Kristin Neff, a leading researcher in self-compassion, breaks down self-compassion into three steps: 

  1. Mindfulness, which is intentionally paying attention to the present moment with acceptance and without judgment (including thoughts, feelings, and sensations); 
  2. Self-kindness, which is saying to yourself what you would say to a friend or loved one (realistically high expectations alongside high support—like a really good coach); and 
  3. Common humanity, which is the idea that we’re “all in this together.” To be human is to feel, and whatever painful emotion you’re experiencing is part of the human condition.

For me, the most helpful part of learning self-compassion was to make space for my uncomfortable feelings. Until that point, I’d been judging myself for feeling anxiety and depression, and numbing them with my eating disorder. Today when I’m feeling sad, lonely, anxious, or rejected, I give myself permission to feel these emotions and offer myself words of encouragement.

A Sense of Meaning

As women, when we lack a sense of purpose on this earth, we fall back on the avenues to purpose that society has shoved down our throats—chief among them is to be thin and beautiful. When I found meaning outside of these unhealthy societal prescriptions is when things changed for me. 

Finishing grad school and finally landing a job I truly loved—being a mental health therapist at a college counseling center—empowered me to find a sense of identity and purpose outside my body. Eating disorders tend to flare up during times of transition, and while this is partially due to a desire for control and a strategy for managing anxiety, it’s also partially due to seeking identity and purpose.

Recovery is neither linear nor easy, but it’s absolutely possible and absolutely worth it. I found that being gentle with myself was essential to my healing. And remember this: No matter what an eating disorder tells you, you are so deserving of a beautiful life free of it.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association’s toll-free Information and Referral Helpline at 800–931–2237, or visit the website.

Megan Bruneau, M.A., RCC, is a mental health therapist, wellness coach, and host of Forbes’ The Failure Factor. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

Photo Credit: Horn Photography and Design