The other day, it was a picture. I went into the photos on my phone and found myself face-to-face with a compilation of memories titled “Together Over the Years.” There I was, featuring a big smile in each picture while upbeat instrumental music played in the background. Pictures tend to make many of us feel nostalgic about the memories, people, and places they hold, but I found that, this time, I didn’t feel nostalgic over the memories, I felt nostalgic over my eating disorder. Maybe you’ve been there. Maybe you are there right now.
The Thoughts Start and Nostalgia Sets In
It started with one little thought when a picture of me flashed across the screen: Oh, I remember that outfit. Someone told me ‘how great I looked’ that day, followed by ‘What’s your secret?’
Another picture. More thoughts: I was proud of how tiny I looked here and how I had said ‘no’ to the ice cream that the other people in the picture were holding. At the time, those comments and thoughts were deposits into my feel-good bank. Validation from someone else? check. Reinforcement that what I was doing was ‘working?’ Another check. Demonstration of “self-discipline”? Yes, check.
That started a series of other thoughts that turned into reminiscing over several different parts of my eating disorder. If you have been here, you may find yourself feeling a sense of shame, second-guessing your recovery, wondering if these feelings are normal, and fearing that you may be the only one who experiences this. Please know: it’s okay for you to have these feelings. It’s normal, expected even, during the recovery process.
Feeling nostalgic over parts of your eating disorder is a part of the recovery process that, in my personal experience (which is not necessarily reflective of others’ experiences), isn’t talked about much and is something that I didn’t initially know what to do with.
So, what can we do when these feelings creep in? In my experience, being honest with myself about them is the first right step. Below are a few parts of your eating disorder you may experience feelings of nostalgia over, followed by truths you can tell yourself to help confront these feelings.
4 Parts of Your Eating Disorder You May feel Nostalgia Over and Truths to Remember in Response
1. Your ED body
If part of your eating disorder was experiencing a change in your body’s appearance (which, to be clear, is not always the case. It is a common misconception that all people with EDs are characterized by a certain body size or change in appearance. In fact, less than 6% of people with eating disorders are medically diagnosed as “underweight”). But, if you did experience a change in your body’s appearance, you may feel wistful when you see a picture of yourself from when you were in the throes of your eating disorder.
When feeling this myself, my initial reaction was to then feel shame for ‘missing’ this body. I struggled to admit this out loud because it felt like failure: Was I now a fraud for considering myself recovered while missing this body? Does this mean I actually was not as far into my recovery journey as I thought?
If you find yourself missing your ED body, remind yourself of these truths:
- “How human of you”. When I mustered up the courage to admit these feelings out loud, my therapist smiled and, without hesitation, replied: “How human of you.” How human of you to miss something that felt like ‘home’ for a time, how human of you to mourn the loss of something that served as a part of your identity for a time. Those words continue to stick with me as a reminder that I am not a robot, that I am a complex human being with a complex set of (sometimes conflicting) emotions. You can be thankful for how far you have come and have moments where you miss where you were. One does not negate the other. Missing your ED body does not take away from the work you have done (and are doing) in recovery.
- That body isolated you. That body may have looked ‘good’ by society’s unrealistic, unhealthy, and, arguably, dangerous standards, but you were miserable and missed out on opportunities to socialize, go out to eat with friends, be present in moments with your family, and experience the joy that comes with these experiences.
- That body was sick: The headaches from restricting, the aches and pains from trying to function well while running on fumes, and the invasion of emotions brought on by the tireless pursuit to attain and maintain this body left you feeling physically drained, sometimes even incapable of engaging in day-to-day tasks.
2. The compliments you received
At one of my lowest weights, I received compliments about my body and the change in my appearance regularly (It’s jarring how readily many comment, compliment, and critique the appearance of others’ bodies, am I right?). And while I recognize the harm these compliments did, how human of me to miss something that made me feel good at the time.
If you, like me, find yourself missing the compliments, remind yourself of these truths:
- Those compliments were never really about you. They were a reflection of an unhealthy societal standard for appearance. Sometimes, these types of compliments are even a reflection of other people’s insecurities. It has been a relief for me to remember that the compliments people gave me were more of a reflection of an arbitrary, unhealthy standard of what ‘looks good’ than they were about me.
- Your worth does not come from the size or appearance of your body. Compliments about your body size are not compliments about your whole person. There are so many more interesting and unique facets of you as a person than the size and appearance of your body. In fact, no compliment or lack of compliment (about body size, appearance, or about anything else – even character, personality, capabilities) has the ability to assign, increase, or take away from your worth as a human being.
3. The sense of control
You may find yourself missing the sense of control, comfort, or ‘achievement’ you felt when tracking calories, body checking, or tracking the number on the scale each morning.
If this is the case for you, remind yourself of these truths:
- This control you felt was fleeting. No amount of restriction or binging provided true control over the parts of life or emotions we were numbing ourselves out against. When the satisfaction you were getting from the control started to lose its power, there was always a new goal, a number, a new benchmark to hit.
- This control came at the cost of connection. The hyperfocus on food intake, body weight, and the reflection in the mirror came at the expense of connecting with other people. Maybe it was missed connections with friends and family over a meal, the ability to truly enjoy a girl’s night out, or baking (and then eating) cookies with your family. Whatever it was, the control came at the cost of opportunities to connect with the people you love and care about.
4. The regimented exercise routine
If part of your ED was compulsive exercise, and part of your recovery journey has been to take a break from doing any type of formal movement, or to disengage entirely from the idea of formal movement, you may feel a void that your gym routine used to fill (albeit temporarily).
When nostalgia over working out creeps in, remind yourself of these truths:
- The physical and mental drain: Planning every day around the time you would run, go to the gym, or fit in some other form of structured physical activity was not only physically draining, it also took up so much of your mental space. It robbed you of the ability to “go with the flow” or say “yes” to last-minute plans in the name of having to “get that work out in.”
- The fear and shame cycle the exercise had you in: I once had a friend explain that, in healing her own relationship with her body and movement, she realized that she used to exercise out of a place of lack – the idea that there was something she was lacking and exercise was going to help her ‘get it.’ There was this idea that there was a gap between where she was and where she ‘should’ be.
If this fear and shame cycle was true for you, remind yourself that movement born out of feelings of lack, fear, shame only served to further perpetuate the feelings of lack, fear, and shame you felt. There was never any winning when stuck in this cycle.
Eating Disorder Nostalgia: Your Feelings are Normal and Expected
It feels vulnerable to admit when you are feeling nostalgia over your eating disorder; it can feel ‘touchy’ to bring up out of fear that it could seem you are glamorizing parts of the ED that stole your joy, robbed you of your personality, and severed connections with those who care about you.
While these feelings are normal, it’s important to remember that nostalgia does a good job of romanticizing memories and experiences, leaving out the parts of those memories that may have caused us to seek help in the first place. These feelings do not mean you are relapsing; experiencing nostalgia over parts of your ED does not mean you aren’t recovering, and they do not mean you aren’t worthy of all recovery has to offer.
When Experiencing ED Nostalgia, Recognize it, Feel it, and Face it
Rather, nostalgia for your ED is something to recognize for what it is, allow yourself to feel, and then face head on. When you allow yourself to recognize the nostalgia, you give yourself the space to confront these feelings with truths that can help demystify the nostalgia and keep your ED in its rightful place (behind you).
So, meet that nostalgia with the truths that help you to remember the hard work you have done, how far you have come, and the lifetime full of rich experiences that await you as you continue to live each day free of the shackles of your eating disorder.
By: Erika Muller, Assistant for Wildflower Therapy LLC
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