Finding the motivation to recover
A question I'm often asked my clients, or their families, “how did you find the motivation to recover?” often followed closely by, “how do I find the motivation to recover?” or “how does he/she find the motivation to recover?”
These are very important questions when we are talking about adults with eating disorders. But before we get into that. Lets look at this:
Does it matter if you are motivated to recover or not?
It helps, but it is not a requirement to weight restore. Weight restoration is possible without the individual being motivated to recover. Weight restoration is not full recovery, but it is a required step towards full recovery.
The desire to get better increases and the will to do what the eating disorder wants you to do usually wanes as weight restoration and mental restoration progress. One doesn’t have to be motivated to recover to recover. One needs to be fed. You can be resistant to recovery and still get better so long as someone is feeding you and your body is gaining weight. I have seen some very resistant people go into inpatient treatment against their own will and come out later having put some weight on in a much more recovery-focused frame of mind.
You do not have to be motivated to recover in order to recover. But you do have to be fed.
But … that is all well and good when dealing with children and teens under the age of 18 and living under the parent’s roof. Whether a child wants to recover or not is beside the point. You make them recover by feeding them and it works!
Not so straightforward with adults is it? You cannot make them eat. And so whilst it is certainly not required that a person with an eating disorder wants to recover or is motivated to recover when that person is a child, it is relevant when that person is a “functional” adult with an eating disorder. Because functional means just that. They can get by … ish. They can exist. Just not very merrily and in a compromised state of physical and mental health. The half life.
Most of us resist intervention and live a half life until we lose it and decide that full recovery is the only option because we are so miserable. Sometimes “functional” can last too long because we are too comfortable. I hate to say it, but misery is a big motivator for many of us when we finally make that “recovery or die trying” decision.
Your recovery motivation may be because you want to have children. Or because you want to be able to look after your children. Or because you know you need to recover fully in order to have the career you want. Or maybe you had a big health scare recently that has made you realize you’re not invincible after all. Or maybe, like me, you are exhausted. Sick and tired of always being irritable, thin, cold, lonely, and stagnant.
My own motivation came from a place of wanting to die rather than live one more day in the hell I was in. I wasn’t living. I was existing … barely.
It has to get personal. Reaching full recovery is hard work that there has to be some underling motivation in order to make us want it enough to fight for it.
I’m not the sort of person to do a ton of hard work for an outcome I’m not invested in. As an adult there is nobody to make me do things I don’t want to do. I have to be motivated to do them — usually this motivation comes from financial reward, personal happiness, and ambition. (Recovery brought me an huge return on investment for all of those things)
How do you find the motivation to recover?
I don’t have an answer for this. I can’t answer this question for you. I can provide suggestions and ideas as to why you should want to recover, but I do not know what the thing itching at your soul is.
And if you don’t know, I have a different question for you. One that I think helps many of us understand just what is holding us back:
What is holding you back from recovering?
Sounds whack I know. Especially for those of us who hate our eating disorders and want to get better. But there is a space in there between wanting to get better and being scared to get rid of the eating disorder — or at least being too afraid to stop doing what it makes you do enough to actually stop doing it.
That is real fear. It is an inappropriate fear response, yes, but that doesn’t make it any less real. It is real. I know because I have felt it. In fact, it is a fear stronger than any other type of fear that I have ever felt in anything I have done in my life. So it is not just a real fear. It is a really fucking strong real fear!
Fear of losing identity
Oh, that old chestnut. It sounds a bit too psychoanalytical for me, doesn’t it? Much as I would like to argue that this had nothing to do with the stagnation of my recovery. It did. And it irks me because it is so fucking stereotypical. It irks me even more because I didn’t even like being any of the things that my ED wanted me to be yet I was still afraid to not be them!
I’m going to name a handful of the Anorexia identity traps I go stuck in:
Athlete. I remember one time I was at my Drs in Edinburgh when I was 18 and that I saw the she circled “athletic build” on my intake chart. I guess they didn’t have a check box for “emaciated.”
I wasn’t athletic, I was starving. And in fact, is was only after this that I developed my exercise obsession. However, years down the line, whenever I tried to stop running that voice in my head told me, you’ll lose the athletic body type identity.
I kid you not. And the kicker is that pre-ED and post-ED I don’t give a darn about being an “athletic” body type. It is not a value I hold dear. I don’t think a person is of more or less worth for being “athletic” body type. But Anorexia did. Anorexia cared a lot about that.
My fear about losing that identity was Anorexia driven. Ironically when I was recovered enough not to fit into that body type category I was also recovered enough not to care.
