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People Share How They Overcame Their Eating Disorder

"I realised that my body was not – and never will be – ​a problem to be solved."

Rebecca Kamm

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Sixteen percent of Australia's population is battling an eating disorder and/or disordered eating. That's nearly four million people: your colleagues, your siblings, your friends, friends of friends. You, maybe.

So what of recovery? Is it possible to truly leave an eating disorder—and its "voice"—behind, or is it more a case of lifetime management?

Eating disorders are typically considered chronic diseases and characterised by relapse, says Claire Finkelstein, a Melbourne Clinical Psychologist who specialises in their treatment. Additionally, the concept of "recovery" is in itself complex; beyond bodily restoration is the healing of the mind, generally a longer-term project.

That said, "I believe in and have seen recovery. More than that, I've seen clients and families reach a point where they can look back on the illness, and the process of working through recovery, and identify that [even though] the experience nearly tore their lives apart, it eventually enriched it."

For children and adolescents, Finkelstein adds, Family-Based Treatment (FBT) and Adolescent and Parent Focused Treatment (APT) look to be the most effective therapy models. For adults, more individualised therapies, such as CBT-E, are frequently offered. CBT-E being "an adapted form of CBT designed specifically to address eating disorder issues."

Jennifer Beveridge, CEO of Eating Disorders Victoria CEO, points out that while early intervention is always ideal, "There is no set limit for the possibility of recovery." She also stresses that recovery looks different for everyone: some people never have an eating disorder thought again; others need to use techniques they learned in their recovery to keep old thoughts away.

"The journey often isn’t linear," Beveridge says. "It may be a case of trial and error [...] If you find a certain clinician or treatment approach isn’t working for you, try a different one. Recovery can sometimes feel like one step forward, two steps back, but it’s important not to give up."

We spoke to four people about what worked for them. Some names have been changed to protect privacy.

Hannah, 36, Melbourne, Kinesiologist

Most of Hannah's childhood memories, right back to when she was four years old, revolve around food and eating behaviours. Then, at 16, she was diagnosed with binge eating and body dysmorphia, both of which stuck around to varying degrees throughout her twenties. She also struggled with periods of bulimia.

VICE: Hey Hannah. What kind of formal treatment—if any—did you have for your ED/s?
Hannah: I was never hospitalised, but I had group therapy and saw dieticians, psychologists, and counsellors. Outside these mainstream treatments, I also sought treatment in other modalities such as Reiki, Emotional Freedom Technique, and Kinesiology.

And around what age did you get to a point where you felt "recovered"?
I would say in my early 30s.

What does "recovery" mean to you? Do you believe it's always and fully possible?
I started to lose the layers of restrictions and rules. I found an energy and enthusiasm for life. But most of all I gained a deeper connection with myself, and I now feel safe in my own skin. That provides me with a sense of freedom; it's this freedom that makes me feel recovered. I do believe you can truly recover, but I also believe that for some—myself included—it takes work to stay recovered. I continue to manage and build on my recovery through self-care and ongoing personal development.

What do you credit with getting better?
For me, it was my exploration into the spiritual, as well as energy healing. That resonated with me the most… I felt I could truly heal on all levels. But there is no one-size-fits-all.

What advice would you give to someone suffering from an eating disorder who feels trapped?Reach out. Whether it's to a friend, a family member, a GP, or an organisation like Eating Disorders Victoria. One of the hardest parts can be owning the fact you have an issue.

What techniques do you use to this day to ensure your mental wellbeing?
I'm a kinesiologist, so continuing with regular kinesiology sessions. I also practice meditation, yoga, massages, cupping, and attend regular [wellbeing] workshops and seminars.

Does your work or social life pose any challenges, owing to your past?
My work doesn't pose any challenges as such, but I am constantly working with or connected to people with issues around food, eating, and body image. I don't find this a challenge, more a reminder of how my previous pain has become my power and purpose.

How would you describe your current relationship to food and exercise?
Healthy, but also balanced and fun.

