Entering mainstream: Building a relationship with self and others after ‘Ed’

Relationships can raise fresh challenges for people re-entering mainstream after a long-term eating disorder. Social and interpersonal skills may be lacking, and stigma and shame may be experienced in both community and workplace. 

Today, Jenni G, who participated in an ED recovery program in 2016, reflects on adapting to mainstream upon recovering from bulimia nervosa.

 It was difficult getting used to being bigger than I was, but I am okay with that now. I don’t have food fears or rules and this has been tremendously freeing.

I am exploring many things I could not before because my life revolved around ED, and now I am establishing my own ‘values-based life’. I am learning to swim, participating in Bible exploration, spending genuine time with friends, socializing more, and getting involved in my community.

While these things are wonderful and I love being able to do it all, it is hard to integrate these things as being part of the real me. For most of my 60 years of life, my identity was an ED and everything else about me was window dressing (my belief). Now ED is no longer there, it is taking time to feel and believe ‘I am’ and that all these new experiences are part of who I am.

The hard work in ‘growing up’ after ED

It sometimes feels like after ED the hard work really begins. I know life has ups and downs, happiness and sadness, and everything in between. I have skills to deal with this, but I get tired. ED is no longer an option; I know it has passed its use-by date. I write, meditate, pray, exercise, read and more. I have seen a psychiatrist for 17 years. It’s up to me now, to just put it all together and accept that healing takes more time.

For me, healing is not about regaining something that was lost to ED, because I never experienced life without ED. It’s about growing up in the first place. I know there are still emotions to process further, and I am doing this.

Relationships with self and others

Funny how one can write with a freedom and clarity when the words come from the soul and without judgment, but find a barrier when asked for something specific. Even as I write here, I see parts of ED wanting to get in the picture by being critical of each thought or word going through my head “Is this good enough?” “Does this make sense?”

The timing of this entry raises a strong emotion too — of shame, as it follows a few days of relapse. Four major events/issues arose at the same time and seriously undermined my sense of self, worth and purpose. This included my physical and emotional energy being consumed by the needs of others and unrealistic demands to keep my registration as an occupational therapist due to time out for my ED recovery last year.

“So many areas in health still have no idea of the impact of ED.”

Seeing people from the past

My greatest relationship challenge since ED has been in seeing people from my past. Last year I moved away from the city that had been my home for over 30 years and where I had clearly defined roles. I had belonged to a very competitive gym where I was part of the thin and super fit brigade; I was involved with a church where the amazing minister knew my story, but no-one else did; I worked efficiently and effectively as an occupational therapist. These places still had people who were important to me and I wanted to remain in contact with them. This meant visiting those places and being seen by others who I preferred not to be seen by.

Looking different and feeling different

I look physically different without ED; I am heavier. At first, I felt conspicuous seeing people from the past because of this. I felt like I wanted everyone to understand the change and not judge me as having retired and ‘let myself go’. I experienced conflict in feeling the need/desire to justify my changes (and therefore myself) while at the same time wanting to be open, honest and educative about ED. Now I am able to visit my old gym and other places, and not experience angst about “what people will think of me”.

Sharing with siblings

Relating with my siblings also changed. They knew I had some food issues many years ago, but last July I told them what my life had really been like. I felt much guilt about hiding what I considered my ‘true self’ (i.e. ED) from them over many years – going to Christmas parties and other functions, eating and throwing up over and over, the food they prepared or paid for. Anyway, the four of us went to the city for a weekend to celebrate my 60th birthday and I told them. We all still think this was the best time we have had in our lives. I began to stop the bulimia behaviors at this point and soon after started a recovery program. There was no judgment from my siblings, just support.

Sharing with children

I told my three children, including apologizing for being in the hospital when they were young because of ED. Two of them thought it was great that I was in a recovery program, but my middle child was more indifferent. Since sharing my story, social occasions with my children have become more meaningful. I am far more engaged, because I am not worrying about how much I can eat, when I can throw up, etc.

Sharing with husband

My husband of almost 31 years knew I had an ED, but we rarely talked about it and he did not know the extent of it. We started to eat the same meals and become more spontaneous about eating out. He has been immensely supportive of the changes, and is my biggest source of encouragement when I struggle with body image or weight gain.

Sharing with friends

I have a friend who was the principal nurse educator when I trained as a psychiatric nurse in the 1970’s. He saw me through some ugly times in those early years but he, too, thought I had completely recovered many years ago. I told him my true story last year and he thinks I have done an amazing job with recovery. He is very special in my life.

Sharing with others in the recovery program

I remain in touch with other participants from my eating disorders recovery program. I offer encouragement and support as I understand the challenges they face. At the same time I am providing inspiration and hope by steadfastly focusing on living the values-based, authentic life I am developing.

Spontaneity is a new sensation

The difficulty incorporating my new experiences of life without ED as being part of my true self is a work in progress, but I am more confident now. The biggest change is having freedom, flexibility, spontaneity and social engagement in my life. I always had a reason why I could not go to breakfast, or a party, or any function with food. Now, I never refuse an invitation on the basis of food being involved. Quite remarkable, really.

Setbacks are opportunity for ongoing learning and healing

Acknowledging my life with ED to others carried this awful sense of shame about my dishonesty, that I had lied to people for so many years. Could they now trust things I said or did? If I were able to hide such a big thing for so long how would they really know if I had changed/recovered? Ultimately (and fortunately), this has not really been a big deal. However, how do I feel about telling people I’ve had a setback? Do I even need to do this? Part of me feels hooked into this desire for honesty, and probably then reassurance from others that they still think I am okay. But part of me also thinks, ‘well this is what I did, I am disappointed, but look at how much I’ve learnt from those few days’. Something in me also feels I was compelled to revisit ED, to reinforce an old belief about being a failure perhaps? Or to show myself I really have come a long way and that, despite this setback, I am still in charge of my life. ED does not have that power anymore.

Writing to you has helped me clarify things for myself, and I am excited to be able to pick myself up and move on. Now that’s progress!

Jenni G

Jenni G has had a long career as an occupational therapist, mostly in cardiac rehab and also in the community, where relaxation therapy and meditation were an important component of her work. Most of all, the therapy, courses, and reading involved in gaining freedom from her long-term illness, bulimia nervosa, have provided her with useful qualities and skills that help others.

Thank you for sharing your story, Jenni G.

Jenni’s story is the second in a series of Dear Diary posts focusing on relationships and partnerships to commemorate World Eating Disorder Day, June 2, 2017 #WeDoActTogether.

Sharing your story

If you have a story about how your illness has affected your relationship with self and others, click here.

June Alexander

About June Alexander

I have written nine books about eating disorders since my recovery (my “reconnection with true self”) from anorexia nervosa and other long term mental health challenges in 2006. In 2017, I graduated as a Doctor of Philosophy (Creative Writing). My contribution to the eating disorder field was recognised at the 2016 Academy for Eating Disorders International Conference in San Francisco where I was awarded the Meehan/Hartley Award for Public Service and Advocacy. I am currently a co-chair of the NEDC Steering Committee Evidence of Experience Group, a foundation steering committee member of the annual World Eating Disorders Action Day, and an Advisory Panel member for F.E.A.S.T.

All articles by June Alexander

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