Taking 10 Steps to Eating Disorder Recovery
There’s not a playbook out there when it comes to recovering from an eating disorder.
Unlike the thousands of programs and protocols in our culture for losing weight, shedding body fat, and getting “fitter,” there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and treatment options are farther and fewer between.
If you’re one of the 1-in-5 women who has battled an eating disorder first hand, and you’re looking for a way out, here is a play-by-play blueprint for getting unstuck from your rut.
The bottom line? It all comes down to the power of choice.
Why Choices Have Power
No, you didn’t choose to have an eating disorder—most people don’t. But, before you knew it, the habits crept up on you: eating a tub of ice cream in your bedroom closet, finishing an entire recipe of brownies, eating dry lettuce, chewing gum and ice instead of food, exercising at weird times (then inhaling two In-N-Out burgers, two fries and a milkshake in your car), shaking your foot to burn more calories any time you sit, or wadding up uneaten food into a napkin.
And suddenly, almost as if your “healthy” self had been hijacked, the eating disorder took on a life of its own.
You did not choose to have an eating disorder.
A beautiful and unnerving thing about recovery is that once you’re aware your eating disorder (ED) exists, you also become aware that you have choices to make when it comes to “the voice” you choose to follow. While ED’s voice is extremely annoying, often abusive, and domineering, there is something about it that keeps you coming back for more.
Before we dive any further into what or how to recover from an eating disorder, you must first acknowledge this simple fact: you have a choice. As awful as that may sound, once you are made aware of the struggle, you must also be informed that you have a choice.
You have a choice (and right) at your doctor’s office to see your medical records, and you have a choice (and right) to remain silent if you’re arrested (hopefully not you). Just like you’re informed that you have a choice to spend your Beauty Rewards points at Sephora at the time of purchase (or save them for later)—you have a choice as to what you want your life and real struggle to look like.
With that squared away, let’s jump in to the play-by-play that I discovered after nearly 15 years of being stuck in a rut. My way may not be your way. Again, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, but it’s my hope that this at least inspires you that you can find a way out, too.
Step 1: Acknowledge “It”
Have you ever taken a self defense class? I’ve taken a handful in my day, and if there’s one lesson that has stood out more than any other it is this: look your attacker, or the threat, in the eyes. It’s intimidating. Stand-offish. Assertive. Looking a threat directly into the windows of their soul is an affirmative way of saying, “I see you. I know what you’re up to, and I am not taking that.”
The same thing goes for the eating disorder—the “it” you keep trying to shove under the rug. Stop calling it “it” or a "habit" or “just something you do.” Stop trying to gloss it over. Stop turning the other cheek or saying, “tomorrow” or “one day maybe things will be better."
In many of my writings and posts, I often refer to ED as the “slave driver." I give it a name and identity. “It” is vague, and a term used to refer to a fly—not something that dominates much of your thought space, your time, your heart, and your mind. Start facing your eating disorder as what it is—whatever name you give it. When we don’t acknowledge it, it’s like trying to stuff all your toys in your closet, and then say your room is clean. It’s not. It’s there. You know it. You feel it. So start facing “it” and look “it” in the eye.
Step 2: Embrace Your Choice with Change
Before you get gung-ho for meal plans, and therapy appointments, weigh ins, and going through the motions of recovery, you first must come to a want and willingness to change. Recovery is about change. Yes, change is scary, but it’s the only way to get on with your life (away from ED).
When you go through the motions of therapy, and appointments, and meal plans, it’s easy to get disconnected with the bottom line: your right to thrive. Change for you (a new way of doing life—not just checking off to-dos)—not because you have to, or because it’s what you “should do,” or it’s because what others are telling you to do. If you really want something new, then you must be open to change—and embrace it.
Step 3: Get to Know Your Purpose
“Who am I?” It’s a question every single 12-year-old asks during her brace-face, frizzy hair days, and the struggle is real from those days forward. This question is also wrapped up in one more greater question: what on earth am I here for? In other words: what is my purpose?
