Reality of Recovery
Written by Camille Williams, MA, LCPC, Eating Disorder Program Coordinator at Timberline Knolls
Eating disorders (EDs) provide an escape from painful emotional experiences in life. They can also adapt and transform to meet any and all emotional needs. This is what makes an ED such a powerful addictive behavior. It truly works to satisfy emotional needs. Therefore the challenge in recovery is to address the many layers including the relationship with food and the emotional needs that have only been met through the disorder.
This is one of the main reasons recovery is so difficult at the beginning–the emotional pain that is experienced while decreasing the ED behaviors. It makes sense that there would be a desperate need to find some relief. Often those in recovery can get frustrated with the long lists of coping skills provided by therapists and loved ones. This frustration is valid because coping skills such as reading or watching TV don’t actually provide emotional relief like the ED did. This is a reality of recovery that is often not acknowledged and is maddening to accept. Willingness in the recovery process gets a little easier when there is an acceptance that relief from emotions will include still experiencing those emotions.
Recovery is not about avoiding emotions and there is no magic coping skill in recovery that will provide the relief the same way ED did. That relief only comes from addictive behaviors that have severe consequences in all areas of life and wellness. ED will take an emotion from a 10 to a 0 instantly. That same instant gratification does not exist in recovery and is one the biggest frustrations. In recovery, the individual must begin to explore how to cope by bringing emotions slowly down from the high extremes. While this is very challenging to sit with in early recovery because coping skills are limited and unpracticed, it will get better.
The more time someone spends choosing healthy coping skills and choosing recovery, the greater the decrease in the intensity of emotions. Rather than the extreme spikes of emotions, a person will begin to regulate emotionally it will begin to feel more like waves. So, there may not be instant comfort or relief in recovery, but there is hope for an increased ability to manage emotions.
There is no hope in seeking the magic coping skill because that will lead back to the instant gratification of addictive behaviors. In recovery the goal is to seek something new and that includes experiencing all emotions life has to give. Not all emotions are pleasant, but having a full range of emotional experiences while living a meaningful life makes it all worth it.