As a recovery mentor and founder of a local non-profit focused on raising funds to send individuals to treatment for their eating disorders, in addition to educating the community about eating disorders, body image topics, and so on –I frequently find myself faced with the 50 million dollar question: how did you finally recover from your eating disorder?
While there are various complex factors that I believe differ among individuals, I can say with great confidence that there are also universal factors that everyone striving to recover must possess, they are:
- A desire to recover.
- Future plans that do NOT include your eating disorder (e.g. wanting to travel, finishing school, have a successful career, get married, and so on) that can help you express your true identity and experience the joys of life.
- The willingness to face many (or all) of your biggest fears, secrets, and memories that may bring up uncomfortable feelings (e.g. shame and guilt).
In my experience, working to free yourself from the holds of an eating disorder without one or all of those key elements will keep you stuck and ultimately prevent you from attaining the long-term recovery needed to fully thrive in life. I was incredibly blessed and fortunate enough to have access to some of the best treatment providers throughout the nation, however because I lacked those vital elements, I found myself admitting and readmitting into several treatment facilities for over a miserable span of 6+ years. Do I consider those treatment stays a complete waste of time? Absolutely not! They all served a purpose that helped me reach the recovered state I am in today.
After discharging for the second time from the residential unit at the Center For Change, I realized that the problem was not in the treatment professionals; rather it was my lack of willingness to challenge my shame and guilt that was hindering my recovery process. I convinced myself that I could be vulnerable with my treatment team to an extent, and the truly painful and shameful memories would be my “little secrets” that would eventually exit my memory with enough avoidance tactics. While that notion sounded nice in theory, it not only failed to work, but also created additional work for me to do in the long run. When I began seeing a new out-patient therapist subsequent to discharging from CFC, I went in with the plan to share ALL of my “little secrets” while remaining committed to following my dietary goals, reminding myself that I was tired of living a life where merely surviving day-to-day was an achievement.
I had to let go of my obsessions with always needing to appear perfect, as well as the few eating disorder behaviors I had justified as being normal; no eating disorder behaviors are EVER justifiable, and holding on to even 2% of your eating disorder will prevent you from attaining long-term recovery. I remained committed to my progress (without needing to be perfect) by keeping an open and honest relationship with my treatment team, and maintaining a focus on my goal of becoming a licensed clinical social worker, where I could use my own experiences to help others heal. I want to be someone my future patients can look at and say, “because of you I didn’t give up” – that is something I continue to remind myself each and every day.
Owning our story can be hard, but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky, but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy –the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light. ~Brenè Brown
Ali Hougnou, 23
Founder of Project HEAL- Utah Chapter