I have some thoughts about what we focus on in eating disorder research and self-help articles. My main takeaway is this- we are paying a lot of attention to early recovery. The vast majority of eating disorder memoirs focus most of their content around what happens during treatment stays. Almost all of the clinical research that we have focuses on the first year of recovery. This, in turn, leaves an untold story about recovering from an eating disorder. That untold story involves the vast expanse of territory that is middle recovery.
As a psychologist who specializes in eating disorders and body image, I have noticed a little bit of a recovery pattern among the warriors that I work with: Many expect early recovery to be demanding. They experience an influx of support, and so, with assistance and courage, they forge on through it. Then, once they hit the middle phase of recovery, they may be somewhat surprised or disappointed to find that this portion has its own scary valleys. I have come to call this phenomenon “the middle recovery blues.”
-If you are out of the “danger zone” of physical symptoms of your eating disorder, but have begun to experience a flood of ED thoughts and feelings, you might have the middle recovery blues.
-If the thought “I am supposed to be done with these feelings,” has been on repeat for you recently, you might have the middle recovery blues.
-If you no longer struggle immensely with keeping ED behaviors under control, but continue to feel very much stuck in your ED, you might have the middle recovery blues.
-If you have been wondering why there aren’t as many resources that seem appropriate for people who are no longer struggling with their ED behaviors, but still wrestle with the thoughts on a daily (or hourly) basis, you might have the middle recovery blues.
-If your friends and family have recently been referring to you as “recovered,” or “healthy,” and you have been finding this to be extremely invalidating to your journey, you might have the middle recovery blues.
-If you have begun to feel resentful about the lack of support that you receive from others when you are not outwardly manifesting illness or clearly participating in behaviors, you might have the middle recovery blues.
Sound familiar? To put it simply, the middle recovery blues are part of the basic experience of recovery for most people. As you continue on, and continue to do the work, to address the heart and roots of your ED, you can expect the general direction of recovery to slowly but surely inch forward. However, as we know, the recovery trajectory is non-linear. And this non-linear nature of the healing process means that there will inevitably be some low points.
It’s like this-recovery is a mountain, but it is not a singular one-more like a mountain passage, with valleys, caverns, and regions in the middle of the climb where you have to go spelunking to make it to the next range. That spelunking region-that part where it gets dark, cold, and damp for a moment? That’s part of middle recovery.
So what’s a recovery warrior to do? I might suggests that, as any seasoned mountain climber would, that it is important to prepare yourself for all parts of the expedition. A seasoned mountain climber who knows about the spelunking involved will pack spelunking gear! She will read up on it, talk to other spelunkers, and rally her spelunking troops. Take a cue from her-prepare yourself as much as possible for the long haul; that is, prepare yourself for ED to get loud at different points ALL throughout the recovery journey.
Make peace with the fact that time in recovery does not automatically equal a meeker and meeker ED every day. Similarly, work to make peace with the fact that experiencing strong ED feelings, thoughts, and urges well into recovery does not make you broken, or even mean that you are regressing in your recovery. Remember that relapse prevention plan? Revise it so that it works for middle recovery. There is no saying that your coping tools and plans can’t evolve with you! And lastly-rally those troops. Talk with your support system about what you need at the different points in recovery. Remind them about what is going on behind closed doors (i.e. between your ears) even though you may “look” recovered to them. It may feel scary, or hurt to have to remind people of this, but with practice, you will become more comfortable with advocating for your needs (versus getting quiet and letting ED speak up for you).
It is my belief that if we talk about the experience of middle recovery more, if we raise awareness about it, and game plan for it more proactively in therapy, the middle recovery blues don’t have to be so dark. And never forget about why you’re engaging in all of this hard work- the reward at the top of that mountain? Freedom. Middle recovery and all- you will never regret this journey warrior.
-Dr. Colleen Reichmann
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