Almost 2 years ago, I did an interview with Alen Standish of the Quit Binge Eating Podcast, which is now called the Progress Not Perfection Podcast. One of his questions inspired me to start writing a blog post about being “ready” for recovery. The post sat in my drafts folder for a long time and I never got around to finishing it. I came across it today, and decided to publish it because I think it may be helpful.
What got me thinking about recovery “readiness” was when Alen asked me an insightful question and shared some of his own experience. Here is what he said:
Alen: You cautioned in the book that you are only focusing on how to stop binge eating and are not addressing any other underlying problems a person may be having in their life. In my own case I actually had to work on several areas of my own life to better round myself out before I was ready to fully take on stopping my own BED. Your book was a large part of that, but it only worked for me because I was ready for it at that point in my life. Based on my experiences and this is just my own opinion, I find that it seems to be a balancing act that only the person suffering from the disorder knows when they are ready to just say no to their disordered eating and from that when and where to start their recovery process and most important, how to recover. It’s a very individual thing. What are your thoughts?
What follows is the gist of my answer, with several additional thoughts added.
First of all, I think an important thing to remember when reading anyone’s recovery story, using any self-help program, or even attending therapy, is that you can use what works for you at this particular time in your life, and discard what doesn’t. Sometimes people get caught up in trying to do things exactly “right” or “by the book,” and it doesn’t end up feeling authentic. My recovery came about from me discovering information that made sense and resonated deeply with me (in Rational Recovery), and also from my own insights that followed. When I read Rational Recovery, I didn’t even consider whether or not I was “ready” to stop binge eating before putting the information and insights into action. I knew binge eating brought me misery, and I didn’t want it in my life; and this was the case since my binge eating began. In that way, I guess I was always ready to recover.
Even when I was in therapy and led to believe that my eating disorder served a purpose in my life, by helping me fill some sort of emotional void or by helping me cope with problems, I knew whatever “benefits” or temporary pleasure I received from the binge eating wasn’t worth the cost. The idea that binge eating was coping mechanism did, however, make it easier to keep hanging on to the disorder. I spent a long time in therapy and on my own trying to sort out things in my life and solve other problems (some of which I did sort out and solve, some of which I didn’t) for a long time and I thought recovery hinged on that. If Rational Recovery would have been another approach saying that it “might not work if you have other problems to sort out first,” I don’t think it would have helped me one bit. I needed a no excuses approach at the time. I need to learn that I could quit right away without having to do anything else first. In other words, I needed to hear that I was already “ready.”
That was my experience. Alen’s experience was different, but also uniquely authentic to him, and your experience might be different from both of ours. I agree with Alen that recovery is an individual thing and only the person recovering can decide what they need. This is why it’s important to have alternatives in eating disorder recovery, because some ideas will be a better fit for certain people at certain times than other ideas. If you read my book, or attend therapy, or complete a self-help program and you don’t improve, this is not the time to put yourself down or lose hope. It’s the time to look elsewhere for ideas that feel like your own unique truth and that work for you. Empower yourself to make decisions that are in your best interest.
That being said, I don’t believe recovery should be a labyrinth; it does need to keep moving forward. I’ve spent some time thinking about a way to merge the idea that some people might need to work on other areas of their life in order to feel better able stop binge eating, with an approach focused on stopping the behavior without needing to address other issues first. Here are my thoughts:
Recovery from binge eating comes down to 2 things: 1.) Learn to resist binge urges, and 2.) Learn to eat normally. Whatever you believe will help you move toward those two goals, do it, and whatever doesn’t help you move toward those two goals, throw it out (or at least don’t view it as a part of binge eating recovery). Don’t put too many conditions on your ability to recover, but work on any specific issue(s) you feel is holding you back. This way you aren’t endlessly trying to work on emotions or solve other problems, hoping that will magically take the disorder away.
For example, let’s say you have poor self-image, and you are stuck on the idea of dieting and losing weight to feel better about yourself. That might prevent you from eating a sufficient number of calories, which in turn, might make your urges to binge harder to resist. If you don’t feel like you can stop dieting, you might need to address your poor self-image to move forward with resisting urges and eating normally. This doesn’t mean good self-image is a cure for binge eating (good self image doesn’t take binge urges away), but improving it will help you eat normally and put you in a better position to resist binge urges when they come up.
Another example: let’s say you have severe depression that prevents you from wanting a better life for yourself. You don’t have the desire to resist binge urges, so you allow the lower brain to overtake you without even trying to resist. Improving depression isn’t a cure, but again, it puts you in a better position to resist binge urges.
The two examples I’ve given so far show that working on an issue that prevents you from eating normally or resisting urges makes sense.
In my opinion, what you don’t need to do to achieve recovery is work on whatever you feel the binge eating helps you “cope with.” This doesn’t make much sense because without the binge urges, you wouldn’t binge to cope with those issues–you are binge eating to cope with the binge urges themselves.
For example, let’s say you think you binge to cope with anxiety, so you try address that by relaxing more and avoiding anxiety-provoking situations. Does that help you 1.) Learn to resist binge urges? or 2.) Learn to eat normally? If the urges habitually come when you are anxious due to conditioning, this approach might indeed help you avoid some urges, but isn’t moving you toward recovery, because you aren’t learning how to resist the urges when they come up. You likely still have binge urges even if you aren’t anxious, and anxiety is a state that’s not always possible to avoid.
But, what if extreme anxiety about weight gain is keeping you depriving your body of food? Then, yes, that specific anxiety is something to work on as part of eating disorder recovery. The distinction can seem subtle, but I think it’s important not to make recovery too complex or think you need to work on too many things to be “ready.” I hope that keeping the two goals of recovery in mind will help you narrow down what’s necessary for you.