Recovery from an eating disorder can be summarized as follows: unlearning what has become a coping mechanism, to work toward what feels impossible. It’s that “simple.” During my own struggle I remember hoping that the friends I met in treatment would recover, believing in their strength and futures but doubting my own ability. We call it the “unicorn syndrome” in the field—the belief that others may be able to overcome challenges, but I cannot; I am different.
An eating disorder is a tool for survival; there is a recipe of ingredients that contribute to its development that may include diet-culture, genetics, trauma, stress, co-occurring mental health conditions—amongst many more. Eating disorders do not develop overnight and they are not actually about food or appearance, attention or vanity. They are mental, behavioral, medical and psychiatric, and they are extremely complex.
Recovering from an eating disorder feels—as noted above—impossible. We eat multiple times per day and so one in recovery must constantly face the very symptom that feels most difficult: learning to eat without manipulation. Learning to feed oneself, to take care of one’s body without compulsive movement or restricting, bingeing, or purging—amongst the many possible behaviors. The person must uncover the underlying emotional issues that contributed not only to the development of the disorder, but to the ongoing purpose. And then there comes behavioral change, emotional tolerance of distress, shifts in communication, acceptance of help and essentially changing many aspects of one’s life.
But this isn’t the hardest part. People in recovery typically feel both a desire to move forward as well as a fear or apprehension about letting go, difficulty imagining what life will be like. The disorder can be thought of as a voice in one’s mind promising security, and learning to challenge this voice is exhausting. And so we acknowledge the difficulty, set up goals, identify motivations. And still, many people do not consider this the most grueling aspect of recovery. It’s not the behavioral change or the vacillating motivation. It’s the way that the world is not set up to support recovery.
When I tell people what I do, they “tsk” and talk about how awful eating disorders are, how hard and tragic it is. And then in the next breath they go on to make inappropriate jokes about size, completely missing the point. People tend very strongly to deny any connection between diet culture and eating disorders, instead wishing to remain in the bubble that equates health with appearance and happiness with weight.
Because for many people size, weight and numbers feel safe and predictable. A false idea that endorses black-or-white thinking: If I just look this way, then it will work out, then I’ll be happy! Instead we live in a blurred world where people of any size can feel all the vast, colorful emotions.
But we deny this. Instead we live in a system that supports diet culture and fat-phobia, telling awful jokes, judging ourselves—which only sends the message to others that we must be judging them. We create waiting rooms and board rooms with no space at the table for those in bigger bodies rather than fundamentally respect humans of all shapes and sizes.
We are cruel and cause shame to so many humans. And this in and of itself is a major problem. And, as a secondary effect, it makes recovery feel so impossible. Recovery includes working toward acceptance of oneself. While an eating disorder is never all about the media or diet culture, it does not help when someone is working so hard to change behaviors and rigid thought patterns to overhear constant comments about diets and “bad foods” and wanting to lose weight. And, of course, I am not simply talking about those in recovery from anorexia nervosa (the least prevalent eating disorder) but all disorders. People have an internal battle between the disordered and healthy self and there is a constant dialogue. Imagine trying to remind oneself why not to engage the eating disorder, finally ready to try, and the overhearing the person next to them supporting the disordered mindset.
I’ve written about this topic ad nauseam, and yet it is one I come back to because of how much change is needed and because of how this is so constantly overlooked. Recovery feels impossible because of the flawed system, and while at times I feel like just a drop in the bucket, I do know that we have the power to make change when we ourselves change.
I spoke at an event over the summer and this issue was raised: A woman approached me and told me she agreed with everything that was said but how is it that we can expect the hundred people in attendance to actually change when diet culture is so ingrained? “It starts with you,” I told her. Reader—it starts with you. Question the diets, don’t laugh at the size jokes. Explore your worth beyond weight, shape, size or appearance.
It’s a privilege to look back all these years later and know that I am no unicorn. I’m just another gal who fought with everything in me to get through the struggle with all the ups and downs and denials and stumbling blocks. I’m so grateful to be in that boat and, as I look around at the ocean of challenges, I know that we can shift the tides if we each take on the goal.
Temimah Zucker, LCSW, works with individuals ages 18 and older in New York and New Jersey who are struggling with mental health concerns, and specializes in working with those looking to heal their relationships between their bodies and souls. Temimah is an adjunct professor at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, an advocate and public speaker concerning eating disorder awareness and a Metro-New York supervisor at Monte Nido. To learn more or to reach her, visit www.temimah.com.