No, you don't have to have it all together, but chances are your eating disorder has kept you from understanding who you are and kept you from greater purpose and what you are here on this earth to do. The answers to these questions probably won’t come overnight—especially if ED has been your “identity” and “purpose” for quite some time. Your ED has a sneaky way of high-jacking your identity and purpose to make you think that you are defined by your struggle, and that your daily mission is to binge, purge, restrict, and/or exercise, then repeat.
In this step, you begin scratching the surface to uncovering your identity and purpose. Personality tests and strengths tests certainly can help you with understanding more about who you are; as can friends and family who know you well. In addition, thinking about the things you love to do, passions or dreams you had as a kid (or today), the things that come naturally to you, the things that make you feel alive, and the things that you lose track of time when you do them—can all point you towards your purpose.
Step 4: Get to Know Who You Are
Deep deep down inside of you, there is a still, small voice, who knows truth—your true healthy self. It may be hard to hear since ED’s voice has been strong for far too long. But deep inside your inner soul and being, there is a flame that burns for true health, true freedom, and true self-care.
Connecting with truth is a secret weapon for battling lies, insults, and warfare bound to come your way in recovery. Before moving any further, take a time out, get calm, still, quiet, and close your eyes. Ask yourself: what is my truth? Or, in my case, I would ask myself: who is healthy, thriving me? Write down the traits of this person. For instance: “Healthy Lauryn speaks her mind with grace and poise. Healthy Lauryn does not bend over backwards to people-please others. Thriving Lauryn fuels herself regularly throughout the day. Healthy Lauryn is a daughter of the King.”
Any time an obstacle or conflict arose, my truths—my healthy version of me—began to become my battle cry and my counter attack. Create a some vision: who is thriving healthy you? Who is the persion you want to be? The recovered, healthy, ED-free, care-free person you want to embody? What does she think like? Look like? Act like? Dress like? Talk like? Dream like? Eat like? What does she do with her time? Her thoughts? Her worries? Create a list, or reflection, on what thriving, healthy you looks like to get a clear picture of your inner super girl—the person you are becoming.
Embody her. Plain and simple. Move forward with a clearer picture of who you are and who you are becoming. Now you get to be her. Even if you don’t feel like you are her yet, you are going to pretend you are her. Begin to think like she thinks, act like she acts, dream like she dreams. So as we think, therefore we become. And in moments when your own truth seems skewed, ask yourself this: what would healthy thriving me do? Then do that.
Step 5: Dream Big
“All our dreams can come true if you have the courage to pursue them.” Ok, so it may be a cheesy Walt Disney quote, but this step is all about gaining vision around what you want for your new thriving life, so you can begin pursuing (and living out) your big dreams.
For years, I pursued “recovery” and “getting better”—but with very little vision or clarity around what life could look like without ED in my life, recovery seemed like a daunting black hole. Time and time again, I’d go into treatment and right back out, only to run back to my old ways because I had no idea who I was, what life was, or what recovery meant in the day in and day out logistics of life. For this step, if you can dream it, then it is possible. So, we are gonna dream some big dreams.
Step 6: Leave the Conceptual World Behind
Ready to start gaining some traction with practical action steps to begin moving closer to your dreams? First things first, it’s time to leave the “conceptual world” behind—all you’ve known is within the context of ED’s rules, regulations, and jabs directed at you. We are usually afraid to make this step. It’s hard to believe that things that “make sense.” For example, the belief that eating fat makes us fat; or that carbs cause weight gain; or that we are losers in life; or that nobody likes us; or that our body is not good enough are wrong. We often tell ourselves comforts like binging "just this once," exercising "just 30 more minutes," or skipping out on just a snack. These destroy us daily.
When we make up our minds to try something and believe something different, playing our former concepts, or ‘truths,’ on pause mode, it’s fantastic. So I recommend you step it up a little bit. Come to terms that the beliefs you’ve had (about yourself, food, body and fitness) may very well be a skewed version of the truth. Because they haven’t gotten you very far to date.
