I guess one of the hardest things about eating disorders is how they thrive on secrecy. It’s the problem no-one wants to admit. Not only is this the case when you’re going downhill, it means that you may not know what to expect as you try to get better either.
Recovery looks different for each person, and each person will respond differently to reintroducing foods. (This is partly why you need to get your GP involved, to avoid the risk of things like ‘refeeding syndrome’ – the very serious consequences of severe fluid and electrolyte shifts in malnourished patients when they are refed).
However, there are some things that might happen as you find your way back to health. Most of them are temporary – and will settle down as your body gets used to regular nutrition. Remember, the sooner you get help, the less likely it is that you will do permanent, long-term damage.
This might be in your face or on your body, (like your tummy). What’s happening is a normal reaction to your body adjusting to getting some nutrition after being starved for so long. As you eat, insulin helps to re-balance minerals, like potassium and phosphorus, inside your body cells to give you energy. Water shifts in this process too,making you feel bloated. But after you’ve been eating a balanced diet for a while, your electrolytes will stabilize and the bloating goes down.
This is temporary – I promise. I got terrible bloating for a few months after I started eating again – in my case it was complicated by the fact that my digestive system packed in, but it is really common. It feels grim, no getting around it. When I had to go into hospital they even did four pregnancy tests. I got a couple of ‘congratulations on your pregnancy’ cards – and that’s no joke. (Not my favourite day, that one).
It’s not ‘fat’, it is water.
It’s a sign of how messed up your eating has been – and how important it is to get better.
The bloating is actually really good news for your body as it’s a sign you are rebalancing your minerals. Unbalanced levels of minerals like potassium can leave you feeling faint or depressed. They can also bring on heart attacks and kill you. So this is part of a life-saving process.
The bloating will go away, especially if you keep eating regular meals and snacks and your body realises you’re not going to starve it again. Also, your digestive system is a bit like a car engine that’s been left in the snow. It forgets what it’s meant to do and will splutter for a bit and take some time to warm up. That’s ok. You’ve treated it like total junk and now it needs some patience and TLC.
If you can get one on Amazon, a sense of humour is important. I also bought a load of tracksuit bottoms and pregnancy jeans so that I could adjust the waistband after meals. That might sound extreme, but it’s a lot better than constantly wearing clothes that don’t fit and you just gotta tell yourself, this will go, it’s not permanent.
2. Regaining weight unevenly
Again, this is normal, especially in the early stages of recovery. You might find like me, that you suddenly have a little gut but stick-like legs – listen, it will redistribute. For adults in recovery there aren’t many growth hormones in the body. Instead, there may be an imbalance of other types of hormones, like cortisol, a hormone produced when eating cycles are disturbed or in response to stress. Hormones tend to be in command when it comes to how any weight gained will be distributed around the body.
What’s going on here is that your body has been starved for so long, it wants to check you’re not going to put it through that again. So it sends all the available energy to the vital organs (many in your middle bit) to keep you alive. And it wants to hang onto those until it knows you’re not going to try to kill it again. (Clever, huh?). But it will redistribute.
NB: if like me, you had no chest to start with, then I’m afraid you can’t make mountains out of molehills. But that’s the point of Wonderbras and besides, as they (well, I) always say, more than a handful is a waste.
3. Body hair
Here’s some good news. As you gain weight, you’ll stop looking like you’re wearing a rug. Your body grows that extra hair to keep you warm and alive, but if you’re giving it something to work with, it will stop you morphing into a Yeti.
4.Bright eyes and glossy coat
As your body begins to get all the nutrients it needs, your hair will stop falling out and feeling like straw, your nails will revert from black to pink and your skin won’t feel so much like a desert. People will tell you that you look better. This may be hard. But it’s a huge achievement and they will be cheering you on.
Short-term, you might feel like killing yourself. (This is what you were doing anyway, but it feels worse this way round). Having lost your main mechanism for dealing with bad feelings, you may well feel out of control, terrified, angry, depressed, panicked and a whole host of other basement emotions. This will get easier. At the beginning it will feel impossible. But it’s not. There’s lots of little incentives that can help you get better – like keeping a journal, or making a list of goals. You might want to stick some gorgeous curvy women on the fridge as a reminder that looking like a woman means having more than bones. To be honest however, your recovery is as far-reaching as your goals. If you’re getting better to look hot, then one sniff of a a skinny model or bad hair-day and your self-esteem will plunge. So you’ve got to have an identity that’s built on something bigger than you. And if you ask me, that’s Christ.
For me, it was looking to Jesus that made the difference. He worked in me what I couldn’t do in myself. I knew that He was giving me strength and courage and a future that I could trust Him with, even when I couldn’t see it. As I looked at the Bible, I was reminded that life was bigger than food and clothes and even me. I wrote out His promises on bits of paper and stuck them to every available surface and carried them in my bag and in my pockets. When I felt really low (which was mostly), I’d re-read these and they’d point me back to Him and the reason for getting better. At night when I couldn’t sleep I played the audio Bible and listened to the Gospels. I asked people to pray for me. And when it all got too much, I’d shoot up a prayer flare and go to bed. This is the bravest and best thing you can do. And at a point sooner than you think, you will start to remember who you are outside of your eating disorder. You will remember what life is about. You will stop feeling so scared and isolated and confused and depressed. But just like it took a while to get so sick, it will take a while to get better. And that’s ok. The process is part of recovery.
And as Spurgeon writes (thinking of Daniel 3), we can be sure of one thing. Even when Jesus puts us in the furnace, He’ll be right there in it with us.