The role of structure in recovery
Today I wanted to have a look at how the importance of timings and structure has shifted throughout my recovery. This is something I'm interested in as during the first few weeks of my recovery I was constantly fighting against the set meal and snack times on my plan, asking my therapist over and over how they would help me. This is because I couldn't see how they would allow me to function in the real world, as I made the point that in an average day (outside of lockdown) it would not be attainable for me to function normally whilst adhering to them. This is because without the special allowances that were made for me at work as a result of opening up to my manager about my ED and necessary treatment plan, I would not be able to eat at these exact times everyday. However, further along my journey I now believe that following a strict routine in early recovery is what allowed me to reach the point I'm at today, and ultimately what saved my life. As a result of this, I want in this post to explore, I guess, the pros and cons of following strict timings, but more over how this changes throughout recovery.
When I first committed to recovery after my last relapse, I worked towards a calorie guided meal plan of 3 meals and 3 snacks a day. This was a slow process due to my resistance, but one that I eventually met and continue to do so now. I am very grateful that my therapist and my family pushed me to meet this and continue to hold me to it, as it was my disordered beliefs that made me fail to see how important it was. If this is something you relate to, then I'm guessing you may be having some of the same thoughts I did... You may be thinking that it goes against your mantras and recovery motivations as it is not the life you want to live, and you may be thinking it will impair your ability to learn to trust your bodies natural hunger queues again. I struggled a lot with these arguments as it's true, we are not recovering to live this rigid life still centred around food, and we do want to be able to listen to our bodies again. What I failed to see though, (despite being told) is that this is a temporary measure. As I've said previously, recovering from an eating disorder is challenging in that there is the need to protect and improve your physical health, often as a priority. Consequently, there is sometimes the need to disregard traditional therapy techniques initially, as we first have to focus on getting to a place where we're well enough to safely implement them. Therefore, in early recovery there is no shame in having to rely on a strict meal plan - in fact it might be the best thing you do. I think what I needed to hear though, is that I wouldn't have to do it forever, and that freedom was waiting for me on the other side if I just persevered despite all the anxiety, discomfort and the ED voice screaming at me.
So... how exactly did sticking to my meal plan and timings help me?
I think for starters it helped to make my eating more regular and thus prevented me from falling back into my old patterns of restricting all day and inevitably binging at some point, usually at night. On top of this, it helped me to manage food guilt, as by eating throughout the day I was able to help kick my metabolism back into gear, having weakened it through my disordered eating. This meant that despite having substantial issues regarding water retention and constipation, my body was able to process food better and thus help manage bloating. In addition to this, following a plan was key to reducing my comparison issues, as I was viewing food as my medicine, and the notion I had to eat, allowed me to stop judging my own hunger based off that of others. Furthermore, it allowed me to use my perfectionist behaviours to my advantage, as I was able (with varying success at times) to shift my ambitions from losing weight, to viewing recovery as my challenge. The plan was helpful here as I felt compelled to complete all my food logs which I enter in the Recovery Records app, and so I had another motivation to eat which acted as a safety blanket when I was unable to find the drive within myself. I also believe that knowing my routine helped my loved ones feel more confident in supporting me as it acted as a guideline for them so that they could ensure they were doing their best to keep me safe. Of course it is not their responsibility to do so, but I know my health caused them a lot of stress and upset and so having a clear plan as to how to help me was a relief compared to the ambiguity of caring for me through other aspects of recovery.
That said, the closer I've come to full recovery, the above have become less relevant to me. This is because unlike in the early days, I am now recovery positive and whilst I still have weight to gain, I now want to be able to eat food because I enjoy it, and so the need to eat on auto pilot has decreased. Furthermore, I don't want my body image or weight to influence my ability to eat, and so whilst from the perspective of restoring my physical health, normalising my metabolism was key, I don't want to rely on it's function in reducing bloating to allow me to consume food. This is because I need to accept weight gain in recovery, and tolerate bad body image days whilst I continue to work towards body acceptance. In addition to this, I don't want to be looking to my meal plan for permission for to eat. This was useful previously, as it was a hurdle that otherwise stunted my ability to recover entirely, however now I have the mental capacity to overcome the issue rather than appease it, I no longer want or need anything to excuse my eating.
In addition to this, as I move towards a life free of my ED, I am well enough to be able to do things that don't fit with my plan. For example, once lockdown is lifted I want to be able to go on dates with my girlfriend and get dinner at a time that suits us, not dead on 6pm, because I don't want my ED or my recovery to dominate my life. One of my issues with recovering on a plan was that exceeding it caused me greater levels of anxiety, than I believed just eating as I wished would. I still believe this to be true, as there is something about going beyond the minimum that our ED's just hate, but of course, full recovery does not mean living a life of minimums. That said, as I've already voiced, the plan is there to ensure you meet the nutritional needs that will keep you alive and if relevant, then restore your weight to the point whereby you have the head space to actively choose recovery. Consequently, I feel it was key to my recovery that I stuck to it strictly up until recently, as despite what I may have thought, my ED still had quite a strong grasp on me, and straying from it would have allowed the illness to get a foot in the door.
Now that I am doing better however, I am gradually becoming more relaxed with it, which initially was difficult as it did serve to reduce my anxiety around food. I feel though, that I have reached a point whereby continuing to stick to it rigidly was becoming detrimental to me as it was a way in which I was clinging onto my ED identity. Your relationship and how you interact with your treatment and meal plan is completely unique, and so I am by no means saying that what is working for me can be applied universally. If you have the support of a therapist or other professional this may be a concept worth discussing, but if you have any questions or thoughts please drop me a message either here or over on my Instagram @the_recovery_bean. I also want to reiterate how crucial it was that I didn't become too relaxed with my plan too early, as it is only now I am much further away from my ED mindset that it has become appropriate. Furthermore because this is something I'm facing at the moment, I cannot be certain how it will serve me and so I will have to constantly check in with myself and my team to ensure it is a positive step in my recovery.
More from me soon, and definitely an update on this topic!
Mais// The Recovery Bean <3