Recovery for the Person with a Functional Eating Disorder

People with less severe eating disorders, those never hospitalized or never in extended periods of treatment, often see themselves as very competent. They have a job and friends. They are independent and can take care of the necessary daily tasks of being an adult. People around them can rely on them to get things done. 

Upon seeking treatment, they express the same sentiment: "If I put my mind to it, I know I can take care of anything in my life, except for this."

I have heard this sentence, almost verbatim, countless times. I think it reflects a few important aspects of the process of living with an eating disorder and the process of recovery. 

First, this cohort of people with eating disorders is very functional and competent. Yet that aspect of their personality--which leads to successful lives in some ways--also fits comfortably into the eating disorder mindset: routine, clear rules about food and strict guidelines about weight as a marker of success. 

In other words, the part of themselves that works in all other areas of life utterly fails in recovery. In fact, that part strengthens the eating disorder. 

Recovery, even for less severe illnesses, still demands the same patience and process of relearning how to function in a completely different and paradoxical way around food. Willpower is not the cornerstone of recovery. Instead, patience and the ability to tolerate discomfort are. Those are something this cohort of people has been able to avoid through the years of their illness: any discomfort is quickly managed by eating disorder symptoms. 

People who have been less ill typically have more to lose. Although the eating disorder has limited parts of their lives, other parts have grown. The emotional struggle of recovery will make it hard to maintain those successful parts of their lives and may make it more challenging to stick with the discomfort. The reality of a life with limitations may seem more manageable in the moment. 

The key to this path of recovery is patience. Unlike people with more severe eating disorders, the process does not need to rush and immediately involve full treatment teams or residential centers. Patience allows for the time to understand and experience slower steps into recovery without sacrificing the healthy parts of someone's life.

Merging those parts of life with the benefits of recovery won't demand willpower but instead the willingness to learn how to tolerate painful emotions and discomfort around food. The incentive of a more full life and the inherent understanding and compassion of treatment can be enough to make full recovery possible.

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