Life After Anorexia Treatment
Recovering from anorexia will take many months and can even take years. Backsliding, slips and relapse often occur. Relearning how to eat normally and how to cope with everyday problems takes a long time and will usually require a lot of support, whether from family, friends, professionals, or all three. Those in recovery from eating disorders need to address their urgent medical concerns first. Next, they need to focus on eliminating the disordered eating behaviors associated with the condition, and address any co-occurring issues such as trauma, anxiety or depression before developing an effective plan to guard against relapse.
Yet, moving onwards is vital, even if progress is slow. There is life after anorexia treatment, but what does it look like?
The Three Areas Of Recovery
Recovery from anorexia is the process of making a life that is worth living, and while overcoming problems with eating and food is a major goal, it’s not the only task involved in recovery.
There are three areas that have been identified in recovery from anorexia:
- Physical recovery – this is the normalization of anorexia’s physical effects, including restoring body weight to the right level, normalizing hormone and electrolyte levels and resolving health issues that have been caused as a result of the eating disorder.
- Behavioral recovery – this is the cessation of food restriction and other disordered eating behaviors.
- Psychological recovery – this is addressing the emotional and cognitive aspects of anorexia including distress about body image, rules about food, perfectionism, weight and eating. Anyone with a co-occurring condition like anxiety or depression will also need to learn how to manage those conditions to ensure a lasting recovery.
An anorexia sufferer must go through all three of those areas to recover from their eating disorder. Only then can the individual begin to move on to enjoy their life after treatment.
Anorexia’s Long Term Effects
Most people think about weight loss when they think about anorexia, yet there are many more long-lasting effects caused by this illness. These must be considered when looking at the long-term life of an anorexia sufferer.
The impact anorexia has on health are noticeable. The sufferer often has an emaciated appearance with dry hair and skin and bluish fingertips. Yet there are long-term medical issues which aren’t always easily seen. The brain begins to shrink because of poor nutrition. The body’s skeletal system can be damaged with osteopenia and osteoporosis setting in which can be permanent. Infertility can be a result of anorexia and it may be permanent. The heart is also badly affected, with heart disease a common side-effect. Muscle deterioration is related to anorexia since the body will begin to consume muscle when it has no other fuel to burn for energy. The heart isn’t immune to this process.
Not only does anorexia have a long-term effect on health, it also affects relationships. All types of relationship can be profoundly impacted by an eating disorder since anorexia transforms the sufferer into someone who is unrecognizable from their former self. Marriages and friendships can come to an end and family ties can become strained.
Anorexia may also have a negative effect on the sufferer’s education and career prospects. If someone develops an eating disorder while still in school they may fail to finish their education and put themselves at a disadvantage in the job market. For someone already in work, it can lead to reduced productivity, poor performance and subsequent disciplinary action or even job loss. This, too, can have a serious and long-lasting ramifications for the sufferer’s future employment possibilities.
The Importance Of Support After Anorexia
Having a strong system of support is vital in recovery and for a positive life after treatment. Partners, friends and parents have an essential role to play in encouraging sufferers to remain in therapy, to eat regularly and to put their new coping mechanisms into practice. They are also important in helping sufferers to build up a new life outside their eating disorder. For some people who have suffered from anorexia for a long time, family and friends may have become distant after providing care for so long. Recovery must, therefore, involve building that support system back up and learning how to use it properly so that a happy life is possible after treatment.
Unfortunately, life after treatment can be hard. Long-term recovery is a difficult process and it’s all-too-common for sufferers to go back to their disordered patterns of eating, particularly when going through a stressful time. Some of the most common stressors are:
- Going to college
- Moving away from home or to a different city
- Beginning a new job or school
- Money problems
- Becoming pregnant or having a baby
- Getting married or divorced
- A loved one’s death
- Being diagnosed with a chronic condition
- The menopause
At these challenging times, it’s not unusual for sufferers to go back to their old behaviors. It’s therefore important to be aware of the signs of relapse. These include:
- Avoiding events that involve food and regular meals
- Eating alone
- Returning to an obsession about weight and food
- Feeling shame and guilt after eating
- Hiding information from doctors and loved ones
- Checking appearance repeatedly
- Weighing outside treatment
- Justifying small lapses and slips
- Being irritable when talking about food
- Increased stress with no way of coping with it
- Sleep problems
- Increased depression, perfectionism and anxiety
- Becoming more isolated
Often, the best way of dealing with relapse is to simply accept that it could happen and prepare a plan in advance to manage it. Some steps to take include:
- Identifying triggers – which situations will cause you to struggle most?
- Spotting warning signs – what signs indicate your recovery is progressing well? What indicates you need extra support? Think about social, behavioral and psychological signs as mentioned above.
- Identifying those who can offer support – find a number of people including your dietician, therapist, psychiatrist or doctor who you can approach if you’re struggling.
