It’s Time To Talk About Orthorexia Recovery

Last week I shared a form titled “Let’s Talk About It.”  This question came through, with permission to share here on the blog.

“What does orthorexia recovery look like (physically, mentally, and emotionally)?”

I have struggled with orthorexia for at least a year, but I am now recovering. It’s not as easy as I thought. Once it dawned on me that I had orthorexia, I thought it would be simple to just turn it off. I thought it would be “fun” to just stop worrying about what I ate and to eat normally again. But that was only fun for about a day. Then it got hard. Sometimes I feel like recovering, or trying to recover, has caused more stress than the disordered eating actually did.

M, I’m so glad you asked. You’re much braver than I ever felt in that moment. This is a hard question to ask and answer, because you may not be ready to hear what Orthorexia recovery requires. More importantly: I can’t know the exact answer for you without working with you one on one. But I can, and will, tell you what recovery looked like for me. I’ll share resources for Orthorexia recovery that may be helpful for you. And I can promise you that recovery gets a little easier as you go, because it feels a lot better than being stuck in a restrictive mentality.

Recovery looks like an old friend. You had a falling out with her, and it’s hard to forget that. You disagreed about something, at some point, and the impulse to protect yourself kicked in. When you see recovery on the other side of the street, you really want to talk to her. Her face is familiar, her embrace welcoming. She’s not judgmental or condescending. She’s open-minded, flexible, and always so happy to see you. You want to go say hi, but it’s hard to take that first step off the curb. You stand there in hesitation, but you see her clearly; she sees you for you.

Physically, recovery looks different for everyone.

For me, it was gaining weight gradually and resisting the urge to exercise (or restrict) myself out of it. Under the surface, it was a restoration of body fat. As is natural, my recovery weight fluctuated for a few years until I got back to my body’s set point. I don’t know what that number is, because it doesn’t matter. I know what it feels like, and I know what it looks like on me.

In the second year of my eating disorder I stopped weighing myself. I couldn’t handle the mental stress of seeing that number everyday anymore. With or without disordered eating, I suggesting tossing the scale. It disconnects your mind from your body. It’s like trusting a Magic 8 ball to tell you how you feel that day. Convincing, but not right.

Physically, for you, recovery may have little to do with weight gain. It might be more about accepting and embracing your physical appearance. It may look like relaxing your grip, letting your body readjust and settle in to this new, relaxed state. It may look and feel like watching the sunrise or sunset, feet on the ground, eyes in awe that this is a simple, natural, everyday thing.

Monterey bay sunrise

Mentally, recovery looks like a childhood friend’s face when they see you for the first time in a long time.

I don’t mean to glorify recovery. I know it’s hard. It’s a shit ton of work, and it’s mostly work on the mind. When I picture what recovery looks like, mentally, I see a childhood friend. I see someone who’s face, stature, smile, eyes, and even smell are so familiar that you can conjure them up in your mind right now, without much effort. They are so damn happy to see you. Maybe it’s been months—more likely years—since you’ve talked, much less seen each other face to face. But you see this friend, and you’re immediately at ease. You can’t wait to catch up! You’re so happy that they are your friend, that you get to have them in your life. For a long time, you’ve been in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable place, one where you barely even recognize yourself, much less someone else. Mentally, recovery feels like reconnecting with that old friend after a LONG time. It looks like both of your faces, lit up with excitement, relief, comfort, joy, and a OMG, FINALLY, YOU’RE HERE.

This felt a little too “perfect zen” scenario, but when I think of what recovery looks like mentally, I also picture a yoga student before class starts. I see that calm student, on their mat with eyes closed, ready to follow the teacher’s lead. Have you tried a yoga class? I think, mentally, yoga was key to my recovery. I started doing it in 2010 while I lived in Denver. After a few classes there was a noticeable shift in my thought process, how I talked to myself, and how I treated my inner control-freak.

Mentally, recovery requires tapping into the thought process that happens before, during, and after eating. It’s a process of re-learning how to interact with yourself. Like when you see that old friend and, at first, you’re not entirely sure what to talk about. It’s a little bit awkward. But you start somewhere, and it spirals into excited chatter about anything and everything. You remember how to have those conversations together. Recovery looks and feels like that—awkward moment included.

Emotionally, recovery looks like the end of a long, hard run. 

You know that feeling after you finish a tough workout? I’m thinking of a long hard run, because that’s where my runner-brain goes. You are SO relieved. You may not be happy yet, because you’re thinking, “WHY do I do this to myself?”  You need a minute to catch your breath. You need a few more to let the endorphins kick in. Once they do, you are SO proud of yourself. You are glad it’s done, but you’re happy (in an odd way) that you went through it. It gave you strength. It taught you resilience. It tested you, but you survived. It showed you the best and worst of your own mind, and that’s OK. Maybe it’s good to know both.

Bar bocce after the run
Can you tell we had just finished running for three hours? Oof.

You’re exhausted but elated. You’re prepared to handle the challenge next time. You’ll go for another run, you’ll tackle another hard workout. It’s not all glory, ease, and happy days. It’s a tough road, but you’re dedicated to progress, so you know the work has to be done.

— — — — —

Does that help answer your question? I know it’s not easy to start recovering. It’s hard work every day for a long time. But think of something else you’ve worked hard on for a long time, and the progress you’ve made. Would you trade that for feeling like a beginner again? Probably not.

Take a deep breath and close your eyes.
Think about WHY you want to recover.
Hold onto that.

I wanted to recover because I was physically, emotionally, and mentally tired of fighting myself. I was tired of thinking about food ALL the time. I was tired of calculating, controlling, and critiquing my own food. I was tired of looking at a menu and searching for food that seemed “healthy” instead of food that sounded good to me. I was tired of holding in the secrets. I was tired of feeling tired.

My recovery took a long time, but that’s just my story. I started trying to recover after about one year of disordered eating, and it took me another five to feel like I finally let it go. But I didn’t reach out to anyone. I didn’t seek help. I didn’t talk about. All of those things would have sped up recovery for me. So, you’re many steps ahead of where I was when I started to recover. I’m here, if you want to talk about it more. The virtual Lane 9 Community that we just started is here, too. If neither one of those feel like the right fit, that’s OK. Here are some additional recovery options:

Last but not least, keep talking. I believe the yoga mantra that “what you seek is seeking you.” You may not feel totally ready for recovery yet, but you’re seeking it. That’s the first (big) step.

— — — — —

This form is still open for all eating disorder questions, thoughts, and stories. I’m going to leave it that way. We’re talking this week, because it’s the theme of the National Eating Disorder Association’s awareness week. But, we’ll keep talking  about disordered eating long after this week is over. I can’t not talk about it. 

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