By Shalini Wickramatilake
On May 12, 2018, I spoke on a panel, “Self-Care, Expectations, and Maintenance in Recovery,” at the first regional National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Conference at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA. For those of you who weren’t able to attend the conference, here’s my speech:
Prior to going to residential treatment last year, I had struggled with an eating disorder (ED) for most of my life. Throughout all those years of struggling, my eating disorder was either invalidated, dismissed, or even encouraged by others because I didn’t fit the stereotype of what someone with an eating disorder is supposed to “look like.”
During those many years with an ED I wish I had known, and I wish everyone around me had known, that EDs don’t look any particular way. We all deserve help if we’re struggling in any way at all, no matter what our bodies look like.
Fortunately, a series of events last year, including the NEDA Walk in Washington, DC, as well as the Eating Disorders Coalition’s (EDC) Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill, inspired me to finally seek the treatment I needed. During those two events in particular, as I heard other people’s stories of struggle, my own ED felt validated for the first time and I realized that if these other people’s eating disorders were real, then mine was too. I realized that I always had been “sick enough,” and I needed and deserved help.
So finally, last summer, I went to treatment, and today, after nearly 2 decades of struggling, I am in recovery.
Of course, as we’ve all heard before, recovery is not a linear process; ups and downs are to be expected, and I still have moments when I miss my ED. But overall, my eating disorder isn’t an overwhelming presence in my life anymore.
I think what’s helped me get to this strong place in my recovery so quickly has been practicing a lot of self-care. When I say “self-care” I don’t mean mani-pedis and bubble baths (although those things are great in and of themselves). I mean caring for my emotional, physical, and mental wellbeing in a compassionate and meaningful way. I often think of that saying, “you can’t pour from an empty cup”; I have to honor my own needs and enrich myself before I can take care of others or tend to my responsibilities. I think self-care is critical not only for those of us personally fighting eating disorders, but also for our loved ones—the ones who are in this really important and stressful and confusing role of taking care of us and supporting us.
There are a lot of different ways of practicing self-care, and I’ll just share a few of the ways I define it and how I practice it in my recovery:
- Self-care for me is: Trusting my body. It’s been hard accepting the physical changes in my recovery, especially after so many years of fighting my body and trying to make it something that it’s not, but it’s been exciting to learn that my body is constantly signaling to me what it wants and needs, and it’s my job to just trust it and give it the nourishment that it’s asking for. I’ve found developing a connection with my body and practicing intuitive eating has been really liberating.
- Self-care for me is: Practicing joyful movement. Compulsive exercise was a big part of my ED. When I was sick, my life revolved around exercise. In my recovery, I’ve had to redefine what “exercise” is, which has been pretty tough for me. I’ve been trying to only move when and how my body wants to move, focusing on internal cues instead of external factors like weight or steps or miles. For me, joyful movement can be taking my dog for a walk in the morning, or doing yoga with my husband before bed to unwind at the end of the day, or taking a walk around the block to get some fresh air in the middle of the workday. It’s been hard to transition away from the type of exercise I did before, but practicing joyful movement feels like I’m really nurturing my body instead of punishing it like I did before.
- Self-care for me is: Saying no. I’m a people pleaser, so saying “no” is not really a comfortable thing for me, but in my recovery I’ve made a concerted effort to only do the things I really want to do, spend time with the people I really want to see, and no longer just doing things because I feel a sense of obligation, and that’s led to much more fulfilling experiences over the past few months of my recovery.
- Self-care for me is: Letting go. Letting go of that people pleasing, letting go of perfectionism, letting go of my sick body and sick clothes, letting go of the diet culture messages that had been in my brain since I was a little kid. It’s really about letting go of all of the things that my ED made me think would make me happy that I now know never really would have.
- Finally, self-care for me is: Practicing gratitude. A year ago I was in a really dark, hopeless place. Reflecting on how far I’ve come makes me want to keep moving forward in my recovery. There are a lot of things I’m grateful for in my recovery.
- I’m grateful to have had access to the treatment I needed—even if it did take a long time to finally get it.
- I’m grateful for my body and its resilience through so many years of self-destruction.
- I’m grateful for my loved ones for being such an amazing support system, and especially for asking me how I want and need them to support me.
- More than anything, I’m grateful to know firsthand that recovery, which, just a year ago seemed so elusive and distant and really impossible, really is possible—for me… and for all of us. My life today is better than I ever imagined it could be, and there are no words to describe how grateful I am for that.