By Shalini Wickramatilake
When I graduated from treatment at the Renfrew Center in November 2017, I wasn’t quite sure how I would sustain recovery—nourishing my body, limiting exercise, tolerating uncomfortable emotions, managing the stresses of the “real world”—without such a high level of support. The treatment center had become a safe haven for me; I could focus on my health and take baby steps towards recovery while surrounded by experts—not only the staff who worked there, but also the other clients. It was evident early on in my treatment experience that no one understood my struggle better than others who were dealing with similar eating, body image, anxiety, and perfectionism issues.
For a few months after I left treatment, I attended weekly group therapy. Having two hours per week to process my feelings and describe the difficulties I was facing (giving up my scale, gaining weight, asking for my needs to be met) was incredibly helpful. The validation I have received in group therapy settings is incomparable. After struggling with my eating disorder in silence for so long, it was comforting to finally feel like I wasn’t alone. I had a group of people to rely on who really understood me.
Last spring, I decided to stop going to group therapy because the logistics of it were becoming too difficult to manage. However, I recognized that having peer support was a critical piece of my recovery that I wasn’t ready to let go of, so I considered finding a peer mentor—someone further along in their recovery journey who I could lean on to help me moving in the right direction. I found one organization that had a free peer mentoring program, but only for those who were willing to participate in a randomized controlled study, running the risk of ending up with a more generic mentor rather than someone who would specifically work on recovery-related issues with me.
As someone who works in the substance use disorder field, I regularly hear about the positive impact that peer recovery coaches can have on those who are struggling with addiction. I am glad that there are efforts to study the impact of recovery coaches in eating disorder recovery, because it’s critical to establish evidence of its effectiveness. However, mostly for completely selfish reasons, I wish there was a program available now. I wish that in moments of struggle, I could reach out to someone who has been in a similar slump before. While the friends I met in treatment are always there for me, it sometimes seems unfair to burden them with my recovery struggles when I know they’re experiencing their own.
Eating disorders thrive in secrecy and solitude. In the tough times, it’s so important that we have supports in place who reach out and don’t let us isolate. While other supports—the therapists and nutritionists and families and spouses and friends who stick with us through the roller coaster of recovery (and life)—are absolutely critical, there is nothing quite like having someone else with lived experience validate how we feel and remind us that it gets better, and recovery is worth it.
Hopefully in the future, peer recovery coaches will be a fully integrated part of the eating disorders workforce. Ideally, I wouldn’t have left treatment without the name and number of someone who came before me who could support me during the transition back to my regular life. Recovery doesn’t start or end in a treatment center; I will be on this journey for the rest of my life, and I—and many of my friends in recovery—would appreciate the wisdom and support of someone with more experience by my side through all of the ups and downs.