The Reality of Eating Disorder Recovery: It’s Tougher (But Better) Than You May Think

I wish I could be the shining example of what it means to recover and run faster. I wish I ran faster at a higher weight. And maybe I could have if my training had been consistent enough without the eating disorder invading everything.

I’m no longer running. I didn’t have a magnificent comeback race in terms of time or place. But I can say this: I’m happier than I ever was during my best running performances.

And I am recovered from the eating disorder.

What We Want Eating Disorder Recovery to Be

Many of us think (and want) eating disorder recovery to be all about obtaining a healthy relationship with food while still restricting (maybe restricting less than before, we convince ourselves). However, recovery doesn’t often end up (or happen) as we want it to. It’s not always the picture-perfect comeback story that we may conjure in our minds.

Often eating disorder recovery may mean gaining some weight. This is not a bad thing, but I know athletes are tempted to pull out of recovery when they see this physical change. It can be scary. It’s uncomfortable. And I get it. I turned back many times. I resisted recovery when I thought it threatened my sports performances.

It took me years to learn how to eat well again. I had to follow a meal plan set by my dietitian, and listen to the advice of my therapist. I eventually allowed myself to eat whatever and however much I wanted (the bingeing certainly prompted this).

I gave my body time to heal.

Allowing myself to eat with the guidance of my dietitian and avoid focusing on weight brought me to where I am today—out of the cycle of binge eating and restricting. It gradually brought me back to what I weighed before the eating disorder ever entered my life. Food does not dominate my day.

What Eating Disorder Recovery Often Is

You may not perform as well in your sport in the midst of recovery. This is not to say you will always stay at this spot. But how fast you run or your final score in a game is also not the point.

I have been running since the age of five. Running was my identity, my love. Yes, I loved it (and still do when I can get out and run). So for me to say something like this—that your sport is not your everything, and doesn’t have to be—is huge. Because I remember when it was everything to me, and how I didn’t think I could possibly find anything better. The grieving process that comes with all of this is a lot.

I grieve for your pain, but I’m excited for what will come next for you.

You are MORE than running fast or winning awards. Keep running down the path you are on now to stay the same or get worse, or stop for a while, rest, regroup, and come back mentally stronger.

You can be happy and fulfilled.

Emaleedee Photography

Recovery Difficulty

It is possible to have a lean body and a healthy relationship with food if that is where your body would like to stay effortlessly and without any health problems. But I believe you may have to get to the other side before you possibly get to this point. A smaller body is also not something you need or will want to strive for, anyway. We don’t need those things to be or feel successful, or even to feel better about ourselves.

Recovery is not easy. It sucks for a while, and it is uncomfortable. It’s like going through a dark tunnel, not knowing where it ends or how. The fear is of the unknown. Will you keep gaining weight? How painful will it be to grieve all you feel you have lost?

But also, how much will you gain in your life?

I found my greatest happiness at my highest weight, and without running as fast. In fact, I was not running at all. But the love I had for myself—who I realized I was outside of running and my eating disorder—was worth living for, and worth celebrating.

Life had never felt so vibrant and full of possibility and adventure.

The Discomfort

Not everyone’s recovery looks the same. With my experience, I had to get through the tough stuff I didn’t want to experience: staying at my highest weight and even gaining a little more weight. Eventually, I had to stop competing, and then stop running completely. To continue on the path of recovery, I pushed myself into new experiences outside of the running and eating disorder world. Again, this was scary! Unfamiliar! But also, I found out, exciting.

I do miss running. I had wonderful experiences with it. Wonderful. This just goes to show how happy I am now if I’m even happier than I was at my peak in running.

Recovery is not always comfortable, but it’s moving out of the kind of situations readers email me about: “I’m so tired of feeling unhappy” and, “Running leads me to a vicious cycle of overeating, becoming depressed, and breaking out.” Even if you are competing well in your sport (and it’s likely going to be a short period with eating/fueling issues), this is no way you want to continue to live. Also, don’t let this continue long enough to permanently destroy your chances of competing. Continuing to engage in eating disorder behaviors can do this.

Dare yourself to change. Try out discomfort. Reveal the powerful person you are underneath. Yes, there are slip-ups along the way, but you can keep trying again. You can reach a place in your life better than any eating disorder or sport award/place/time/record experience could give you.

From someone who’s currently there, I can promise you this.