Any final words of wisdom?
For those suffering from an eating disorder or supporting a loved one with an eating disorder, never give up. Not on yourself, not on others. There is always a way—your way. If you haven’t yet found it, you must just keep searching. Sometimes, the search needs to begin on the inside.

Kevin, 36, Brisbane, Cafe Worker

Kevin experienced disordered eating behaviours from the ages of 21 to 32, including binge eating and purging, the recording of nutritional intakes (macronutrients), and intermittent fasting.

VICE: Hi Kevin. Did you receive any formal treatment for your eating disorder(s)?
Kevin: No formal treatment of any kind. I self-treated to ''recovery''. I found a psychologist after the fact who I did some work with to gain a deeper understanding of what I had come to realise [on my own].

How long ago did you get to a point where you felt "recovered"?
About four years ago, but [my recovery] has continued to evolve.

What does "recovery" mean to you? Do you believe it's always and fully possible?
I do believe that everyone who has suffered from an ED has the ability to recover 100 percent. It can be done. I'm living proof. Unfortunately, many people are of the (false) belief that it's something you can, at best, only hope to manage—and that it will be an ongoing battle for the rest of their life.

What do you credit for your own recovery?
Realising that the mental conditioning behind it all was created by the environment I was in. I wasn't born with an eating disorder, it was something that I innocently ''picked up''. Also, letting go of one the hope that I would fit in by meeting a supposed physical ideal, and 2) [letting go of the belief that] looking a certain way said something about who I was.

What advice would you give to someone suffering from an eating disorder who feels trapped?
Firstly, take a step back and give yourself some space from everything connected to the circumstances surrounding the ED. Secondly, reach out to an individual who you are comfortable speaking freely to, or someone who has been in a similar position and come out the other side.

How would you describe your current relationship to food and exercise?
Simple, normal, and intuitive.

Any final words of advice?
Set backs might (and probably will) happen, but don't be discouraged. They're not failures, they're speed bumps along the way. A good life is completely possible. One far beyond what is even imaginable.

Annabel, Sydney, Solicitor

Annabel was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa at the age of 13 and struggled with the disease until she was 23. As well as severe food restriction and compulsive exercise, she performed obsessive rituals around meal times and periods of excessive exercise.

Hi Annabel. What kinds of treatment(s) did you have, if any?
I was hospitalised seven times for my eating disorder and participated in an intensive day program for six months; it was all day, Monday to Friday. I tried everything to get better, including psychological therapy (at one stage I saw my psychologist three times a week), and medication, support groups, hypnotism, naturopathy, specialised doctors, and numerous dieticians.

How long ago did you get to a point where you felt "recovered"?
Probably about four years ago, when I realised I was living life and doing things I previously could never have done, like go to university; prepare my own meals; go on holidays with friends; and go weeks, even months, without exercising, and be OK with that. I felt recovered when I learned how to reduce my "all or nothing" thinking.

What does "recovery" mean to you?
I think complete freedom and recovery from an eating disorder is 100 percent possible for everyone. I never thought I would be able to recover, because I was such an acute case. So if I can, anyone can. Having said that, I don’t think you ever forget where you've come from, and I believe that recovery is heavily tied to self-awareness and self-care. You need to continually treat the fact that you're recovered as sacred. I know my triggers, and I have a toolbox of healthy coping mechanisms that assist me, so I don't revert back to my old unhealthy behaviours.

What do you credit for your recovery?
My incredible family first and foremost, who supported me every step of the way. My amazing friends, who didn’t and couldn’t understand but supported me through my frustratingly long journey. My amazing psychologist, who helped me to separate myself from my illness and recognise that the sick thoughts were not my "own", but belonged to my disease. But most of all, myself: my determination, resilience, fighting spirit, and refusal to let this insidious, manipulative disease beat me.

What advice would you give to someone who feels trapped?
Just start. Please reach out for help, even if you're unsure. There are people who want to help you. Your GP, a counsellor, a psychologist, a family member, or someone [else] you trust. Even if you don’t get the help you need on the first try, keep searching until you find the right "fit".

