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No Pain, No Gain In Eating Disorder Recovery

This post is a sharp reality hit about eating disorder recovery.

I write this post because recognising how real and unavoidable this truth is, if full recovery is ever to actually be realised, took me far too many years in my recovery but it need not be so for others.

And the truth I want you to fully appreciate today is that the saying,

“No Pain, No Gain”

has never been more appropriate than when it comes to recovering from an eating disorder.

To get as far as I have in eating disorder recovery… further than ever before after 13 years of cycling through treatment and different (what I now know were) half arsed ‘recovery attempts’ has been the most painful and difficult thing I have ever done… And at the age of 40, with a nurse career and varied life experience behind me, I have not lived a completely sheltered life.

Eating disorder recovery is HARD and DISTRESSING.

But nobody tell us that.  

Perhaps people don’t want to scare us into not even attempting recovery or maybe they think pre- warning us that all the distress tolerance skills in the world are inadequate when in the midst of recovery will make us withdraw further into the illness.  I don’t know.

What I say though is that fore-warned is fore-armed!

When I thought that recovery was just eating a bit more, gaining some weight and maybe doing a bit less exercise and voila! job done… well, I did not make all the preparations necessary – mentally, emotionally and by making space in my life to take on this endeavour.

Health professionals over the years never really helped me to understand how much pain and distress true recovery would take… To face the most intense fears a person can experience, put new habits in place, learn to eat a lot more food and accept weight gain to its full beautiful extent feels clunky, terrifying and so very wrong when we are embarking on this path.  

To get recovery right, we have to face fears so real that they throw us into a full flight or freeze response several times a day.

If we do not know this in advance then when we find ourselves frozen to the spot with terror as we try to put butter on our bread for the first time (for example) or when we suddenly start trying to flee from a slice of cake with impulsive violent exit strategies, then it can be alarming to experience and make us believe that we are doing something wrong… that we have finally lost the plot.  

When the truth is, we had lost the plot when cake and butter became terrifying but if we tolerate these reactions now and face the fears anyway then sanity might just be in our grasp!

With an eating disorder we develop intense and irrational fears to food, rest and weight gain.

In the eating disorder brain, safety comes from staying in a narrow, rigid and calculated routine – what, when and how we eat, what we do, how we suppress our body weight in case, god forbid, we should gain so much as half a lb!

Changing any small thing that takes us from our safety bubble existence throws up turmoil and terror.

But change we must, if we are to get better and the good news is that when the tiniest change creates extreme levels of panic and terror, there is not really much scope for bigger changes to create a fear response on a larger level so when making changes in recovery, you might as well just make the changes large and meaningful from the start!

Expect eating disorder recovery to be painful and intense.  Because it will be and if it is not then question if you really are in recovery (or are you negotiating with the illness and letting the illness keep the upper hand?).

And use this warning to be prepared.

Prepare for the pain that will come with recovery to make space in your life for it.  

It is much easier to deal with emotional turmoil and intense fear when there are few other demands on your time and attention because you will need as much focus as possible on finding ways to cope with the pain when it hits. And neurally, our brains cannot focus on more than one thing at once, so if you want recovery to actually happen, it needs to be your priority.

Ultimately though, if you are going through recovery or supporting someone who is.. do not be alarmed when tears, tantrums, irritability, frustration and any number of other distressing symptoms materialise.

And when they do… when the pain is felt and is not buried again immediately by using the eating disorder but is worked through and processed in wonderfully messy and miserable ways – then you know that finally you are winning!!!

Gains in recovery come by going through the pain and there are no gains in recovery without pain and tolerating some really tough times.  Go through them though, tolerate them (because you can!) and know that with this pain will come slow gains in recovery and ultimately in life.

When people tell me now that they are putting changes in place in their recovery and they have been crying or they have had a tantrum or screamed at their family… I empathise but then I celebrate for them.  Because they are facing the pain and they are almost certainly actually doing recovery right!

The pain won’t last forever in recovery but the gains of being recovered really could if the process is tolerated and the full and long recovery journey completed to the bitter sweet end!

So when recovery hurts, when you want to give up and you think that you are doing something wrong because it should not be this hard, just remind yourself, “No pain, No gain”…  

And celebrate that pain as a short term side effect to the eating disorder being beaten out of your life!

2 replies on “No Pain, No Gain In Eating Disorder Recovery”

This was a really helpful read – kind of made me rethink how to place appropriate expectations in my recovery. Thank you!

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