I hated being thin. My opinion or my personal preference for my bodyweight didn’t matter because Anorexia wanted thin so Anorexia got thin.
In recovery I had to fight thin. Additionally, I had a huge anxiety response at the thought of not being thin. This anxiety was both irrational and inappropriate considering I didn’t like being thin. But those truths didn’t make it any less of an anxiety response. It was crippling.
I had been thin for so long that I think my brain registered homeostasis as thin. Therefore trying to imagine being alive and not thin felt as possible as trying to imagine morphing into a cat. One person I work with described it very effectively as feeling like she is being asked to grow a second head when she tries to think about putting on weight. Nailed it.
If somebody told you tomorrow that you would have to grow a second head next year you would probably feel a little anxiety about that change too. Not because you don’t like second heads, but because it is a change. Different. If you think about it rationally, growing a second head is a fantastic idea as you would have two brains so be twice as smart — but does that rational thinking make it any less scary?
Would I still be me if I had two heads?
Would I still be me when I was no longer thin?
Did I care? Turns out when I was thin I was the least like the version of me that I love. Probably because I was infested with Anorexia, and Anorexia is quite the personality.
Anorexia loved the thought of this. Being someone who endures. I know that when I was sick, I was scared of losing my illness because I thought it was what made me stronger, more resilient, “better” than anyone else. Special.
I could run 6 hours a day — who else could do that? (Who the fuck wants to?)
I could go weeks without eating a thing — who else had that discipline? (Who the fuck cares?)
The truth is those were lies my eating disorder told me. I was not “special” I was sick.
But even when I began to know that, I was still scared of letting go of the identity I had worked so hard to be. Especially with the running. A part of me thought that if I stopped running even for a day I would never start again (because I knew how good a day off would feel and I knew if I allowed myself to feel rest I would not be able to resist resting) And honestly that was true. One day I stopped running and it was such a relief I didn’t ever want to have to do it again. That was also the bravest day of my life.
And it was that fear — fear of losing my “specialness” that kept me in my rituals and compulsive behaviors. No matter how large or how small, every time I tried to stop or change a compulsion that same thought came back to me.
If I tried to not go running in the morning You’re losing it
If I tried to add more food to my breakfast You’re losing it
If I tired to allow myself to sit down during the day You’re losing it
If I tried to stop pacing in my flat at night. You’re losing it.
It took years of failed attempts to ear more and exercise less before I countered those thoughts with: Losing what? What exactly is this “it” I am supposedly losing?
I needed to get to rock bottom to stop caring enough that when my eating disorder told me you’re losing it I was able to respond with I don’t want it, what is the point?
What was the point of any of it?
Anorexia loves to be a martyr.
Always be the one to eat the least. Always be the one to eat last. Always be the one to spend the least on food. Always be the one to get the least joy out of eating.
Anorexia valued martyrdom highly. Tabitha does not.
Sod that! I’m going to enjoy myself. And the best part of that is that when I enjoy my life, other people enjoy me more too.
I drew a line at all these identities that Anorexia valued that are not and were never me. And while It was terrifying to defy Anorexia and leave them behind. I did it and so can you.
If you eat.
There is so much more to you than your eating disorder
My eating disorder got me fired; rendered me unable to really work; lost me my riding career; left me alone with no friends; single; joyless; lifeless; a sad young spinster; miserable; and finally suicidal. What was the point?
Something that comes up for most of the people whom I know in recovery who have had a long-term eating disorder fear/guilt of losing their identity. Some of us go through a mourning period for it too — even if it wasn’t an identity we liked!
I would love to say it was pure strength and determination that got me eating. Exhaustion is much closer to the truth.
I hate that losing my Anorexia identity was something that played on my mind in recovery as I weight restored. But it did, so I won’t pretend it wasn’t there. Ironically through the things that scared me when I was underweight dissolved as I gained weight.
Weight restoration brought recovery motivation. The space in between was eating put of blind faith and because it was the only option left.
It’s okay to be afraid of moving into recovery. It’s okay to be anxious about losing the (often undesirable) identity that the eating disorder enabled. There is no right or wrong way to feel about this process.
However you feel about it, know this: You have to eat. You can eat.
Recovery did not happen overnight. I had to 10 years of behavioral and cognitive patterns to work out. I had to re-learn how to eat. I had to navigate eating despite fear. Frankly I had to learn how to be human again. I mean, I didn’t even know what it was like to go to the loo out of need rather than because I had a “rule” that I had to walk to the upstairs loo at least once an hour. I had to relearn everything.
Recovery did not happen overnight — but it started here.