All I want you to do right now is identify the messages, rules, or lies you’ve been believing about your eating disorder. (Disclaimer: right now, you may not see these as ‘lies’—they may still be truths). Whatever beliefs you have about food, your body, yourself, your worth, or fitness, write them down. Make one column for: “The Messages ED Tells Me About Me” and another column labeled: “My Food, Fitness, and Body Rules.” Write down every message that comes to mind. For instance:
Column 1: The Messages ED Tells Me About Me:
- You’re ugly, fat, and stupid.
- You’re a loser.
- Nobody likes you.
- You’re sucking at life.
- Your thighs are fat and jiggly.
Column 2: My Food, Fitness, and Body Rules:
- No eating after 8 pm.
- Carbs are for fatties.
- No oil whatsoever.
- I need to be a size 2.
I also call these messages your “inner mean girl.” It’s important to realize that this inner voice is not you, and if you want to stop that "inner mean girl" from talking so much, (or at least catch her in her ways) get to know what she sounds like. See Step Six for more on this.
Step 7: Get Educated
This part is one of my all-time favorites. Unearthing the “light bulb” moments that turn ED’s lies on their heads. Here we are digging deep. You now understand the lies you’ve been believing (identified in Step 5), and you are in the process of learning new truths about your body, health, food, fitness, and mindset.
Knowledge is power—and although you’ve probably become a knowledge “junkie” in some form or fashion—that knowledge may be skewed. There’s a common misconception within the eating disorder world that those who have eating disorders are “obsessed with health” or “know lots about food (and fitness)”—after all, your day may revolve around these things (Google searching ‘Intermittent Fasting,’ calculating calories in your head, posting Instagram selfies in the gym or on the yoga mat).
For years, I thought I knew everything there was to know about health and nutrition, after all, I was obsessed with it. I could tell you the number of calories in five almonds, two plums, a cup of Yoplait vs. Fage yogurt, or the nutrition facts of deli turkey on whole wheat bread. I believed “healthy eating” meant lean meats, lots of fruits and veggies, no added fat, whole wheat bread and pasta, fat-free dairy and sugar-free treats.
In my mind, fitness meant kicking myself in the booty and blasting calories on a StairMaster. Then enter recovery—real recovery—and part of my own recovery involved getting educated around new truths about food, my body, fitness, and myself—my world was rocked.
A big component for me was fully understanding the why’s behind why my body “needed to eat healthy fats,” for instance. Nutritionists could tell me to eat fats until they were blue in the face, but just telling me to “eat fats” never helped me understand why self-care with avocado, ghee, or coconut oil in my daily diet was important to brain health, digestion, and metabolic function.
Learning many of the why’s behind health, nutrition and, even deeper, what my ‘why’s’ behind my struggle really were. I dug into the root reasons why my ED evolved in the first place, and these discoveries became powerful weapons in propelling forward in recovery.
Today, educate my clients more on the truths about health, their bodies, and food. It's important they understand how to debunk myths and quieting the noise on Google while uncovering greater insights into the deeper reasons why the struggle persists. If you want to uncover some knowledge weapons, here are a few resources I’d recommend to read or listen to (with an open mind—what we put into our mind influences our thoughts and habits):
- The Paleo Solution, by Robb Wolf
- Eat the Yolks, by Liz Wolf
- It Starts with Food & Food Freedom, by Melissa Hartwig
- Jesus Calling, by Sarah Young
- Breaking Free, by Beth Moore
- Mastering Your Inner Mean Girl, by Melissa Ambrosini
- Your Are a Badass, by Jen Sincere
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey
- The Slight Edge, by Jeff Olson
- The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis
- Breaking Vegan, by Jordan Younger
- Balanced Bites Podcast
- Food Psych Podcast
- Mind Body Musings with Maddy Moon Podcast
Step 8: Heal Your Gut
This one may seem like a strange step to throw right in the middle here, but it goes hand in hand with the new awareness sparking up your life. The gut is the gateway to your health and actually plays a big role in your mindset and psychological health. In fact, 90% of your serotonin (feel good brain chemicals) are produced in your gut and the vagus nerve—the nerve responsible for digestion runs straight from the top of your stomach to your brain—hence why the “butterflies in your stomach” feeling is real. If and when your gut is not well (i.e. “leaky gut," bacterial overgrowth, or low stomach acid), then your mental health takes a hit: anxiety, stress, OCD, depression, pervasive thoughts can take over.