What Should Life Be Like After Treatment?
Living without anorexia can seem impossible. If you’re in recovery, you’ll need to ask yourself some serious questions. Imagine that your eating disorder disappeared overnight, what would your life be like? How would things be different? What signs would indicate those changes? If you know how life would be different if you were better, you’ll know what you’re looking for in your long-term recovery.
Letting Go Of Your Comfort Zone
The process of recovery is going to be uncomfortable. You’ll have to live through uncomfortable physical changes and painful emotions in order to get better. Following a structured way of eating can feel very overwhelming. Yet, with consistency and time, your body will emotionally and physically adjust and, with time, you’ll become more comfortable.
Rely On Support
After leaving treatment, it’s time to let more support in. A lot of anorexia sufferers find it hard to accept that support from other people but it’s easier to recover when someone is by your side and you can lean on them. Imagine how providing support to other people makes you feel. This could help you to accept the support of others more easily.
Setting Achievable Goals
You won’t get better overnight. Anorexia sets in over months and years, so recovery takes a long time too. You’ll need to realize mini-goals before you’re able to reach your ultimate goal. You may have set yourself the goal of eating out with friends with no guilt or anxiety. You won’t be able to achieve that goal at first. However, if you set manageable and achievable small goals each day, such as eating with a family member at home, you can then branch out and progress towards your target.
It’s hard to accept normalcy if you’re an anorexia sufferer. Accepting a normal body weight, normal size and normal way of eating can feel impossible. Life after treatment involves returning to normality and healing. You can still be a unique individual, but your long-term recovery will take you to a place where you function normally and that must be embraced.
Accepting Your Identity
When you suffer from anorexia, that often becomes your identity. Losing that identity can be scary. You need to find out who you are as a person outside your eating disorder. Embrace those qualities that set you apart from the crowd and love your healthy new identity.
Leaving Residential Treatment
If you’ve been receiving anorexia treatment at an inpatient residential program, it can be very difficult to transition back to your old life in the real world. The elements that worked in treatment will need to be continued back at home. Your residential treatment is helpful but it won’t fix you for life. It can only teach you what you must do for yourself.
Here are some of the elements that help you to recover in residential treatment that you can continue to create in your own home.
- Willingness – it’s hard to admit you need help however it’s a key step in recovery. Willingness is needed to make you take action.
- Accountability – plan your meals with someone else. Ask someone who was in recovery with you to be your partner in this. Call each other and check in every day. Make sure there’s somebody in your life who you must tell everything to. If you go it alone, the chances of relapse are high. Doing it with someone else helps to prevent you from backsliding.
- Structure – having structured meal plans is a feature of inpatient recovery. You need to set up the same system at home and follow the plan even if you don’t want to. Plan ahead so you’re prepared for any triggering situation.
- Support groups and meetings. Attend meetings even if you don’t want to or feel ashamed about your slips. Everybody is there to support you and understands your problems.
- Accepting support – reach out to get help breaks the isolation and shame associated with anorexia. Chosen 5 or 10 people who you can telephone if you’re struggling. It’s ok to be vulnerable with someone else. Giving support to others is a gift, so allow yourself to be the recipient.
- Feelings – you need to learn how to separate your eating disorder behavior from stress. Accept your feelings, even if they’re bad ones. Feelings can’t kill you, but anorexia could. Take everything a minute at a time and don’t run away from your feelings and emotions.
- Treatment – carry on checking in with your treatment team and therapists at regular intervals. You need to carry on dealing with issues as they arise or you may relapse.
- Emotional needs – usually, eating disorders arise to fill a gap in your life. What is your hunger really about? If it’s about wanting to find a partner, ask yourself what that partner could do for you that would make you feel better. If the answer is nurturing, comfort yourself. If your answer to the question is to be slimmer, ask what that’s really about. If you want to be a better person, address your self-acceptance and self-esteem and learn how to separate those things from your body weight.
- Boundaries – often, anorexia is a form of protection so others stay away. Work on your assertiveness. Learn how to say no and set limits. It may be frightening at first, however with practice it’ll get easier.
- Spirituality – work to find purpose in your life. Do things which help you to find connection, hope and spirit. It’s all too easy to become distracted by material things, media and work. Yet, what truly matters is life and love.
- Service – try to help other people. Become a volunteer and this will improve your self-esteem.
- Fun – most of all, life after treatment should be about having fun. Make some plans and get out and enjoy yourself. If you stay isolated at home, you’re more likely to relapse.
- Creativity – unleash your creative side and experiment. Do something that allows you to shine and succeed, but also don’t be afraid of failure. Letting go of perfection is vital for your recovery.
Life after anorexia treatment is never going to be easy. However, it’s worth putting in the effort. With the right attitude and the right support, you can live a long, happy and healthy life free of your eating disorder.