I never felt "ready" to recover. I was petrified. Recovery requires changing everything you believe to be "safe", so it can be terrifying. Remember that what you believe is keeping you safe is also trying to kill you. Put your trust in others: I (or rather, my anorexia) questioned my treatment team every step of the way; I always thought that I knew better. But you can't do that. You need to trust your treatment team. Unfortunately, the only way to feel free is to endure the absolute hell, discomfort, and struggle that recovery can bring. You may feel stuck during your journey, but keep pushing and believing there is something amazing waiting for you at the end of the road, because there is!

What techniques do you use to this day to ensure your mental wellbeing?
Self-reflection, getting adequate sleep, and only exposing myself to media (including social media) that makes me feel good. Unfollowing and avoiding all magazines and social media accounts relating to diet and exercise, even the ones that claim to be about "holistic health" but which promote the elimination of entire food groups.

How would you describe your current relationship to food and/or exercise?
Something I never thought it could be: intuitive. There are no "shoulds" or "musts" [anymore]. I eat when and what I want. I move my body to feel good. I view my body as an instrument, not an ornament, and I focus on what it allows me to do.

Any final words of wisdom?
You will learn so much about yourself through recovery. You will find strength and determination you didn’t know you had. I truly believe it's the hardest thing I will ever have to do. But you become your own hero when you save your own life, and that is so empowering.

Nicole, 32, Sydney, Social Worker/Counsellor

In retrospect, Nicole says, she was "more than likely" exhibiting signs of an eating disorder for more than a decade before her actual diagnosis at age 26. "I am a woman in a larger body, and I always have been," she reflects. "I believe this is one of the bigger barriers in accessing treatment and support, because dominant cultural narratives about people in larger bodies often position disordered eating behaviours as gluttonous; [we're] often labelled as having no willpower or self control."

VICE: Hi Nicole, what kinds of treatment/s did you have, if any?
Nicole: I first reached out to my family GP. I also linked in with a psychologist and dietitian. I saw my team on an outpatient basis, and was also [referred to] a public day program, which I attended a number of times over the years.

How long ago did you get to a point where you felt "recovered"?
I don’t think recovery or being "recovered" is that black and white. I didn’t wake up one day and think, today’s the day I’m recovered; it was more of a process of [gradually] realising that the ED didn’t hold as much importance in my life anymore. My life was so much richer because I had more room to be in touch with my values.

The eating disordered behaviours, for me, were the first things to “settle". I still had a long way to go in really looking at the psychological side of things—all of those thoughts and feelings I had about myself and my body were still there. The turning point in this respect came when those feelings no longer held so much weight; when I could look at them critically. Another true turning point for me was the moment that I realised that my body, irrespective of its size, was not—and never will be—a problem to be solved.

So what does "recovery" ultimately mean to you?
For me, it means having a relationship with my body, movement and food that's rooted in compassion, kindness, trust, and respect. It means having my life back and being able to fully participate in life. A deeper connection with myself, with my friends, and with my family. There is life beyond an eating disorder. Recovery is possible.

What advice would you give to someone suffering from an eating disorder who feels trapped and is not sure where to start on the road to recovery?
Start where you are. Start with what you have. It’s OK to feel stuck, and it’s understandable to feel terrified about letting go of something that has "served" you, in a way, for so long. The thought of living life without the ED can be incredibly scary [but] every time you do something that defies it, you’re moving toward a more valued and enriching life. Recovery is meant to be messy, and that’s OK.

How would you describe your current relationship to food and/or exercise?
I am in tune with my body, and have learned how to trust my body’s cues again. I eat intuitively and move my body in ways that feel good for me.

Any final words of advice?
Life expands when the eating disorder doesn’t occupy the majority of space. Recovery can feel like things are simultaneously falling apart and falling into place. It hurts, and you’re going to want to give up, and that’s OK. Keep going. [But] try not to place expectations around what recovery “should” look or feel like.

If you or someone you know is experiencing an disordered eating or body image concerns, call the Butterfly Foundation's National Helpline on 1800 33 4673 (ED HOPE) or email support@thebutterflyfoundation.org.au. Eating Disorders Victoria also has a helpline: 1300 550 236.

Rebecca is on Twitter

This article originally appeared on VICE AU.