Gut health is crucial to mental health and well-being. Mind. Body. Soul. How to heal? Every body is different, so first, working with a knowledgeable nutrition or functional medicine provider in this area is crucial to understanding what your individual needs or deficiencies are. However, some general principles can apply.
Some simple steps for all around gut health you can take today are:
- Eat real foods your body recognizes
- Drink half your body weight in ounces of water each day
- Slow down
- Breathe before you eat
- Chew your food
- Start your day off with warm lemon water and end it with ginger tea
- Take a probiotic each day in addition to digestive enzymes with meals
- Avoid artificial ingredients
Step 9: Redefine
We’ve done a lot of heart and head work to date. Since knowledge is power, Step 9 is all about taking the new insights you’ve learned about yourself, food, fitness, your body, and other mindset trips and putting them into action. “Redefine” your old beliefs and old ways of doing things into new truths that you actually live out. Here, we are turning your old habits and beliefs completely upside down.
For every individual this step will look completely different because the things you’ve struggled with are 100% individualized to you, but it is critical to redefine or redesign what life has looked like to date in the areas of your struggle. Here's an example:
For my body, redefining my “self care” meant the following:
- Eating real food
- Healing my gut—did you know the gut is the gateway to health?
- Trying a new form of fitness—and breaking up with my Stairmaster
- Drinking half my body weight in ounces of water each day
- Addressing nutrient deficiencies and healing my body
For my mind, redefining my mindset meant:
- Tapping into my “who is healthy me?” truth
- Coming up with mantras and affirmations to believe and say
- Fixing my mindset on the positive—not the negative
- Believing recovery was possible for me
- Making the choice that, no matter what, recovery and a new life was going to happen
For my soul, redefining my heart meant:
- Giving my heart to something greater than myself and accepting Christ as my Savior and believing who He says He is, a redeemer
- Connecting to my greater purposes and passions (things I loved to do and was created for, like writing, loving people well, ministry, and helping others)
- Connecting to community after years spent in isolation
- Getting outside myself by volunteering, serving
- Connecting to a therapist and mentor who helped me in the dark, dark days
- Reconciling relationships with family and friends that had been broken during my struggle
“Redefining” or “redesigning” your life will look 100% unique to you, but today, as an occupational therapist, I specialize in helping people do just that in order to find life and meaning outside his or her ED and old ways.
This is a meaty step to go into detail here, but if you want to learn how to redefine your own life—in recovery—definitely connect with me to learn more how this crucial step could help you turn a big corner. Stay tuned for my next piece, where I’ll give you some specific protocols around this “Redefine” step in recovery: things like self-care (nutrition, gut healing, and fitness), and a thrive project for redefining your mind.
Step 10: Take Action
“You can’t do any swimming until you get off the bank." My dad used to tell me this all the time, and I never fully understood it until I stopped making plans, and saying “tomorrow” maybe things will be different. Instead, I started doing just one thing, and then another, and then another. Before I knew it, taking action became fun—not scary, or something that would happen “one day.” This step is all about picking out one thing, one intention, one goal to focus on this week in your recovery. Just put one foot in front of the other.
Bonus Step: Believe
Lastly, an unconventional #11. Simply believe. Believe recovery is possible for you. Until you believe this fundamental truth it ain’t gonna happen. You can overcome.
Learn more about the power of mindset: